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Shi: Tim Lincecum and the limits of mortality

This being the Bay Area, I think it’s fair to say that if you haven’t yet heard about Tim Lincecum’s no-hitter, you must live under a rock. At times, it seems like no-hitters are a dime a dozen these days; although future generations may not remember it as well as Matt Cain’s perfect game, it is safe to say that Lincecum’s masterpiece is already one of many high points of a truly superb career.

Reflecting on these high points, I am amazed again and again at how, in a little over six years, Lincecum has achieved nearly all of the crowning achievements one would expect from a twenty-year veteran: a no-hitter, two Cy Young Awards and two World Series titles. (A perfect game is probably a little too much to ask.) Additionally, he is memorable not only for his accolades but also for his visible brilliance: that peculiarly gorgeous pitching motion — perhaps the most remarkable in the history of baseball. We should probably keep in mind that he celebrated his 29th birthday just a month ago.

Even at 29, Lincecum has already done everything necessary for us to remember him. Should his career end today, he would probably not make the Hall of Fame, but his jersey number is likely to be retired by the Giants nonetheless. With Lincecum, even for a fan of a rival team, any moment of brilliance has been precious, marvelous or terrifying. With every pitch he has thrown, regardless of where it ends up, he has dazzled millions and at the same time driven us all almost to tears – for the arm of the aptly named “Freak” always seems, both literally and figuratively, to be hanging on a thread.

It was because of that arm that Lincecum was picked three spots below Clayton Kershaw in a loaded 2006 draft. It was because of that arm that Lincecum laid waste to the majors for two years and dominated for two more. It was because of that arm that Lincecum’s velocity has declined so quickly. And it was because of that arm that even though Lincecum has more Cy Youngs than Kershaw, I remain delighted with how the Dodgers’ draft turned out.

It was also because of that arm that everyone took the Freak’s disastrous 2012 season as a sign that he was washed up. The confirmation bias was too strong: Everyone watching him failed to give him the benefit of the doubt, despite the fact that better pitchers than Lincecum have had poor seasons while having escaped being forsaken. His peripheral stats are still excellent. But watching him toil away in relief during last season’s playoffs was admittedly too much for me. I think I can be forgiven for believing that his career was over.

At every station of his career, people have expected Tim Lincecum to fail. Once upon a time, Lincecum was the top prospect in the country, marching through the Giants organization at a nearly unfathomable speed – he got his first start in the majors just a year after he was drafted – and I’m sure that even then, people were scared of his arm. I remember predicting doom shortly after his first Cy Young campaign, but he promptly proceeded to win the Cy Young the next year as well. Even after his no-hitter, the prevailing mood in the media was one of retrospection: People saw the no-hitter as a momentary flash of bygone brilliance.

I don’t mean to turn Lincecum into a symbol of mortality, or lack thereof. Even without his arm, he is popular, wealthy and accomplished. He will likely regret for the rest of his life not having taken the five-year, $100 million contract that the Giants offered him in 2011. But even so, it is remarkable how well he has endured. As his fastball has declined, he has added a slider to complement his legendary change-up. Unfortunately, sliders destroy elbows; by putting off one road to obscurity, he has set himself on a path to another one. Lincecum may not be a symbol of mortality, but he is subject to it nonetheless.

Pitchers don’t last forever, and at some point in the future, I will have to admit that age will have gotten the best of even Clayton Kershaw himself, who at this point has bested Lincecum five times in a row (and counting). But we never had to worry about that with the Freak, who was always expected to crash eventually. As fans, we were playing with house money before his career even began.

Winston Shi, however, is immune to this mere concept of mortality. Ask him about the time he attended a Dodgers game in 1962 and saw Sandy Koufax pitch a no-hitter at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Winston Shi

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. After graduation, he will begin law school, where he looks forward to preaching the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't. Contact him at wshi94@alumni.stanford.edu.
  • Rons

    Lincecum is finished. Does not compare to Kershaw.