Back in 2001, the city of Seattle hosted the MLB All-Star Game at two-year-old Safeco Field. The starting pitchers that day were Randy Johnson for the National League and Roger Clemens for the American League. The game also marked the final All-Star appearances for future Hall of Famers Cal Ripken, Jr. and Tony Gwynn.
The AL would ultimately win the contest by a score of 4-1, but it was really the collection of story lines that made this game a memorable one. There was Ripken’s home run and MVP selection, Tommy Lasorda’s comedic flop in the third base coach’s box, and the presence of eight Seattle Mariners on the American League roster, just to name three.
But only 20 miles away, a different story line was taking shape.
An unheralded right-handed pitcher, skinny, unassuming, and barely five-and-a-half feet tall was maturing into a superstar. And outside of perhaps his own family, there was no one — absolutely, no one –who believed that this 17-year-old would become a Major League Baseball player, let alone an All-Star Game starting pitcher.
Yet eight years later, Tim Lincecum has become just that.
From a junior varsity baseball player at Renton’s Liberty High School, to All-Star Game starter in just eight years, Lincecum has defied convention and non-believers for most of the past decade.
That includes this writer, who was a high school opponent of the man they now call “The Freak.” A skeptic-turned-strikeout victim, there may be no one better equipped to chronicle Lincecum’s rise than myself, six years removed from the last time he sent me back to the bench with a nasty curveball.
Entering the 2002 baseball season, Liberty’s pitching staff was headlined by two hard-throwing righthanders. There was senior Joe Short, a husky short-armer who could top 90 MPH on a radar gun, and junior Sean Webster, a lanky slingshot artist who doubled as a third baseman.
As a junior at league rival Bellevue High School, I distinctly remember our coaching staff warning us about the Patriots’ two aces.
The scouting report was a simple one. They would throw faster than most pitchers in the KingCo 3A league, and had few offspeed pitches to test us with. To prepare, we took batting practice with coaches firing missiles at us from a distance of about 45 feet. It was all about timing, and we appeared to have it down.
The next day, we went out and faced Liberty on our home field. To no one’s surprise, it was Short who was warming up before the game.
For the first few innings, things went according to plan. Short threw mostly fastballs, and we scattered our hits around.
Eventually, their ace got tired and the Patriots were forced to tap their bullpen. In the midst of a close game, Short was removed and replaced by what appeared to be someone’s little brother.
At roughly 5’7″ tall, and appearing to weigh no more than 130 pounds, if that, a kid with “LINCECUM” on the back of his jersey stood atop the mound at Bellevue’s Bannerwood Park.
As a JV player the year before, myself, this probably wasn’t the first time I ever saw this kid. But it was the first time I ever noticed him.
In fact, everybody noticed him. It was impossible not to.
Standing under the lights on a cool night with threatening skies, Lincecum took the ball from his coach and preceded to embark on the goofiest warmup tosses anyone had ever seen this side of Little League.
First, he rocked back, almost like an old-time pitcher in the mold of Bob Feller.
Then he twisted, not unlike former Ranger, Marlin, and Yankee Kevin Brown used to do.
Finally, with a tornado-like force giving him momentum, his full body came hurling forward in an over-the-top monstrosity that only sort of resembled pitching.
“Look, it’s Hideo Nomo!” someone shouted, much to the glee of the stunned onlookers.
Indeed, Nomo was probably the best comparison for what this kid embodied on the mound. Only Nomo was much bigger. And didn’t throw nearly as hard.
The first few batters to face Lincecum mustered very little off the righthander. There were strikeouts and the occasional ground ball, but no hits.
Shortly thereafter, I was tapped to pinch hit.
I walked up to the plate and stood in against the kid.
He went into his motion and threw me pitch number one. A fastball. I took it for a strike, and immediately thought two things: 1) This kid threw much, much faster than it appeared from the dugout and 2) He was so small and hid the ball so well that I hadn’t seen the pitch until it was halfway to home plate.
I stepped out of the box and tried to get my swing down. I’m not going to lie and tell you I was some superstar. I was a backup on this team who rarely got more than one at-bat a week, let alone against a guy tossing BBs in the 90 MPH range. This was as much velocity as I’d ever seen. I needed to focus.
I stepped back in, widened my stance and prepared to shorten my swing.
Lincecum went into his motion and delivered. I swung. I flailed. The ball hit the dirt. Curveball.
Only it was unlike any curveball I had ever seen before. I could have sworn he was bringing me another fastball. At the high school level, most kids who throw curveballs throw slow 12-to-6 benders (think Barry Zito, but with less movement, or Freddy Garcia back in the day). Curves tend to start out chest high then break down to the knees, or occasionally belt high and hit the dirt.
Not so, with this kid. His hook had fallen completely off the table. It had the speed of a sinker, but the movement of a power curve. The type of curveball you rarely see professionals throw, even.
I stepped out again. I was guessing at this point. It was either fastball or curveball. He had already beaten me with both. I decided to look fastball and hope for the best.
I stepped in. Lincecum rocked and fired. Fastball. I swung and foul tipped the pitch off the back screen. Call it progress.
That foul ball would be the best I ever fared against Lincecum. A year later he would strike me out twice with curveballs. On this day — on the next pitch, in fact — he would set me down with a curveball. Five years from this moment, he would strike out Philadelphia Phillies slugger Ryan Howard with that very same sequence in his big league debut. Watching on TV, I would cheer the moment, if only because I now had something in common with a major league hitter.
Over the course of the next year, Lincecum would go from anomaly to sure thing. Scouts questioned his durability, his size, his velocity, and everything about his overall game. They showed up dozens at a time simply to watch his bullpen sessions, and in even greater numbers on days he was starting. The pro scouts were never prepared to seriously consider drafting him out of high school, while the college scouts had doubts about extending a scholarship his way.
And yet he continued to defy all skeptics.
By his senior year, Lincecum was a full-time designated hitter for Liberty on his non-pitching days. A left-handed batter, he wore a protective pad on his throwing elbow at the plate, the source of much ribbing from opponents who had only seen such gear in the majors.
He led his team to the state championship that season, emerging from a crowded KingCo 3A division that featured traditional powerhouse schools such as Newport (produced major leaguer Todd Hollandsworth, among others), Issaquah (2003 graduate and Yankees minor leaguer Colin Curtis), and Skyline (a roster dotted with D1 players and a handful of draftees).
Lincecum then went on to play for the University of Washington in college, one of only a few schools that aggressively recruited the pitcher.
By his junior season at UW, he had won the Golden Spikes Award, given annually to the NCAA’s best baseball player.
Shortly thereafter, he was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in the 2006 MLB Draft, and barely one year after that he was pitching in the big leagues.
Now, just months removed from winning the NL Cy Young Award, Lincecum is the starter in the 2009 All-Star Game.
Like I said before, nobody could have predicted his rise from the JV ranks as a high school sophomore to his maturation today. It isn’t a story we often hear in sports, and one that needs to be duly recognized.
From a former opponent, I send all my best to Timmy as he tries his hardest to shut down the American League in tonight’s game. Only one request, however: Go easy on Ichiro.