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Survival of the Least Unfit

Posted By Jason Fry On May 9, 2010 @ 10:27 pm In 1 | Comments Disabled

By the late innings it was pretty clear that someone wasn’t going to win today’s game as much as they’d survive it. Oliver Perez was awful. Raul Valdes, admittedly asked to do something difficult, could not. Jenrry Mejia failed, as young men finding their way must. David Wright did nothing at the plate except scream at an umpire for his own recent shortcomings. And in the end, the fatal mistake wound up on the Mets’ side of the ledger. Which you had to admit was altogether fitting: The Giants were bad; the Mets were worse [1].

Well, not all the Giants were bad. Aaron Rowand hit one to the right place in the wind tunnel that was Citi Field at the right time. Brian Wilson correctly deduced that his catcher was the only person on the field he could trust to record a putout, and pitched accordingly. And earlier, before everything became the stuff of farce on both sides, there was Tim Lincecum.

There’s a pleasure in baseball when it’s played wisely and beautifully, and I’d argue even more pleasure in seeing someone play it who hasn’t been altered by the dead hand of baseball tradition. Like every other religion, baseball itself is beautiful and blameless, but ceaselessly dragged down by the failings of its human institutions.

A couple of years ago, Tom Verducci wrote a wonderful article for Sports Illustrated [2] about Lincecum, one he used for a deeper inquiry into the science of pitching. Lincecum is about my height and build — next to the likes of Mike Pelfrey or Barry Zito he looks like, well, a blogger. (Though let’s not take this too far — he’s a superb athletic who’s gymnast enough to be able to walk on his hands, where I can barely stand upright.) His success comes not from size or power — the right arm replaced by a genetic thunderbolt — but from the perfection of his mechanics. Everything about his motion, from the odd cock of his head to his enormous stride to the vicious downward snap of his arm, is designed to maximize the torque and power with which a human being can throw a baseball. Tim Lincecum is the equation that solves a knotty physics problem, and leaves you smiling at the elegance and beauty of the answer.

The wonder of Lincecum is that he went from Little League hurler to Cy Young pitcher without anybody screwing him up. Because that’s a lot of what organized baseball is: an initial winnowing of players who don’t fit ancient, preconceived notions of who is what, followed by ceaseless attempts to dismiss or diminish anyone who escapes that first cut with some individuality intact.

In discussing the mechanics of Lincecum and Mark Prior, Verducci delivers a stinging indictment of organized baseball: Even when discussing mechanics, most scouts and front-office types are really discussing body types, extending the phrenology of the Good Face to the region below the neck. Prior basically pitched from the waist up, with horrible mechanics that put ungodly stress on his shoulder, but was praised as mechanically sound because he looked like what baseball people think a power pitcher ought to look like. Lincecum was passed over by team after team that criticized his mechanics because he looked like a blogger. Miraculously, he got results so quickly that he rocketed through the minor leagues: He pitched 30-odd innings in the Northwest and California leagues in 2006, destroyed the PCL in early 2007 and was in the big leagues with just 62.2 innings in the bushes. That meant there wasn’t time for some Pleistocene pitching coach to force him to pitch like Mark Prior, or cast him as a ROOGY because he was small and slung the ball. He escaped all that and landed at the pinnacle of his profession before anyone could convince everybody else he couldn’t do it.

I knew Lincecum was taught his unique delivery by his father, and had recalled that the father was a Boeing engineer. Which made for a neat story, for Lincecum’s delivery is the kind of thing an extremely smart, intellectually rigorous aerospace engineer might have created.But I hadn’t remembered things quite right. Lincecum’s father, Chris, is indeed smart and intellectually rigorous and does work for Boeing — but in parts inventory. Chris Lincecum is of a similar build to his son, and taught himself to pitch the same way. He taught his older son Sean his mechanics on a backyard mound, then trained Tim. Every start of Tim’s was videotaped and analyzed. His full ride to the University of Washington was contingent on no coach messing with him. “He was the prototype, and I’m Version 2.0,” the younger Lincecum told Verducci. (If that sounds uncomfortably close to the stage-manager dad, a la Gregg Jefferies, Lincecum seems to have always been a good teammate, and to be very much his own person.)

Lincecum wasn’t perfect today — he had trouble commanding the fastball early, and got touched up late. But he kept at it, tinkering with his pitches and repeating that perfect motion, while Oliver Perez fell off mounds and endangered batboys and looked like the pitching equivalent of a weekend golfer carving divots and slinging clubs and shanking balls into the woods. It was a pleasure to watch the other guy, even if he was wearing the wrong uniform.

But then Lincecum is always a pleasure to watch. He does backflips for fun in the clubhouse and doesn’t ice his arm after starts. He is utterly himself, atop a sport that views those who dare to be themselves with fear and horror. It makes you appreciate him all the more.


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URLs in this post:

[1] the Mets were worse: http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/recap?gameId=300509121&teams=san-francisco-giants-vs-new-york-mets

[2] a wonderful article for Sports Illustrated: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1141385/1/index.htm

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