Editor's note: Following Tim Lincecum's two-hit, 14-strikeout masterpiece in a 1-0 playoff win over Atlanta on Thursday, we decided to rerun this Starting Point, first published on Sept. 4, 2009.
Liberty (Renton, Wash.) junior varsity baseball coach Brian Hartman was just making conversation, trying to get some of his freshmen players to think outside the batter’s box. He asked what they wanted to do with their lives, a possible profession down the line.
The usual answers followed. Policeman. Teacher. Fire fighter.
“How about you Timmy,” Hartman asked?
“I want to play Major League baseball,” he said.
Hartman blinked real hard, smirked slightly and tried not to spit out his Big League Chew. This pint-sized kid wasn’t kidding.
“I didn’t want to squash the kid’s dream but he was barely 5-feet tall and weighed about 85 pounds,” Hartman said. “I told him it took a lot of hard work to get to that point.
“I wanted to tell him he should work on a backup plan.”
Little Timmy didn’t ever stretch the tape measure or tip the scales much, but when you’re sure of yourself, love what your doing and can fling the ball close to triple digits, just about anything is possible.
Even win the Cy Young.
In that regard, little Timmy Lincecum might have short-changed himself.
Most regard the now 25-year-old ace of the San Francisco Giants as the game’s premier starting pitcher. He’s backed up his 2008 Cy Young-award winning season by going 13-5 thus far with a 2.34 ERA – second in majors - and major league-leading 233 strikeouts.
“We’re hearing the same story now as we heard when he was in high school,” Liberty Athletic Director Stark Porter said. “No one then or now can believe this little guy can achieve such big things. He’s proving everyone wrong.”
He did at the high school level and was named the state’s top player as a senior by Gatorade, leading Liberty to its first 3A state title.
He did so collegiately at the University of Washington, earning the 2006 Golden Spikes Award as best amateur baseball player in the country.
And now, at a listed 5-11 and 175 pounds, he’s captured pitching’s top prize at any level.
From 5-foot-nothing and 100-and-nothing he’s emerged from “Rudy” status to his current tag of “The Freak.”
“He’ll always just be known as Timmy from the neighborhood to us,” Hartman said.
Loved being out there
Hartman, also a varsity assistant who coached Lincecum through high school, said the signs for greatness were always there but it was hard to get around the packaging.
His older brother Sean was “big and thick and strong,” and also a baseball standout at Liberty, a school of roughly 950 students that plays in arguably the state’s toughest conference (KingCo) in a suburb of Seattle.
“Tim was a good little athlete,” Hartman said. “He played freshman football and was decent at basketball too. He was a natural really. As a senior I remember him doing standing back flips. He’d do silly things too like throw the ball over the fence from home plate.
“He was just a good, fun-loving kid and he always just loved being out there. That was key in his success.”
So was his savvy.
During freshman tryouts, the team was loaded with pitchers and middle infielders, so Lincecum sprinted straight for the outfield.
“He grew up a middle infielder but was smart enough to recognize his best chance to make the squad was as an outfielder,” Hartman said.
During that time, there were three physically developed pitchers ahead of Lincecum on the mound – Sean Webster, Casey Bishop and Paul Routos. All would be big contributors to Liberty’s state title team in 2003.
But little Lincecum would pass all of them, just as his dad Chris and Hartman predicted.
Whole new level
Hartman knew he had something special during Lincecum’s sophomore year on the JV team in a game against perennial state power Newport of Bellevue. He had grown to about 5-4 then and exponentially his velocity and command grew also.
“Everyone around here seems to point to that game because he seemed to reach a whole other level,” Hartman said. “He just dominated that team. I remember them loading the bases and him just bearing down and striking out their two stud hitters with nasty breaking stuff. It was like ‘Holy Cow, this kid is really special.’ “
After the game, Hartman told Lincecum’s dad Chris that by his senior year, Tim was going to be the ace of the staff.
“(Chris Lincecum) nodded and very forcefully said, ‘he’s going to be the best pitcher in the state his senior year,’ “ Hartman said. “It seemed crazy at the time, but he was absolutely right."
Hartman said that neither Lincecum or his dad ever came across brash or arrogant. Simply confident, hard-working and unspoiled.
Chris Lincecum was a longtime blue collar worker for Boeing and taught Tim all his pitching mechanics, including his unorthodox, now quite famous wide-streching herky-jerky pitching motion.
“He was never over-bearing, just very present,” Hartman said of Chris Lincecum. “He obviously knew what he taught because Tim’s never had any arm trouble.”
After a superb junior season, Lincecum was getting noticed, but at 5-7, 145, not by many professional scouts.
In another game against Newport, Hartman recalled being in the bullpen where Lincecum was ready to enter in relief.
Scouts were jammed around to watch a pair of Newport prospects, so when Lincecum entered, Hartman tipped off a couple of them. “I said, ‘wait until you see this kid pitch.’ They nodded politely and gave me sort of a brush-off. I just kept watching their faces.”
When Lincecum’s first warm-up hit 90 miles per hour, there was an immediate buzz.
“All their eyes got real big looking at that radar gun,” Hartman said. “And Tim wasn’t even warm.”
Most warmed up to Lincecum’s talent and accomplishments by the end of his senior season. There were still some doubters, however, like the state semifinal game against Yelm.
Liberty had won six straight elimination games – three by Lincecum – and he was asked to get his team to the finals.
“There was a heckler in center field before the game just screaming and yelling that we were done and we didn’t have a chance,” Hartman said. “I remember turning to another coach and saying, ‘He obviously has never seen Lincecum pitch.’ “
Lincecum, named the Gatorade state high school player of the year earlier in the day, struck out 16 in a six-inning 11-0 win. Only one Yelm batter reached third base.
“Never heard the heckler after the first inning,” Hartman said.
Current Seattle Times prep coordinator and then stringer Mason Kelley covered the game that day. It was the first time he’d seen Lincecum pitch also.
“It was a while ago but unforgettable,” Kelley said. “He was fantastic. He had the same delivery he has today. He was untouchable. At that point it was obvious that he was the real deal. It was just a treat to watch him pitch."
As it is now, Hartman said.
Sometimes he has to pinch himself.
“He’s the same kid but in just a grown man’s body,” Hartman said. “It just makes me happy inside to see what he’s doing. Not because he’s a big star but because he’s doing exactly what he’s always wanted to do.”
Have a great tale about a current professional athlete who attended your high school? E-mail Mitch Stephens for his Starting Point series at email@example.com.