Writing is exciting and baseball is like writing
I first see Tim Lincecum on a girl’s back in the Embarcadero. Misreading him as a typically open and San Franciscan expression of sexual preference, I am, in my quietly English way, shocked. But then I see more of him – on girls’ back, on boys’ backs, on the broad shoulders of a Latino man carrying his young daughter.
We’re all on our way to AT&T Park, and when we get there there’s Lincecum everywhere – on more shirts, on banners, and on a giant poster in the stadium store. It is here that I first encounter Lincecum’s nickname – The Freak – although I do not yet understand it, or the reason for his appeal. Why is this man-child, with hillbilly shoulder-length hair, the darling of so many Giants fans? Perplexed, I buy a program, and thumb through it rapidly – ignoring in my haste a worthy piece about a family man called Matt Cain, a pitcher like Lincecum, but who I write off (using my sole barometer of American sports archetypes, On Any Given Sunday), as the Dennis Quaid to Lincecum’s Jamie Foxx.
Lincecum will always hold a special place in my heart because he is the man I first see pitch a baseball live. Sure – I have watched innings, occasionally even whole games, on TV before, but never deliberately: the baseball has always been something I’ve passed the time with, waiting for a movie or – a sign of where it previously ranked for me –Sex and the City to start. But (of course) I read Moneyball, and found myself wondering what I was missing. And so on my first weekend in America, I find myself at AT&T Park, View Reserved Infield, Section 314, Row 16, Seat 26, watching Tim Lincecum pitch, and two things become immediately clear. One, he is fast. Two, he is a freak: every pitch features an extraordinarily elastic wind-up of his leading leg, as though he might wrap it all the way round his back. But then he uncoils, and the ball thuds into catcher Buster Posey’s glove with an impact I can feel hundreds of rows up at the top of the park. I cannot imagine having to hit him the 400 yards or so required for a homer – and I realize that, as in any sport, the sheer exhilaration of seeing raw speed in action is the reason Lincecum is such a favorite.
He certainly receives a warm welcome as the Giants take the field against the Texas Rangers, and his first few pitches fizz across the strike zone. But even at this early stage, all does not appear well – whilst he is not being smashed across the park, he looks erratic, and does not appear to exert the control and command over the plate that Alexi Ogando, the Rangers pitcher, does. Strike is followed by ball is followed by ball. Even when he strikes a Ranger out it seems to take an age. One pitch flies so far from the strike zone Posey has to take a couple of steps to gather it – I assume it must be a warm-up, but the woman sitting next to me tells me otherwise, with a wry shake of the head.
There is a steady, almost imperceptible change in the crowd’s mood – the words of support are still there, but some of the warmth has gone missing. At first, people were willing Lincecum on, confident that their exhortations would carry him and the Giants through. The stadium never falls silent, but every few pitches now, as another one screws wide, and the umpire keeps his arms by his side, I notice a new sound. It is one of the quietest, and saddest, I have ever heard on a sporting field. It is the sound of 40,000 fans sighing.
The first run almost feels like a mercy – confirmation that we are right to sigh. In a game where the Giants are being held scoreless, it is also of fairly seismic importance. Everyone’s thoughts seem to turn to damage limitation – for Lincecum and for the team – but his troubles continue. It is 5-0 Rangers when Lincecum is pulled from the field, and he looks lonely as he makes his way to the dugout, cap off, hair caught by the breeze. After the game, some talking heads ponder the curse of Lincecum – the Giants simply don’t seem to win when he starts. “They just don’t play well behind him”, one of them says, and there is some truth in this: Pablo Sandoval in particular was guilty of some sloppy errors at third. But it is still Lincecum walking from the plate, alone.
As I am leaving the stadium, I see the words of one of the many greats in the Giants’ storied history, writ large on the wall. “People often ask me how hard it is to hit. You ever walked through a darkened room, without knocking any of the furniture? Hitting’s like that, but harder.” I wonder if Tim Lincecum ever reads this, and how it makes him feel.
For Tim Lincecum and pitching, read Melky Cabrera and hitting. I sat through nine innings in my first Giants game without a single run; in just the first inning of my second, as the sun sets on a Wednesday like any other, Cabrera rips a 2-run homer up centerfield to send AT&T into a frenzy. This explosive start transforms the park: weird farts of pipe organ still parp out sporadically; the crowd still claps along mechanically and bays meaninglessly when exhorted to “MAKE SOME NOISE”. But people are no longer engaged in the silent internal agonies of the losing sports fan – no one is thinking where else they could be this evening, or how else they could spend their money. Already, we’re in this together.
As if feeding off this energy, the Giants go beserk, feasting on some juicy pitching in an orgy of doubles and homers. It is 10-0 within what feels like moments – and we even get a Splash Hit as 340-footer takes a lucky bounce into the Bay. But as brutal and impressive as it is, there is precious little jeopardy remaining, and my thoughts wander to my hotel room. I am close the end of Season 5 of House – I figure I can catch the last couple of innings at the hotel, then watch Hugh Laurie being acerbic for a couple of hours. I pause as I stand, watching Cabrera take an excellent catch hard against the bleachers on left field, and congratulate myself for staying for one extra little piece of magic.
It is a cold night – compared to the unseasonably warm ones we’ve been enjoying – and the walk to the hotel is not that short. I stop off in one of the clothing concessions to buy something to keep me warm for the journey back. I go to pay, and notice a TV in the corner, and a pundit repeating the line that the story tonight is all about Matt Cain. I pause, checking my rudimentary knowledge of baseball against the fact of what I have been watching for the last two hours. It is 10-0 Giants. There have been three home runs. We’ve seen a Splash Hit! And this is about the pitcher?
But then I think harder. Obviously there have been no runs. In fact, I can’t remember so much as a single hit. And I’m not sure I have seen any walks, either. Shit. I am walking back to my seat now, now jogging, feeling clammy under my new jersey, partly from exertion, mainly from the nervous excitement that you can only get as an Englishman who was blithely about the walk out on a chance to see history made.
I sit down. I am breathing heavily, but catch the air in my lungs all the same as an Astro send a ball high and handsome towards the bleachers in right field. I breathe out quietly, not dejected, but sad that it has come to an end: it might not be a homer, but it must be at least a double. I barely notice Gregor Blanco’s searing run from deep, don’t register him taking off, glove outstretched. It is only when he has caught it, is sliding towards the wall with it nestled safe, that I notice that I am on my feet, cheering with the rest of them.
Cain’s chance for a perfect game is still on. We’re in the seventh now, and every pitch is met with either elation at another strike or goodhumoured disgust at the umpire’s call. Twice the ball screws high into the night sky, so high I wonder how the players are able to see it against the floodlights – but each time Cabrera is there to swallow it without any trouble.
The words of the pundit from the weekend come back to me – they just don’t play well behind him. The callow, longhaired Lincecum is worlds apart from the short-back-and-sides, family man Cain. As Michael Lewis has observed elsewhere (in a magisterial piece about basketball’s ultimate team player, Shane Battier), baseball is a game in which the individual’s success and the team’s success seldom find themselves unaligned. Yet the Giants are winning 10-0. Blanco scraping the skin off his arm, or Cabrera staring straight into high-wattage lighting, will have no material impact on the game’s result. Yet they do it, all the same. They’re doing it for Cain, of course, but just as soon as I acknowledge this I begin to wonder: would they do it for Lincecum?
Before we know it we are at the top of the 9th, and Houston are two down. 26 outs before now, and not a single hit or walk. Someone behind me says Cain has thrown no-hitters deep into games before, but has never finished them, never killed it. Everyone is on their feet, happy to be part of almost-history, willing Cain on to finish the job. He pitches, and my heart sinks. He has fallen at the last hurdle. The ball is drilled with phenomenal power at third, and my mind flashes back to Sandoval last weekend. As he goes down to collect, it bobbles alarmingly. The batter is sprinting to first; still the ball is not in Sandoval’s glove. But I look again. It is not Sandoval, it is Juan Arias, and he has it under control, and it is on its way to first. And then it is over. Giants 10 Astros 0. It is a perfect game, the first in franchise history. Cain has killed it. And I am a baseball fan for life.