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Lincecum's legacy: burning bright, but brief

MLB.com @williamfleitch

The first time I heard about Tim Lincecum, everyone was worried he was going to get hurt. Lincecum was the No. 10 overall pick of the Giants in 2006 -- it was actually the third time he had been drafted; he'd turned down offers from the Cubs and Indians in the '03 and '05 Drafts, respectively.

Imagine how much more of a folk hero Lincecum would have become had he played his career with the Cubs. But the general consensus is that "The Freak" would have gone No. 1 (ahead of Clayton Kershaw and Evan Longoria) if he weren't so small.

The first time I heard about Tim Lincecum, everyone was worried he was going to get hurt. Lincecum was the No. 10 overall pick of the Giants in 2006 -- it was actually the third time he had been drafted; he'd turned down offers from the Cubs and Indians in the '03 and '05 Drafts, respectively.

Imagine how much more of a folk hero Lincecum would have become had he played his career with the Cubs. But the general consensus is that "The Freak" would have gone No. 1 (ahead of Clayton Kershaw and Evan Longoria) if he weren't so small.

That's all anyone could talk about with Lincecum -- how small he was. A pair of scouting reports before the Draft noted he was "not a real physical kid" and it looked "like his head is going to snap off and his arm is going to fly off."

But this was largely the appeal of Lincecum, wasn't it? The reason we loved Lincecum, who was released by the Rangers on Tuesday in his comeback attempt and quite possibly has thrown his last professional pitch, wasn't just that he was great; it was that he was great, but looked just like us.

One of the best illusions of the game of baseball -- one of the game's most enduring and fruitful myths -- is that anyone can play it, regardless of size and physical abilities. It's why we love the scrappers like Daniel Descalso, the little guys like Jose Altuve, the rotund sculpted specimens like Daniel Vogelbach, the elder statesmen like Bartolo Colon.

Football players are sculpted monsters; basketball players are redwoods. We imagine ourselves as baseball players, because you don't have to have won the genetic lottery to participate. It certainly helps -- Mike Trout is the best player in baseball, partly because he is built like a tank -- but it is not an exclusive requirement.

This was the source of our love for Lincecum. He looked like the skater dude from down the street, your pizza delivery boy, your kid's affable doofus friend. You found yourself almost wanting to protect Lincecum; a line drive through the box looked like it would scatter his bones like bowling pins in all directions.

Lincecum's pitching motion was contorted and twisted and wild, like he was a Rube Goldberg contraption that had to be wound up, with parts that had to click and whirl in the precise right order to create enough power to propel the ball forward with such force. He looked like a magic trick. Lincecum was like the escape artist from a heist film.

(This sort of thing gets overstated: After all, Lincecum is 5-foot-11, which is likely taller than you are, and during his comeback, he seemed to be getting his Giancarlo Stanton on.)

The results were jaw-dropping. Lincecum was an average pitcher in 24 starts during his rookie season -- receiving no National League Rookie of the Year Award votes -- and then exploded in his second season, basically dominating the sport during one of its biggest offensive upticks. He won 18 games that year, but #killthewin, all that: He averaged 10.5 K/9, had a ridiculous 2.62 FIP and gave up less than a homer every two games.

Lance Berkman said Lincecum had the best stuff he'd ever seen, that he had "three unhittable pitches."

Lincecum would lead the Majors in strikeouts for three consecutive seasons, all with that wind-up-bird of a pitching style, all looking like he just crawled in hungover from the bleachers. He immediately became the most popular athlete in San Francisco, the avatar of the post-Barry Bonds era, nearly as dominant with his wispy frame as Bonds was with his hulking one.

Lincecum's starts were impossible to miss, and his appeal transcended baseball. I had a friend in New York at the time who wore a Lincecum jersey even though he didn't like baseball. "He seems like my kind of dude," the friend told me.

Video: Relive Tim Lincecum's two no-hitters vs. the Padres

And even during that time, when Lincecum was on top of the pitching world, we were worried about him. The Giants would always discourage him from throwing bullpen sessions during the offseason. They would rest Lincecum at every opportunity; they would treat him as if he were one wrong spin from bursting apart.

Now, this sort of treatment of pitchers isn't uncommon. We treat all pitchers like they're temporary now that we know it could all end at any moment. But in 2008, this was the sort of thing retired pitchers all snickered about, like we were babying the kid. But how could you look at this slight young man -- and his otherworldly ability -- and not want to protect him?

The Giants' instincts were correct. Lincecum faded a bit after his two NL Cy Young Award-winning seasons in 2008 and '09. While he led the Majors in strikeouts in '10 and had a 2.74 ERA in '11, he was slowly starting to fade from us.

Lincecum still kept making starts -- he had 24 starts or more eight consecutive seasons, which was rare then and even more rare now -- but he looked a little less like the physical marvel and more like the skinny kid whose parts weren't all working in sync anymore. We were all worried he would break down, because he always was going to break down. Lincecum was too beautiful to live.

Video: WS2014 Gm2: Lincecum fans two, exits with an injury

Lincecum still had a finishing kick with the Giants, particularly in the postseason. His most famous playoff moments were his first postseason start in 2010, when he threw a two-hit shutout against the Braves, and his Game 5 start in the World Series that year, when he threw eight innings en route to a 3-1 win and the Giants' first World Series championship in San Francisco.

But I'll confess I'm perhaps most fond of how dominant Lincecum was in relief in the 2012 Series, or maybe even more, of his final World Series appearance, in '14, when his stuff was clearly diminished, but he was still able to retire all five batters he faced. Lincecum was pulled from that last game with a back injury. He was always in danger of coming apart.

Lincecum's comeback attempt always meant more to fans emotionally than statistically. It's not like whether he would have made the Rangers' bullpen better matters. Not really, not more than simply having Lincecum back would have mattered. It hadn't been going that well for Lincecum at Triple-A Round Rock, but seeing him out on the mound was still worth it.

Lincecum is still trying to make it back. After his release, he told the Rangers he's headed out West and will peddle his wares for another team. It looks unlikely, though, I dunno: Can you imagine the roar if he went back out and threw one more inning with the Giants?

I suppose this is baseball now. Lincecum having his Phil Niekro moment -- only at the age of 33 rather than 48. He was the proverbial star who shined too brightly to last long in this world. We all knew Lincecum couldn't last long, not like that.

This was ultimately a positive. It made us appreciate how lucky we were to get to watch Lincecum while we were watching him. It doesn't make him being gone feel any better, though.

Lincecum is that sort of baseball player you just want to tell people you saw. You can't describe it. You can only say you were there before it burned out, before the dying of the light. He was never gonna last. Not everything is supposed to last.

Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.

San Francisco Giants, Texas Rangers, Tim Lincecum