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Ex-GM Sabean recalls almost blowing Giants' chance to draft Lincecum

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SAN FRANCISCO – Sometime next year, as various outlets list “The Most Iconic Sports Figures” of the first quarter of 21st century, the discussion must include at least two members of San Francisco Giants.

One, Barry Bonds, is forever scarred by his connection to performance-enhancing substances. That is why the best pure hitter of his era repeatedly has been denied entry into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

The other is Tim Lincecum, who during a three-year stretch was baseball's most charismatic figure. He won’t get near the Hall, but he has three World Series rings and will forever live in the hearts not only of Giants fans but also anyone fond of underdogs.

With apologies to Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry, Lincecum was the Bay Area’s original baby-faced assassin.

In the seasons spanning 2008-10, Lincecum made 99 starts and posted a 49-22 record. He led the National League in strikeouts in each season. He won Cy Young Awards in 2008 and 2009. His first postseason start was a two-hit shutout of the Atlanta Braves in the National League Division Series.

And Brian Sabean, the general manager who drafted Lincecum, admits he was a phone call away from blowing his chance to bring him to San Francisco.

The GM was minutes away from leaving the ballpark for a trip to Seattle to see Lincecum when the phone rang. It was director of player personnel Dick Tidrow, whose opinion, at least to Sabean, was platinum.

Sabean paused to take the call.

“I get on the phone, and he goes ‘What are you doing?’” Sabean told NBC Sports Bay Area this week, 90 minutes before he was inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame. “I said, ‘Well I'm flying up to see Lincecum.’ He says, ‘Stop. Please don't go.’ And I said ‘Well, why is that?’ He goes, ‘If you go, you're going to tip our hand.’

“He said, ‘This guy is special. He's going to get to the big leagues in a hurry. He’s going to have instant impact.  I don’t know how long he's going to last, but I can't let you see him.’”

Sabean canceled his trip. No doubt that the GM’s arrival at the University of Washington would have signaled other MLB teams that the Giants were serious about the right-hander named Lincecum, who San Francisco selected with the No. 10 overall pick in 2006.

“Full disclosure,” Sabean said. “There was a pitcher at Cal – I'm not going to mention his name – that everybody in baseball thought we were going to take. As it turned out, Seattle took that pitcher, and we took Lincecum.”

The former Cal pitcher, Brandon Morrow, had a longer career than Lincecum but did not win half as many games and did not achieve similar heights.

The Giants came to San Francisco in 1958, and took them 52 seasons for a World Series victory that would not have occurred without Lincecum, their most mesmerizing pitcher since Hall of Famer Juan Marichal, a swashbuckling right-hander who made his MLB debut in 1960.

And Lincecum did it while looking like a 16-year-old, hair cascading down his back, riding a skateboard down the sidewalk.

“Timmy had a meteoric rise in that infamous window that was just against all odds,” Sabean recalled. “As far as his prowess or how good he was and I just remember that his stature, if you saw him in street clothes . . . you’d scratch your head and say, ‘There's no way.’ Now if you saw him in shorts and T shirt, he was dynamic. He was a gymnast. He had that energy and that spirit in his body that made him special as an athlete and as a pitcher, too.”

Lincecum listed height, 5-foot-11, is generous. His listed weight, 170 pounds, is about right. The vehemence of his windup was generated by a firm core, defined thighs and hips cut from marble. He was a physical specimen who lacked the expected stature of a physical specimen.

You might understand, then, why his nickname was “The Freak.”

But it was the childlike visage and the malevolent pitching repertoire that deflated hitters and drove up attendance figures not only in San Francisco but in every town in which he took the mound. For fans unable to grab a ticket, Lincecum was must-see TV.

Lincecum, who turns 40 next month, was a four-time All-Star who peaked early. He was 27 when named to his fourth and final MLB All-Star game, a was a sub-.500 pitcher over the rest of his career.

Despite his relatively brief time atop the sports world, Lincecum stands with the likes of Joe Montana, Rickey Henderson, Bonds, Curry and a select few others who captivated fans around the globe and became legends of the bay.

Like a comet, Lincecum had to be seen to be appreciated. And to think, he might not be on that august list if Sabean had made that trip back in 2006.

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