In San Francisco, Tim Lincecum is known as everything from The Franchise to The Freak.
But there's really only one nickname the Giants hurler actually likes.
"Seabiscuit," he laughs. "I used to be called that back when I was in college and I always thought it was funny."
Seabiscuit, the undersized, underdog horse who ran faster than he looked. Perfect nickname for a kid who was always the smallest one on his team. A kid who at first glance you might think was more apt for grinding rails on a skateboard than grinding through some of the best hitters in baseball. But as anyone who has seen Lincecum pitch, as anyone who has stepped inside the "House That Bonds Built" on a night when the 24-year-old phenom takes the mound and can feel the electricity in the usually subdued crowd can tell you, it's the batter who is really the underdog.
That's because the kid with the whirling windup has pitches so juiced they're usually reserved for video games.
And that's what makes him such a perfect fit for the cover of MLB 2K9, the upcoming game being developed in the Bay Area by the sports game gurus at Visual Concepts. It's Lincecum's biggest endorsement deal to date, and an honor that just happened to be announced the same day he won the Cy Young.
"It was a tremendous day for me," he says. "There were a lot of smiles, a lot of congratulations from people, but what really got to me is seeing what this award meant to others. The way my dad reacted and being able to share it with the friends I had around, that whole experience was amazing. Then getting announced as the 2K cover boy, that was just the cherry on top of the cake."
Funny how when I first met him this season, he had finally bought a 360 but only had time to play the two games he purchased with the system (Call of Duty 4 and FIFA 08). So I stopped by the Giants locker room one day and let him borrow some of the essentials: Grand Theft Auto IV, Assassin's Creed. He had this huge smile on his face like I was Santa delivering presents. Now in just a few short months, 2K is going to deliver a game with his mug on the cover.
That's why I was so eager to catch up with Lincecum over the phone, to ask him about his Blue Steel pose for MLB 2K9. Unfortunately, he was at the airport and running late for his plane, but he still took time to breakdown a few details about his pitching style and how he'd like to see it translated into the upcoming game.
Last year, MLB 2K8 confused gamers with a pitching system casual fans saw as overly complex. MLB 2K9 changes all that as the developers of the game are really looking to simplify the pitching experience while at the same time bringing more realism to the mound. Lincecum has his own thoughts of what he'd like to see in the game.
"Pitching is one of those things where a video game can only capture so much of what is really happening," he says. "Personality is something that would take gaming to a whole new level. If they could capture the attitudes of pitchers and get them how they are out on the field, capture that persona, that's what I want to see.
"The things I do, my body language and emotions. I'm able to keep myself in check for a pretty good amount of time, but I don't shy away from showing my emotions when I get in the dugout. Just blow it out, try to get it all out, because you don't want people seeing that out on the field. As far as the video games go, if they had some sort of mini-game for pitchers to see if they could keep their emotions in check, that would be pretty awesome. They already had games where you could tackle the guy at second base, now it's time to bring in that emotion."
The Giants ace might just be getting back into gaming with his 360, but he's about as old school of a gamer as athletes get, especially when it comes to the virtual diamond.
Says Lincecum: "I used to play RBI and the Ken Griffey Jr. game for Super Nintendo all the time. I played every kind of game I could back when I was a kid, especially the baseball games and games like Contra.
"We actually still have some guys who play RBI in the clubhouse. When we travel, there are clubhouses where they have those old RBI arcade machines setup and people are always playing. It's cool how you could make the pitches bend so far at the last second. I wish I could do that for real."
San Francisco fans haven't seen a pitcher come to town with this type of flair and firepower since the days of Juan Marichal. And Lincecum explains that the windup that leaves fans buzzing is something that's all in the family.
"The motion I use is the same one I learned when I was like four years old," he tells me. "These mechanics are mine and my brother's and my father's. I was always the smallest kid, always a lot slighter than the other players and I never threw hard back then, that's why I had the curveball when I grew up. I didn't learn it too young, but young enough. I was throwing the curve before I could throw hard. The curve was always my go-to pitch. Then the fastball came and the two worked together as I moved through high school and college. I was mainly a two-pitch guy, even in the minors, then that's when I developed my changeup."
As for how gamers should control virtual Seabiscuit in MLB 2K9, Lincecum breaks it down right as he's about to board his plane.
"I like to start out throwing strikes. I never want to get behind. Something for me would be working down on the inside half of the plate, then throw something moving away. But when I go out there, it's not like I have a separate plan for every batter. It all depends on what he does during the at-bat. It's not like there's a magic one-two-three combo where I can get somebody out every time. I'm hoping that in the first three pitches he either strikes out or makes contact. That's my philosophy, three pitches. It's like every at-bat is a game onto itself. No at-bat is going to be like any other at-bat, unless it's the same hitter coming back through the order, and even then, hitters are smart and they make adjustments at this level.
"That's why it's a constant chess game."
And it's exactly that kind of chess game Lincecum plans to detail as he heads to the 2K Sports offices in early December. Not only are the producers of the game going to motion-capture his unique windup for 2K9, they plan on grilling the Cy Young Award winner on ways to improve the overall pitching experience in the game.
He might not like to be called "Franchise," but like it or not, Lincecum is now the face of the new-look Giants and the overhauled MLB 2K9.
"These are all dream-come-true type things, stuff you wish for when you're a little kid," he explains. "I remember thinking in college how cool it would be to end up on the cover of a game, and voila, freakin' two years later and it happened. It's nuts how it all worked out."