Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Fighting Words Q&A: Mike Timlin

Mike Timlin has bagged his last batter. Photo from The Boston Globe.

Mike Timlin visited his old haunts Sunday, when he threw out the first pitch prior to the game against the Orioles at Fenway Park and admitted he was all but officially retired. Such news makes me feel very old. I remember being a 19-year-old hanging out in my friend Dan’s basement, eschewing the usual Saturday night shenanigans in favor of watching Timlin get the last out of the 1992 World Series and realizing he may have been the most unlikely guy to ever earn the Series-clinching save.

Now I’m 35 and my Saturday night shenanigans consist of my wife and I watching TV or going to the bookstore. Oh yeah. We’re hip. We’re happening.

Anyway, well over a decade later, I came to consider Timlin one of the most interesting, candid and accessible people on the Red Sox. I understand the disdain some people have these days for the idea of intangibles and clubhouse leadership, but Timlin—who pitched for four World Series winners—was a valuable mainstay and mentor in a bullpen that underwent a youth infusion under Theo Epstein as well as a player who came to personify the stoic professionalism that defined the 2004 and, particularly, the 2007 champions.

He had the best and busiest seasons of his career with the Sox, for whom he pitched six seasons. And he threw most of those pitches with a chip on his shoulder, always feeling as if middle relievers such as himself were overlooked and underappreciated.

After Alan Embree was released in 2005, Timlin said he thought middle relievers were viewed as the “ugly stepsister” of baseball players. “We realize that middle relief is kind of the bastard child of the major leagues,” Timlin said. “Most teams feel that’s where they need to save money. It’s kind of like an ugly stepsister—a lot of families have them, but you don’t really want to talk about it.”

The morning of the 2006 regular season finale, I saw Timlin putting baseballs in a sock. I asked him why he was doing this and he said, in his familiar no-nonsense drawl, that the baseballs were from the saves he’d earned that season and that he was saving them in case the Sox got rid of him and he never got another save.

Timlin was similarly wary and distrustful of the media, and I presume he would have been perfectly content to never utter a word to any of us. But he felt it was part of his job to speak to the press and had a perfectly professional relationship with reporters, many of whom sought out Timlin when seeking the pulse of the team.

Of course, a first encounter with Timlin could be abrupt, as I learned when I approached him for this interview before a home game against the Yankees in late September 2004. This meanders a bit, because I was trying to get replies beyond the one- or two-sentence variety. It took a little while, but I think his reply about the assumptions made on both sides of the player-reporter relationship not only summed up how a lot of people feel about the media but was also one of the most interesting things anyone said to me during the interview process. Enjoy.

Do you guys find you receive more attention when you play the Yankees?

Yeah, it gets a little ridiculous. I just think some of the New York reporters want to get out of the city of New York, so they come stand in our locker room and mess our stuff up.

Did you grow tired at all of the questions about a possible feud between you and Derek Jeter after he bunted with the Yankees up 7-1 [in the sixth inning of a game Sept. 19, 2004]?

Not tired. It’s just the media makes a really big thing out of [nothing]. It doesn’t matter what happens between our teams. I could have a really good friend on that team and say something during the game and the guys in the media are gonna make it sound like or play it into something that it’s absolutely not.

Does it bother you when people proclaim the Red Sox are out of the race?

It doesn’t bother me. A lot of things you guys say don’t bother me. But if you say something that’s completely out of the realm and you don’t really know what you’re talking about, why say it? We don’t say things about you guys and make stuff up or just take part of a fact and play it as far as we can. Because you guys can walk up and challenge us.

How different is the media here than in Philadelphia?

It’s not different than Philly. It’s the same thing in Philly. Philly is just as bad as here.

What’s it like watching the locker room on a day like today?

Best part about my locker right now is that I have these [temporary] lockers here to block the view of you guys standing there watching TV.

What was your perception of what happened between you and Howard Bryant in 2003, when he wrote a column about the bumper sticker hanging in your locker that said the peace sign was a symbol of the American chicken? (Note: I couldn’t find a link to Bryant’s original story, but the gist of what transpired is in the above link, which is an opinion piece from a publication with a political bent. Such a link is not intended to convey the thoughts or opinion of management at Fighting Words The Blog, which has no interest in talking politics on either side of the aisle)

It kind of goes along with my [earlier] answer: It was taken, part of the facts, by a guy [who] ran with it not knowing the complete facts and not knowing completely who I am. And he based a lot of his article on my assumptions of me and how I view the world. We talked about it and worked it out. No big deal.

Everybody does it, it’s not just media. We all make assumptions. That’s why they have that little saying that goes with assume.

Did you ever have to attend any sort of media training seminar?

Major League Baseball has a small class, they bring two or three of the players—or probably up to five—that they considered the [top] rookies coming in that would probably be in the big leagues in the next year or two and they have a rookie training seminar to deal with the media, deal with the pressures of the game, off-field stuff, on-field stuff. Took care of it all.

What was your conception of the media before that?

I had a conception of the media that they dealt in facts, they dealt in truths and they dealt with a non-biased mind. And now I know completely differently.

What changed your mind?

I can’t—I’m not going to paint any such person. I’m just saying, unfortunately, there’s a line drawn between the media and the athletes and that a lot of assumptions [are] made on our side. There’s a lot of assumptions made on their side. Our assumptions don’t get printed. Our assumptions don’t get television coverage. Your assumptions, as in the media, are printed. They’re put on TV and people see it. If you have a problem and you’re wrong, say, in print, where are you gonna write a retraction? You’re gonna write a retraction on the last page of whatever magazine or newspaper you have, or you’re gonna walk up and apologize personally. The apology is relatively accepted, most of the time, because you’re talking about me so I’ll throw myself in there. If you said something about me, I’ll accept your apology and that’s great.

But for the 40,000 people that read the article are not going to see you apologize to me, nor would you write a complete article on why you should apologize or who you apologized to. You won’t do that. There is not a media guy out there that will do it, unless the television person—your editor or your producer says you’ve gotta go on the air and do exactly as in the case of Dan Rather. He had to go publicly apologize. No one wants to do that. That’s the problem that we have with a lot of you guys. If you make a mistake, you will walk up and apologize to us. You will not walk up and say ‘Look, I wrote this article and this is what I’m going to print in the paper and it’s going to be in the same spot where my normal article’s going to be, because that’s where everybody reads it.’ It’s going to be in this itty bitty box way in the back and no one’s going to see it.

I sound disgusted and I sound fed up. I’m not. Just, you know, it’s a fact of life.

Are you surprised to hear that so many stars in Boston have had problems with the media over multiple generations?

It’s not just Boston. You can’t just put it on Boston. It’s not just Boston. It’s everywhere. And that’s why a lot of people don’t talk. One of the best guys I’ve met in the game, Eddie Murray—I mean, a tremendous human, one of the best players I’ve ever seen, best human beings I’ve ever seen, quality in and out—wouldn’t talk to you guys. Why? You get fed up with it.

So why haven’t you said the heck with it and stopped speaking to the press?

Most of the guys, we’re dealing with facts. Most of the answers that I have to give—why’d you throw that pitch?—and you get sick of saying why, why, why. The reason is, most of the time, I’m trying to get the guy out. I may make a mistake. It’s just part of my job, the speaking part.

Email Jerry at jbeach73@gmail.com.

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