Tim Lincecum’s Pot Bust: Stigma Strikes Out
by Fred Gardner, December 10, 2009
Only in the San Francisco Bay Area did the story cross over from the sports pages to the news pages: on October 30, Tim Lincecum, the Giants' ace right hander, was stopped by a Washington State Highway Patrol officer for driving 74mph on Interstate 5 a few miles north of the Oregon border. He was on his way home to a suburb of Seattle.
The highway patrolman smelled marijuana and Lincecum acknowledged that he had a pipe in the car, and 3.3 grams of bud -about four joints' worth. Lincecum denied that he had been smoking while driving. The officer wrote him up for speeding and misdemeanor drug possession. A Clark County prosecutor dropped the charge to possession of paraphernalia -an infraction which, unlike drug possession, does not require a mandatory-minimum one day in jail.
A sensible prosecutor named Grant Hansen said that Lincecum had gotten the standard deal offered to cooperative first-time offenders. Henry Shulman of the Chronicle wrote, “Hansen said typically there are 15 to 20 similar cases in his county each week, mostly from young people from the area, and all are treated this way.” The prosecutor put the episode in proper perspective: Tim Lincecum is a young person who did what young people often do.
Lincecum is now supposed to pay a $250 fine for possessing the pipe, and $122 more for speeding. A publicity-hound judge insists that Lincecum appear in person for sentencing Dec. 22, so that he, the judge, can deliver a lecture and get his 15 minutes of f---.
No matter how much coverage the hearing gets, Tim Lincecum's pot bust will not have generated one tenth the media attention inspired by a photo of Michael Phelps holding a bong earlier this year. Given the relative popularity of baseball and swimming in this country, Lincecum is arguably as big a star as Phelps. (He has won two consecutive Cy Young awards, an unprecedented honor.) And his involvement with marijuana was proactive — unlike Phelps, who was just passing the bong at someone else's party. Lincecum owned the pipe and the marijuana, and he was driving over the speed limit. So why the drastically reduced media interest? What happened in the 10 months between Phelps' exposure and Lincecum's?
Evidently, the stigma of marijuana use is diminishing — fast. You may say, “Yeah, for handsome, talented white boys with otherwise unblemished records.” But it's going to be harder for judgmental sportswriters to torment a black kid after they've declared “No BFD” in Lincecum's case.
Lincecum's pot bust created unbearable cognitive dissonance for Scott Ostler, the Official Hall Monitor of the Sporting Green. (Cognitive dissonance is “uncomfortable tension caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously.”) Ostler writes a regular feature called “Knucklehead(s) of the Week,” ridiculing athletes whose foibles have become known to the public. He assumes that disdaining marijuana is a marker for “character.” It's actually a marker for obedience. Ostler is supposed to be some kind of humorist. If jokes were hits, he'd bat about .220.
Ostler expressed 30-inches of uncomfortable tension over the Lincecum bust in a Nov. 7 column headed “High crime? Nope, just stupid.” Ostler recognizes that his readers tend to be tolerant: “Lincecum will get off easy in the Bay Area court of public opiion. In fact, his moment of reefer madness might even enhance his stature as a free-spirited goofball.”
Lincecum's stature is based on his curveball and his fastball. AJ Liebling, the great press critic, hated psycholgizing by sportswriters (a trend he traced to the New York Post in the early 1950s). If I knew where my copy of The Wayward Press was, I'd find the apt quote. Instead, we return to Ostler's column:
• “Sifting through the reader responses on our Web site, my eyes grew weary looking for even one demand for Lincecum to be punished by MLB or the Giants.”
Ostler must have finally found one because he put a harsh ttsk-tskers comment on the front page of the sports section in bold type to accompany his column.
• “…Remember how, not so many years ago, Warriors' fans would convene at halftime on the 'dope ramp,' turning the Oakland Area into the world's largest bong?”
It was more than 30 years ago, and none of us ever called it anything but “the doobie section.” Management cracked down right after our championship season. There is a serious argument to be made about cannabis as the ideal relaxant and analgesic and anti-inflammatory and alternative to alcohol for basketball players and other athletes. The San Francisco Chronicle should have started evaluating this question in the '90s. Or earlier — maybe when Robert Parrish got busted, or Kareem.
• “There will be no attempt here to minimize what Lincecum did. I have a 14-year-old son who admires Lincecum, and I will have the obligatory talk about how Timmy is cool but not everything he does is. There's dumb, then there's speeding while carrying weed and a pipe, giving the world the impression that you might be dumb enough to fire up while driving. One of the great mysteries of sports is why so many athletes load their cars with a mixture of drugs, handguns and expired drivers' licenses, then ask themselves, 'Dude, how fast do you think this baby will go in a hospital zone?' ”
Will Ostler, in his obligatory talk with the offspring, equate what Lincecum did with guns and dangerous driving? To paraphrase the man himself, there's dumb and then there's crude sophistry.
• “We've all gotten to know him [Lincecum] well enough to realize that behind the garage-band hair and the cartwheels in the clubhouse is an intelligent young man who approaches his job in a professional manner and spares himself the self-importance and lack of accountability embraced by many ball stars.”
This is the source of Ostler's cognitive dissonance: Lincecum is both a pot smoker and an admirable young man; likeable, intelligent, fully-functional.
• “Too bad when Timmy placed the pot and the pipe in his care, his events-memory didn't set off alarms. Michael Phelps! Michael Phelps! Michael Phelps! Oooogah! Or, on a much, much more somber note: Nick Adenhart. He's the Angels pitcher who was killd in April when his friend's car was struck by a drunk driver. Both drivers had been drinking.”
And they might be alive if they had legal access to cannabis.
• “Even we zonked-out Bay Area hipsters hope the Franchise plays it smarter next time.”
Ostler ended the Nov. 7 column by both claiming to speak for and insulting his readers. He seemed to be speaking in the same voice when he did another Lincecum column on Sunday Nov. 22. It was headed “Let the Freak's flag fly.”
• “We've got May 20 in this office pool to guess the date on which an opposing batter first registers and official complaint that Lincecum's flying hair is a distraction. Hey, maybe he shoud dye his hair white. Find the baseball, suckuh… His hair, in fact, seems predestined. David Crosby (of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) wrote and sang about Lincecum's hair 40 years ago… 'Almost cut my hair/ Happened just the other day… But I didn't and I wonder why/ Feel like letting my freak flag fly.”
“Long may the Freak's flag fly.”
Some nonconformists in the '60s called themselves “freaks” in the same way that some gay people call themselves “queers” — claiming and negating the insult. Crosby, in the context of his lyric, was identifying with his fellow freaks. Ostler, in his Nov. 22 tag, was insulting Tim Lincecum (while ostensibly cutring him some slack).
• I once got pulled over in about the same spot going about the same speed, hauling 2,000 copies of O'Shaughnessy's to the Hempfest. One moral of this story is, watch out for that speed trap around Walnut Grove.