Folk hero

Tim Flannery's music is as spirited as his coaching antics at third base

Originally Published: February 5, 2013
By Tim Keown | ESPN The Magazine

Tim FlanneryPamela Littky for ESPNTim Flannery has been performing, in one form or another, his entire life.

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ON A RAINY FRIDAY AFTERNOON in mid-December, Tim Flannery and I went for a walk through downtown San Diego. The Giants third base coach is a great storyteller, an old-time Irish raconteur with a million tales at his disposal, and there's no better way to hear a few Flannery stories than an unhurried walk. We walked near Petco Park, where the former Padres infielder and coach worked as an announcer before Bruce Bochy brought him to San Francisco in 2007 to become baseball's most excitable third base coach. We walked past the elegant Balboa Theatre, where he has played with Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead and with his own band, Tim Flannery and the Lunatic Fringe. We walked in and around the world's oldest active sailing ship, the Star of India, a coffin ship that carried untold numbers of Irish immigrant families -- like his, like mine -- across the Atlantic. Legend has it that sharks would swim behind ships like this one to feed on the bodies thrown overboard. The night after our walk, Flannery would play a gig on board the Star of India, rousing the ghosts with song and story.

You don't have to spend much time with Flannery to pick his signs: A quick laugh, a flash in his eyes and a tilt of the head tell you another tale is on its way. At one point during our walk, Flannery gestured a few blocks down Fourth Avenue toward Dick's Last Resort, a big and rowdy Gaslamp Quarter bar. He gave the quick laugh -- here it came -- and started in:

[+] EnlargeTim Flannery
Pamela Littky for ESPNFor more than 20 years, Flannery's worlds remained mostly separate.

"I was the frontman for a Jimmy Buffett cover band. We called ourselves Buff'd Out -- can you believe that? Buff'd Out. How great is that? We got bar gigs in town through baseball, and we were pretty good. But it was the same thing every time, and I needed to make a change. One night in 1991, a couple of years after I retired, we were packing up the gear at Dick's and I turned to the guys in the band and said, 'Well, boys, I have played "Cheeseburger in Paradise" for the last time.' "

Dick's seems an unlikely location for an epiphany, at least one that might be remembered the next morning. But when he packed up the gear that night, Flannery made a pledge to write and perform his own music. And if that meant no more watch-the-old-Padre-sing at beer-soaked joints like Dick's? Well ... so be it.

Baseball and music would separate amicably, leaving each of his passions to survive on its own merits. Flannery was loved as a ballplayer in San Diego -- the final at-bat of his 11-year career as a utilityman was delayed by a standing ovation, and the Padres presented him with a personalized surfboard and a custom-made acoustic guitar. Regardless of his popularity, his dueling aspirations had carried an undercurrent in San Diego: How could he be truly committed to the game and music?

"When I started writing my own music, I realized it isn't for everyone," he says. "People listen to music and try to write that song. At that point, you're not an artist, you're an act. When you're an artist, it's: 'Here it is. Hope you like it. Don't care if you don't.' "

The stories he would tell would be his stories, stories of sadness and hope, loss and joy. They'd be the stories of generations -- families, friends, ballplayers. They'd be stories picked up and stories passed down, and they'd run through his music and his life like a baserunner making the turn for home.


THE FLANNERYS immigrated to Kentucky in the mid-1700s and were among the first white settlers in Appalachia. They married into the Cherokee, and as Flannery explains it, "We brought the music and the 'shine." The music was connective tissue, carrying the stories across water and through generations. Tim's grandmother would sit on the front porch and play bluegrass on her banjo. His brother Tom would wake him from the bottom bunk with a kick, and they'd sing together first thing in the morning. He sang with his siblings every Sunday in their father's church; Ragon Flannery left Kentucky to become, in Tim's words, a "hillbilly minister" in Southern California, where Tim grew up in the 1960s and '70s.

He's been performing, in one form or another, his entire life. In eighth grade, he sang Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee" with his sister on banjo at a school talent show. Flannery's uncle, Hal Smith, played for the Pirates and, according to Tim, "was a crazy songwriter." Flannery's music is bluegrass with a splash of country -- Levon Helm meets Old Crow Medicine Show -- fortified by a church-bred spirituality. One of his songs, an eight-minute Irish ballad called "Molly Gram," was a minor hit in Ireland. "I get $87 a year from Irish radio," he tells the crowd at the Star of India. "And I want you to know I spend it recklessly." He attributes the song's popularity to its length: "It's what the DJs play when they need to take a break to pee."

The last gig at the Last Resort was a decision that's launched 12 albums, hundreds of songs and more than two decades of songwriter soul-searching. In 2002 Flannery was fired from the Padres coaching staff after becoming disenchanted with the direction of the franchise. He spent a year "getting well," as he puts it, and wellness included playing every summer music festival that a baseball schedule never allowed. "For eight months, I paid our monthly nut with gig money," says Flannery, who has three children and has been married for 31 years. "I'm proud of that. It made me realize I can do this." Percussionist Jeff Berkley, who's produced 10 of Flannery's albums and plays alongside him, (says, "All of us have seen someone in one field dabbling in another. Michael Jordan playing baseball -- that was cute, but that's not Flan. He's a great musician, and it's a selfless thing: I'm here for you, you're here for me, and we're in this together."

Flannery is 55 going on 21. He surfs nearly every day and camps along the beach near his home in Encinitas in his new Airstream trailer. There is an unrelenting joy emanating from the man, a generosity of spirit that seems jarring amid the prevailing cultural climate of cynicism and snark. Bochy describes it by saying, "He's all-in with everything we do and all-out when he does it. He's got the Irish fire inside him." Flannery coaches third base wildly and unselfconsciously, like a teenager dancing around a sidewalk with a signboard for a nearby shop. There exists a photo of him watching from the first base side of the plate as Andres Torres slides across. He had waved himself silly, starting about halfway down the line (he routinely does this to buy more time to make a decision) and passing home on the grass behind it before winding up on the other side. "These things just happen," he says. "I see it as the closest thing to playing, and now I get to play every day. I didn't do that as a player."


THE QUICK LAUGH
One day at the beginning of '07, I'm walking the dog with my wife. I'd been doing radio for four years, and at this point she thinks we're doing radio forever. I was doing 100 games a year and I loved it; it was like performing without a net. So we're walking the dog, and my phone rings. It's Boch. He asks me, "You got one more ride in you?" Then he sends me the video of Lonesome Dove, where the two guys are sitting around kicking the pigs around the farm. I'm sitting there watching it, and Donna says, "You're going again, aren't you?" I looked at her like this [winces and nods] and say, "Yeah, honey, I guess I am."

FOR MORE THAN 20 years, Flannery's worlds remained mostly separate: Baseball was always public, while music was an offseason retreat, a quiet place to contemplate the craziness. There were occasional and inevitable overlaps. When he coached in San Diego, he taught a young pitcher named Jake Peavy to play the guitar, and he played with Giants pitcher Barry Zito at Zito's annual fundraiser for wounded veterans.

"The stories he tells are full of heart, stained with the grit that only a seasoned veteran at life could muster," Zito says. "Watching his approach to baseball, music and people has given me a perspective I haven't found elsewhere."

His songs are accounts of poverty and troubled minds and war veterans living in isolation. Baseball creeps in only through a side door. After the Giants' volatile 2012 postseason, he wrote "21 Days," a hard-driving anthem beginning with the day they first faced elimination in Cincinnati and ending with a World Series parade 21 days and 11 wins later. Flannery's inspiration came from the pregame scene in the Giants' clubhouse on the first of those 21 days, when Bochy spoke about the biblical underdog Gideon and outfielder Hunter Pence delivered a bug-eyed, carotid-popping "band of brothers" speech.

I heard a band of brothers singing destiny's our song
History will be changed tonight with our backs against the wall


THE FLASH IN THE EYES &
My father [who had Alzheimer's] died with a straitjacket on. It was violent at the end, but it was one of the great miracles of my life, being part of it. I got to walk with him and change his diaper, and when you do that, you start to think of the circle of life and how they did it for us. I handed him a piece of Kentucky coal and he put it to his mouth and tasted it. His eyes lit up and he started to tell stories of his childhood -- stories I'd never heard before.

AT THE START of every game, Flannery repeats the same lyrics to himself as he settles into the third base coach's box -- or somewhere in its general vicinity. They come from the Bruce Cockburn song "A Dream Like Mine":

When you know even for a moment
That it's your time
Then you can walk with the power
Of a thousand generations

Flannery has turned these words into a prayer of sorts. They encompass everything he values, and he coaches with that same piece of Kentucky coal, the one that triggered his father's storytelling, tucked flat against his wrist inside his sleeve. It is worn smooth from worry and hope, and as he stood in the third base coach's box in Cincinnati, moments after Pence's speech at the beginning of those 21 days, he ran that coal across his fingertips and looked across the Ohio River toward the Kentucky hills.

"When I walk out there, I know the history of the Giants and the history of the game," Flannery says. "I know all the players who have given their sweat and their lives, the prayers that were said, all the hard work. I carry all of 'em with me. When I walk out there, it's my time. I represent everybody. We're bringing all of our history with us."

Generation to generation, father to son, player to player, the stories we're told become the stories we tell.


THE TILT OF THE HEAD &
When I was caretaking for my father, music was another way I connected with him. If you're working on a song, you could play it 10 times in a row. What did he care? We had a sense of humor about it. We're spiritual folks, but we knew if you didn't have a sense of humor, it would be too hard. That doesn't mean we didn't feel pain. We felt pain, but now that pain's become the strength that you get from your father and your ancestors. I did an album, Kentucky Towns, that's a tribute to my father. My brother sang harmony with me, and our harmonies are so tied to the family that a third harmony shows up. It's called a sympathetic harmony, and it comes from another place. When you hear it, you're looking around like, "Whoa."


FLANNERY PREPARES FOR his offseason shows by woodshedding in the stairwells of some of America's finest hotels. ("Best acoustics in the world," he says.) He sits there and lets the sound carry the games away.

The stories within that music are a search for answers, but sometimes there are none. On March 31, 2011, Opening Day, a Giants fan and Santa Cruz paramedic named Bryan Stow was beaten nearly to death, allegedly by two Dodgers fans, outside Dodger Stadium following the game. Stow was on a trip with a friend to Los Angeles when he was attacked -- sucker-punched to the pavement, kicked repeatedly in the head, unconscious by the time help arrived. The headlines were unfathomable, the details worse.

Stow's injury was centrifugal, its influence spinning outward from the family to the baseball community to everyone else. The reaction was unanimous: That could have been me. People looked for a way to help. Flannery picked up his guitar, and Stow's story became Tim Flannery's story.

"Bryan Stow's a father, a brother, a son -- he's everything I am," Flannery says. "I could see telling my wife, 'Hey, honey, my buddy and I are going to fly down and watch our team open up the season.' The randomness of it ... it affects you." Flannery and his wife visited Stow and his family at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center during the Giants' 2011 campaign. "I left that hospital very pissed off at what happened to all these other lives," Flannery says.

Toward the end of the year, the wife of a San Francisco club owner suggested Flannery perform a benefit concert for Stow. "You don't see Flan using music for personal gain," says his bandmate Berkley, "but you do see him using it for other people. The Stow thing was disgusting, and he saw a way to counteract some of the evil out there." One show led to a second, and Flannery brought friends: Weir, Jackson Browne, Jackie Greene. Before he left for spring training in 2012, Flannery had raised $70,000 to go toward medical expenses. This offseason, one of the four benefits Flannery has planned raised another $75,000. Says Flannery, "I remember reading something after it happened by some guy who blogs -- there's always someone who blogs, and there's always hate and anger -- and he wrote, 'Why don't you big ballplayers just write a big check?' Hey, man -- I hit nine home runs. I can't do that. This is the way I can help. And by doing this, it keeps the light shining on it."

In the 22 months since the beating, Stow has been forced to relearn everything -- swallowing, talking, walking. Doctors tell the family that 30 percent of his brain was destroyed. There are gaps in his memory. Chunks of time have been lost. "You learn to appreciate today," his mother, Ann, says. "I don't look ahead or plan for any big events." A little here, a little there. They pray that every day brings a better story.

At times of anger and frustration, the music serves as its own answer. Every Monday morning, Ann Stow drives from Santa Cruz to Bakersfield to be with her 43-year-old son at a rehabilitation facility. She heads home Thursday afternoon, roughly 12 hours before one of her two daughters leaves to be with Bryan for the weekend. It's a 250-mile drive each direction, 145 of it straight down I-5, junkyard after cattle ranch, the scrub and grit of the Great Valley speeding past in all its Steinbeckian glory.

It's four lonely hours of not much, thinking about her son, hoping this week will bring more progress, looking at people in the cars around her and wondering, What's going on in your life? The past two years have taught her not to judge. She long ago stopped trying to answer the central question of her trip: How could a man's life change forever because of a jersey and a cap?

Most of Ann's drive is spent listening to audiobooks. They occupy her mind and (diminish the monotony of the scenery. But at the beginning and end of each trip, as she's leaving or arriving at either place, she listens to Tim Flannery. It's become habit.

"The music is optimistic, just like Tim," she says. "He's never let anyone forget about Bryan. That's what I hear when I listen to his music."

The moment is pure, the task ahead difficult. There's no longer time for why. She looks for reasons to look ahead beyond that rough landscape, and for however long she chooses, Ann Stow can hear the hope in Flannery's stories. Sometimes that's enough.

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Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

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