People often confuse leadership in sports with age and noise. A veteran with some gray in his goatee calling a team meeting in the midst of a losing streak. A guy like Curt Schilling, who got a reputation as a vocal leader with the Red Sox because he’s attracted to microphones in the same way a magnet loves refrigerators. The tale of Darren Ford and Tim Lincecum is about neither of those things. Sometimes friendship is leadership in itself.
When the speedy Ford was called up to the Giants in September, Lincecum offered him a place to stay. However, along with the normal luggage and possessions one moves with, Ford had some legal baggage — multiple felony charges for falsifying a report he made back in November of 2009 to police that at gunpoint he was robbed of $300, his cell phone and a bank deposit bag he was carrying for RK Chevrolet, the dealership Ford was working for in his hometown of Vineland, NJ.
On July 2, he turned himself into police. When he arrived in San Francisco, having never seen a Major League field in his life, he had more to worry about than getting thrown into a pennant race, he had a trial to worry about after the season that could end his Major League career right after it started.
Lincecum, who had his own brush with the law before this season when he was pulled over and cited for possession of marijuana, is on the opposite end of the MLB spectrum from Ford, who didn’t have a plate appearance in his month on the Giants’ roster. But the team’s biggest star and speedy sub helped each other.
“When we were at the field, I let him do whatever,” said Ford, who speaks with quiet intensity. “When I was staying with him, we had a man-to-man conversation. Just a heart-to-heart, how do you feel, how do I feel. Just became better people at the end of the day.”
Although the molasses-like Giants needed a spark in September to overcome the Padres, who were in the middle of a season-crippling losing streak, Ford was shocked he’d be jumping from Double-A Richmond to a team in the midst of a pennant race.
“At the end of the year, I never thought I’d get called up,” said Ford, who wasn’t just surprised because he was skipping Triple-A in his journey to the land of triple-digit daily per diems and unlimited baseball caps and sunflower seeds. It’s tough to stay confident in how much your bosses love you when you’re facing time in prison.
That’s where Lincecum — who suffered the ignominy of having THE boss, Bill Neukom, in the courtroom when he accepted a drug paraphernalia infraction back in January — comes in. Ford is as fast as any Giant since Willie Mays, but during those conversations at Lincecum’s place, the two-time Cy Young helped get Ford’s mind right.
“He just told me that I was a good person, that I was a great person, he loved to be around me. If I ever need anything, let him know. From that point on, I look at Timmy differently. I looked at him as a person, not as a San Francisco Giants baseball player. As a friend, somebody who was going to be there, and I would do the same for him. Just going and seeing each other’s face every day, day in and day out, brought a smile to my face,” Ford said.
It wasn’t just Lincecum that helped Ford transition from a Minor Leaguer facing the possibility of a criminal record to a valued cog on a pennant contender, a 24-year-old who on his first day pinch-ran and scored the winning run against the Rockies (helping Lincecum earn his 12th win). Baseball’s a game where every single person on the roster can be asked to do something that sacrifice’s their own individual success in the same game. A starting pitcher intentionally walking someone to set up a double-play, a slugger like Aubrey Huff putting down a bunt, a reliever coming into a tough situation, players playing out of position or not at all. It’s why fractured clubhouses rarely perform up to expectation, and why strong clubhouses like the 2010 Giants sometimes soar to unimagined heights.
“It’s crazy because in some clubhouses, some players don’t talk to each other the whole year,” Ford said. “This team, I just couldn’t wait to go to the clubhouse every day. I’ve never felt like that in my life.”
Although by nearly all accounts the Giants were especially friendly to each other, some helpful advice and smiling faces aren’t enough to get through the upheaval of wondering how long you’ll be able to keep your freedom. Getting to live with Lincecum instead of alone in a hotel was something Ford will never forget.
“We sat down and really talked about what we were going to do to move forward in life. I thank him for that, really just giving me a place to stay, and inviting me in and making me feel comfortable about everything. Cause a lot of people … you don’t have to do that,” said Ford.
In this story of friendship and leadership, there are multiple happy endings. Shortly after the Giants won the World Series (“It hasn’t even hit me yet. It has, but it hasn’t,” Ford said.), Ford’s application for pre-trial diversion was accepted, meaning the charges will be dropped if he successfully completes the program and makes a $2,300 restitution to RK Chevrolet. Ford was even given a key to the city by Vineland’s mayor.
Ford has no expectations going into next season. After what he experienced in 2010, Ford’s happy with the memories he’s collected and the chance to focus on making the positive changes he and Lincecum talked about.
“It’s been a crazy year. I had some ups and downs this off-season and everything,” Ford admitted. “I’m going to just try and go out there and work hard and just try to get better. Hopefully whatever the Giants decide, whatever God decides, that’s where I go.”
Wherever Ford ends up, he knows that if he needs anything, he can always count on his friend, the Giants’ young leader.