Baseball’s ‘woke hillbilly’ had more songs to write
Tim Flannery, a former major league baseball player and coach, performs with his band, the Lunatic Fringe, in Solvang, Calif., Aug. 21, 2023. Flannery’s rollicking life as an athlete and “woke hillbilly” musician was nearly cut short by a staph infection, but one of baseball’s most unlikely characters found his way back.
By SCOTT MILLER
Night had fallen, spirits were moving, and the songwriting baseball coach was rounding third base and headed for home. Twice in the autumn of 2020, doctors had advised a gravely ill Tim Flannery to say goodbye to his family. Both times, he declined to surrender.
The right arm that sent home so many San Francisco base runners during the Giants’ three World Series titles from 2010 to 2014 waved away a final coda.
The road back from the brink was as unlikely as the man himself. An infielder turned popular coach, Flannery was always something more. A musician who carried a guitar with him on the road and a surfer who posed with a board on one of his trading cards, he could not help but stand out in the straight-laced world of MLB.
Having transitioned fully into philanthropy and songwriting in his baseball retirement — his foundation has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for anti-bullying causes — he had more people to help and more stories to tell. So giving in to a life-threatening staph infection was not an option.
Fate and Flannery eventually reached a standstill during his harrowing three-month battle with the infection, but doctors still warned him that he might never walk again. He fell into sepsis and required two back surgeries to clear away abscesses and damaged tissue. He went home with a tube that sent antibiotics streaming into his heart. That was the easy part because his wife of 42 years, Donna Flannery, administered those doses.
Eventually, walker in hand, with his little granddaughter Jade riding shotgun on the crossbar, he cut a deal: 25 times up the driveway, slowly, 25 times back, painfully, and Jade would be rewarded with an ice cream sandwich.
On particularly productive days, she’d score two.
“I’ve definitely changed my life,” Flannery, 65, said on a recent afternoon at a neighborhood coffee shop near the beach, a familiar twinkle — life — back in his eyes. He had rehearsed for two hours earlier that day. Soon, he would nail down details for the next show with his band, the Lunatic Fringe.
“I’ve looked at moments and things a lot more clearly,” he continued. “And you do try to create good thoughts and try to remember, like, this moment right here. Because if I ever go back to that situation again, I want to try to bring as many good memories and good hallucinations as I can.”
His stay in the hospital was harrowing. “Vicious,” he said of time spent tied down so he did not harm himself or others. The hospital was 2 miles from his home in Encinitas, California, but each glance out his window brought more distortion. Not all his visions were awful. His friend Bob Weir, a founding member of the Grateful Dead, appeared by apparition. So did another friend, Jimmy Buffett.
The meaning of those particular visitations would come into focus later, convincing Flannery that they were no coincidence.
Music coming to the forefront
Through more than four decades of baseball and music, first in San Diego and then in San Francisco, Flannery grew into a beloved player, coach and troubadour — a character — because of an endearing knack for leaving pieces of himself with whomever he met.
“Authentic,” said Flannery’s bandmate and producer, Jeff Berkley. “He is exactly who you think he is. He’s not trying to put on any airs. He’s not trying to be from Kentucky; he is from Kentucky. Until he stopped drinking, man, he carried moonshine around with him wherever he went. He’s a total hillbilly. He wears that term proudly. He’s probably the first woke hillbilly.”
Because Flannery felt some baseball people viewed his guitar suspiciously during his years in San Diego, he initially intended to keep that part of his life quiet when he agreed to coach for Bruce Bochy in San Francisco.
“I was going to come coach third and not let anybody in,” Flannery said. “I thought, ‘No one’s going to tear my heart.’”
But in 2011, his music came to the forefront when he founded the Love Harder Project in response to the horrific beating of Bryan Stow, a Giants fan who was attacked in the Dodger Stadium parking lot on opening day in 2011. With the foundation, which has a mission of anti-bullying and anti-violence, Flannery has helped raise around $100,000, mostly through shows with the Lunatic Fringe, to offset the Stow family’s medical costs.
“Hey, I hit nine home runs in the ’80s,” Flannery said. “I can’t just write a check.”
But he could write, and play, and sing.
Stow, now 54, sustained a serious brain injury in the attack and today lives at home in the Santa Cruz area with his parents. He is taking memory and mobility courses at a local community college and learned on Father’s Day that he was going to be a grandfather.
“Flan was one of the first to come to the forefront and help Bryan out. It was just amazing,” said Ann Stow, Bryan’s mother. “And he’s been that way throughout Bryan’s journey. Flan and Donna are such an important part of our family.”
In all, the Love Harder Project has raised around $360,000 in Flannery’s ongoing battle against bullies and violence.
Air and water
Despite what some advised early in his career, Flannery was never going to choose baseball over music.
“Like having to choose between air and water,” he said. “I’ve got to have both.”
Although Flannery mostly was raised in Anaheim, California, his family came from the hills of Kentucky. His uncle, Hal Smith, was a catcher who smashed a three-run homer for Pittsburgh in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series. Had the Pirates’ bullpen held the 9-7 lead, Smith would have been a hero. Instead, the New York Yankees tied things up, and Pittsburgh’s Bill Mazeroski won the game and earned immortality.
Smith, who played 10 seasons, regularly carried a Gibson J35 guitar with him on the road. When Flannery signed professionally at 19, he followed suit.
Flannery’s first manager, Roger Craig, told him to focus on baseball rather than playing the guitar, but the instrument remained his constant companion. Kids were born — Daniel now is 37; Ginny, the mother of Tim’s three grandchildren, is 35; Kelly is 32 — and the guitar was there for all of it.
“If it was a crazy day, having that guitar mellowed him out,” Donna Flannery said.
Another uncle, George, convinced Tim Flannery that playing music wasn’t enough and that he needed to record his songs to tell the stories of his family’s life. Among them is “Pieces of the Past,” a tribute to Flannery’s preacher father, Ragon, who was dying of Alzheimer’s. Jackson Browne and Bruce Hornsby performed on that recording.
On his musical journey, Flannery has opened for Buffett and Emmylou Harris. The Grateful Dead’s Weir entered his life during the benefits for Stow, and Walker, the outlaw country legend and longtime hero of Flannery’s who wrote “Mr. Bojangles,” befriended him during the San Francisco years as well.
“The great thing about the Bay Area, one of the greatest blessings, is I found a place where they understand you can be an artist and still coach third,” Flannery said.
Playing through pain
When the pandemic struck and the world closed, Flannery retreated to a getaway he calls his “treehouse” in the mountains north of Santa Barbara.
At his cabin, there is no electricity, no phone service, and the water comes straight from a well. The staph infection that nearly killed him started, he believes, as he was building cages to protect the potatoes, corn, tomatoes, okra, spinach and assorted other vegetables he plants there.
“You’ve got to put everything in cages, because there’s animals,” said Flannery, who retired from coaching after the 2014 World Series but stayed in baseball, doing television analysis, through 2019. “I’ve never done any of that stuff because I never had summers off. Somehow, I got cut, or the soil got in.”
As an old ballplayer, when the back pain attacked, he figured he would just play through it.
“I took four Advil, drank a huge cocktail, and usually, I’d polish that off with a bottle of wine to kill the pain,” he said of his nightly regimen.
But one afternoon, he fell asleep, hard, on the deck, waking up only because it was dinner time for his dog, Buddy. Stubborn as his master, Buddy nudged and licked Flannery until he came to. If not for that, Flannery said, he thinks he would have died right there. Instead, the two somehow drove to his San Diego-area home, where Flannery collapsed and was taken away by paramedics.
As he was recovering in early 2021, Susan Walker phoned one day. Her husband, Jerry Jeff, had died from cancer in October, and she invited Flannery to perform at a celebration of life in Luckenbach, Texas, that June. At the time, he couldn’t even sit up to play his guitar, but he was determined to make it.
The memorial concert was Flannery’s first gig after regaining his health, and both of the men Flannery felt had visited him in the hospital, in spirit only, played a part. Weir, who was scheduled to be in Luckenbach before travel issues kept him away, phoned just before Flannery went onstage. And Buffett, who died this month, was there in person.
“Hey, you look just like Tim Flannery, only older,” Buffett teased.
The old coach played, at Susan’s request, a Walker original titled “Last Song” and a tribute Flannery wrote for his friend, “Last of the Old Dogs.”
“I think I kind of stunned people,” Flannery said. “I don’t know how it happened, and it was all beyond myself. When I came off, the whole crew had tears in their eyes.”
Donna Flannery said she finds her husband to be “a kinder person these days, nicer to everybody.”
As one of the lines in a song of his goes, kindness lives on the other side.
And so the man who was told to leave his guitar at home and focus on baseball has instead hung up his spikes. And he will keep trying to make the world just a little bit better.
“When I play, I pray before each show that the great translator, the holy spirit, shows up and changes everything I say and turns it into whatever people need and stick it in their hearts,” Flannery said. “And a couple of days later, when you start to hear back from people, yeah, there’s a reason why I’m playing.”