On the day I called Tim Flannery for an interview, he had already planted 25 fruit trees. In a cabin in the woods north of Santa Barbara, California, he seeks refuge – a modern-day Tom Sawyer living amongst the wilderness on an estate he purchased in 1983. He drinks from a well’s tap, straight from the salt of the earth. He chops his own wood to power the cabin’s only source of heat, a wood-burning stove. He chases wild pigs and deer. He is here to get away, to press pause on society for just a moment, instead of hitting the road and becoming entrapped in a shifting array of hotel rooms that presumably feel more like a four-walled prison than an escape of luxury.
“For me, it’s the only place I can find peace,” he told The Panther of the cabin. “I love the quiet, I love to be alone. I have this cool little new puppy. I think he’s training me, but I’m training him.”
This wit slides off the 62-year-old Flannery’s tongue as smoothly as he slid into second base during his playing career, as seamlessly as the windmill of his arm inviting San Francisco Giants to round third and head for home. His baseball career began on Chapman’s campus – back when it was still known as Chapman College – as a walk-on in 1975. He promptly set still-standing school records for batting average in a single season and continued on to be selected by the San Diego Padres in the sixth round of the draft, playing 11 years for the franchise.
But he doesn’t miss any of it.
He’s appreciative of the time he spent, of course – with Chapman, with the Padres, the three championship rings and the adoring moniker of “Flan” he received during his time with the San Francisco Giants. Yet after 26 years dedicated to baseball, Flannery found stability once he stepped away from the game. In 2014, about a month before the regular season began, he started to finally pay attention to the sirens blaring warning signals within him. Now, he gazes into the past with a clearer head than the younger version of himself.
“I retired (after the season) because I didn’t like who I was becoming. It was about 33 years on the road at that time; it was getting unhealthy,” Flannery said. “I felt like I was probably drinking too much. I was getting mean – the demand of the game, the demand of winning another world championship.”
Baseball fans see the athletes in uniform being paid immense amounts to roam around on immaculately groomed fields. What they don’t see, he pointed out, is the collateral damage that comes with the nonstop travel. The 12 hours spent at the ballpark, only to leave and set out for the airport, flying to another city and another hotel and another lonely night under silk sheets.
Flannery’s seen his fair share of pain come from this relentless cycle. Broken marriages. Addictions. Death. He’s had to bury two of his friends, also big-leaguers, who lost themselves to the bottle.
Sometimes, he’d crack dark jokes with his work companions at NBC, for whom he works as a Giants television analyst. Two years ago, he did 107 nights on television. He couldn’t simply be put up in a hotel for each one.
“If I was in a hotel room for 107 nights, you guys would all be reading about me,” Flannery would tell his colleagues. “Because all of a sudden, those demons come back.”
But he managed to keep his head above water, thanks to a source of comfort – his guitar. Anyone who’s ever played with, been coached by, or even played against Flannery would attest he’s carried a guitar with him across every single trip, he said. It was the songwriting, the act of strumming, that kept him level-headed.
“My music for me was, mainly it was like my survival skill,” Flannery said. “It got me through nights.”
It’s helped his family, too, because music is embedded in Flannery’s DNA – dating all the way back to the 1700s when his Irish descendants settled in the Appalachia and married into the Cherokee. He likes to tell that story when performing on stage with his band The Lunatic Fringe, frequently telling the audience that, “If you think about it, the Irish brought music and whiskey. You’re welcome.”
In addition, Flannery’s little brother can sing opera in three languages. His uncle Hal Smith not only was a member of the 1960 World Series-winning Pittsburgh Pirates, but also carried with him a Gibson J-45 acoustic guitar.
“We never knew you had to make a choice in my family between baseball or music. And when people would ask me to, ‘Well, you need to make a choice,’ I would always say, ‘Well, you have to make a choice between water or air,’ because I needed both of them,” Flannery said.
Music and baseball have always been inexorably intertwined from the time Flannery was young, which only carried into his undergraduate years at Chapman, from 1975 to 1978. Not only was he introduced to the travelling lifestyle associated with baseball – as he played summer ball all over the country during his collegiate career – but a class in ballad and song also taught him foundations in songwriting, which he’s built upon throughout his life.
“My songs are always songs about being on the road – and they’re baseball songs, even though they’re not about bats and balls,” Flannery said. “They’re about characters I’ve met, about places I’ve been.”
The cabin in the woods offers a perfect refuge not only for spiritual escape from society, but also because it’s equidistant from Flannery’s home in San Diego and his shows in San Francisco.
Of course, he wouldn’t call his performances work. He doesn’t take a cent of profits from the shows he plays. Instead, he funnels it to his nonprofit foundation, “The Love Harder Project,” dedicated to denormalizing bullying and violence and created after Giants fan, Bryan Stow, was nearly beaten to death by fans in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium in 2011. Since the organization’s inception, they’ve raised over $200,000 for Stow’s recovery.
This is Flannery’s story. A Chapman alumnus. A baseball lifer. A musician who’s released 14 records. An activist for social change. A family man. A planter of fruit trees and a chopper of wood. He’s lived in many different ways, yet sees them all as interconnected, as pieces of his own individual puzzle of life.
“I play every gig like it’s my last. I coached every game like it was my last,” Flannery said. “Because when you lose friends along the way, you realize there are no guarantees. You’d better enjoy the moment and you better suck the life out of it.”