For the past 30 years, San Francisco Giants third-base coach Tim Flannery has spent off-seasons singing and playing bluegrass in clubs and dive bars, occasionally with greats like Dwight Yoakam, Willie Nelson, and Jackson Browne. But his shows, including a recent night at a small jazz bar in Santa Cruz, have taken on new meaning since Flannery started playing on behalf of Bryan Stow, a 44-year-old paramedic and Giants fan who got beaten so badly at a 2011 Giants-Dodgers game that he spent months in a coma and suffered life-changing brain damage.
"It's awesome, all you showing up tonight, bringing checks and money and support," Flannery tells the crowd. "All we bring is the music. And to have all you people help out and not forget..." He shakes his head, plainly moved. "Because you have to continue to love harder. You have to shine the light on it."
That's one way to describe what Flannery has been doing for the past two and a half years, raising $140,000 for Stow's medical expenses and making sure nobody forgets that Stow still needs help and the Dodgers organization isn't providing any. Flannery plays original songs written in dugouts and on tour buses and at the surf-shack cabin he owns near Santa Barbara. His father was an evangelical preacher from Kentucky, but Flannery grew up in Anaheim and played for the San Diego Padres. His songs, about Appalachian ancestors and life on the road, baseball buddies and marriage, reflect Flannery's mixed background, with a blend of old-time bluegrass-gospel and what he calls "that whole cosmic California sound" of the 1960s and '70s – Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Eagles, and the Byrds.
At least half the charm of a Tim Flannery show comes from the banter between numbers. He jokes about hitting only nine home runs in his 11-year major-league playing career, and tells an apocryphal story about how he once broke four bats in a single 0-4 night against Nolan Ryan – holding up a four-legged stool and claiming it was made from the splintered remnants of all those bats. Flannery tells more-personal stories, too, like his bringing his dying father a piece of coal from the Kentucky mines so he could touch it to his tongue and taste his childhood. During the Santa Cruz show, Flannery says he'd held on to that black chunk after his father's death, found himself licking it with fear during the Giants' do-or-die playoff game against the Reds, in 2012. But then Sergio Romo threw the pitch that won the game and, Flannery says, "everybody ran onto the field, and we're all jumping up and down, and Zito goes, 'Hey, Flannery, what the hell's that black stuff all over your face?'"Few know exactly what happened at Dodger Stadium back in 2011, but an L.A. tough guy named Louie Sanchez, with past criminal convictions for domestic violence and firearms violations, stands accused of sucker punching Stow so hard in the dark parking lot that he dropped unconscious to the ground. Stow's paramedic buddies saw, and heard, Stow's skull bouncing off the asphalt. They tried to shield him, but Sanchez and his accomplice, Marvin Norwood, allegedly kicked Stow in the head so many times that it fractured his skull and caused significant brain damage.
"We heard something in the clubhouse about what had happened," Flannery tells me. "We just knew that one of our fans had been jumped and beaten down and might not live, and it made me sick. This guy's a father and a brother and a son." Once Stow emerged from a coma and began rehab, Flannery and his wife paid him a visit, where they met Stow's parents and siblings. (He is divorced.) It struck Flannery that all their lives had changed. Stow was going to need intensive nursing for the rest of his life.
"I was a full-time caregiver for my dad at the end," Flannery says. "He died with a straitjacket on. It was violent. Caregivers get beat up."
The Stow family has sued the Dodgers for negligence, claiming the team provided inadequate security, but the lawsuit is still pending, even as the estimate for Stow's lifetime medical expenses hits $50 million. (Sanchez and Norwood have pleaded not guilty.) Stow's health insurance company has cut off payments for live-in rehab, forcing his parents to care for him at home.
The idea for a benefit concert – a way to get at least some trickle of money to the Stows – came from the artistic director of Yoshi's, a San Francisco nightclub. Flannery agreed, pulling together the backup combo Lunatic Fringe, which includes country musicians like Jeff Berkley, who recalls watching Flannery and the Padres as a kid: "He played a lot like a Pete Rose, threw everything he had at the game, but then I heard his music and I was like, 'Did you write that?' Everybody's always going to know Flan as a baseball player first – but I didn't know he'd be such an awesome songwriter."
That original benefit was a big success, prompting several Giants players, including Barry Bonds, Tim Lincecum, and Barry Zito, to write generous checks. "I wasn't surprised that Flan was doing something selfless," Zito says. "If you know him, you can sense that he cares about giving back."
Bob Weir, of the Grateful Dead, had the same reaction, offering to play with Flannery in a second benefit concert. By the time Flannery headed off to spring training that year, he'd raised a combined $70,000. The Giants' 2012 season was one for the ages, of course, with a record six elimination-game wins on their way to a World Series victory. Then Flannery pulled his band together yet again, like he always does, putting two more benefits on the calendar, to raise yet another $70,000.
"Last week we got to give Bryan's mom the check," Flannery tells me in a phone call from Arizona, where he'd gone for spring training. "I just got an e-mail, and what she wrote blows my mind. They've got nothing, and it helped her buy a van. I'm just hoping to shine a little light on the ignorance of the act."