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?'"