Through all his years as a professional baseball player, Tim Flannery had his guitar at his side. From his first minor league stint in Liberal, Kansas, through 10 years as infielder with the San Diego Padres, and another seven years as third-base coach for the San Francisco Giants, Flannery spent many nights on the road playing his guitar deep into the night.
“It kind of just let me breathe,” he says. “The baseball life is a glamorous life from a distance, but there’s a lot of collateral damage that comes with it. The guitar seemed to be my one constant.”
Flannery’s family emigrated to Kentucky in the mid-1700s, and Appalachian music provided a musical education. Flannery’s grandmother was a great banjo player, and the young Flannery picked up singing and playing early. He started writing his own songs on long bus rides with minor league teams.
When asked if he ever considered pursuing music rather than baseball as a career, Flannery talks about his uncle, Hal Smith, a major league infielder who was a home-run hero for the Pittsburgh Pirates in game seven of the 1960 World Series. Uncle Hal, as Flannery calls him, also carried around a Gibson J-45 guitar.
“I never thought there was a choice to make,” he says. “When people would tell me I had to make a choice between baseball and music, I’d tell them, well then, you have to make a choice between water and air. Which one do you want?”
A warm and funny man, and an excellent storyteller, Flannery was a fan favorite in San Diego. During his final game, he received a standing ovation that lasted so long the umpire had to stop play. In San Francisco, he developed a reputation for being the most excitable third-base coach in baseball, jumping and running alongside base runners to guide them to home plate safely.
Flannery was never a star on the field—he only hit nine home runs in his 10 years with the Padres—but his reputation in the majors is sealed. As one announcer said, “If there’s a better third-base coach in baseball, I’d like to see him.”
Flannery’s passion carries through to his music. A singer-songwriter with 14 albums, he writes about love, hard luck, the natural world, friends and joy. His songs fall comfortably into the folk/bluegrass vein, but Flannery’s music isn’t limited to roots styles. He was adopted by the Grateful Dead and has performed several times with Bob Weir, who is among the Bay Area’s rock music royalty.
Flannery has a deep appreciation for the people and music of San Francisco. His 2015 album Three Ring Circus is a love song to the city, and a snapshot of his own journey from pain and struggle to joy and acceptance. The album, which features of photo of Flannery’s three World Series rings on the cover, was released shortly after he retired from the Giants in 2014—something that he knew he needed to do.
“My last year before I left was a tough year for me,” he says. “It was time to come home. I was leaking oil and had an engine smoking. You win three World Series and I’m thinking, what else do I have to do? Can I do something else other than have a game every day?”
Flannery now focuses on music and one of his other great passions, the Love Harder Project, a nonprofit he started to help Bryan Stow, the local Giants fan who was beaten in the Dodger Stadium parking lot in 2011. Flannery and his band donate all proceeds from album sales, performances and merchandise to Stow and his family.
Flannery’s generosity and kindness can be heard in his music, which has a thread of spirituality running through it. The son of a “hillbilly Christian minister,” Flannery views life through the lens of someone who’s seen a lot and come out the other side.
“Someone once told me ‘religion is for people who don’t want to go to hell, and spirituality is for those who already have,’” he says.
For his Santa Cruz performance, Flannery is bringing his band, the Lunatic Fringe, which includes celebrated rock guitarist Doug Pettibone. The band loves coming to Santa Cruz and Flannery tends to stay awhile once he comes to town.
“My wife would say, ‘The gig was Friday and you’re back like a week later,’” he says with a laugh. “I’d say, ‘Yeah, I’ve been at the Crepe Place, I’ve been at the Dream Inn, I’ve been out surfing with Wingnut down at the Point. I’ve got lots of friends there.’”
Tim Flannery will perform at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 30 at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. $25/gen, $40/gold. 423-8209.