When the president of the United States turned to Mike Timlin on the White House lawn earlier this month and said it was nice to see someone from Midland, Texas, finally make something of himself, he only knew the part of the story that took place in a baseball uniform.
He couldn't have known about the little boy whose daddy walked out on him before he was born, like a verse in some old Jerry Jeff Walker song, and who had a mother who worked at Exxon and was bound and determined that her only son and his three older sisters would not want, not if she and the Lord she taught her children to believe in had anything to do with it.
"My father was a truck driver," Timlin said. "He drove through Midland one day and called my mom, said he wanted to see me.
"The first time I ever saw my dad, it was outside of a truck stop. I was 11 or 12, maybe a little younger. I can still smell the diner, sitting at the truck stop. If I'm driving down the street and I go to a jet stop on the way to Clearwater, I can still feel that.
"I guess I had no interest. It was a protective meeting. I guarded my mind at the time. If he didn't really care to know me, then I didn't really care to know him. Nothing more really transpired."
He saw his father again when he was in college. Like his son, the father was tall -- maybe a couple of inches shorter than his 6-foot-4-inch son -- but with a similar build. Then, a couple of years ago, when the Red Sox were in Texas, a clubhouse kid told Timlin that his dad was waiting outside. Timlin, who had gone to Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, thought it was his college coach. That's what they had all called him, Dad.
Instead, he saw his father.
"It was him and his two boys," Timlin said. "I said, `Whoa.' I was cordial. I felt that I did what God would require me to do -- be nice. I didn't want to embarrass him in front of his children. I took care of what I had to take care of, and said, `Gotta go.' "
Funny how far faith, a mother's love, and a survivor's instinct can take a man. The White House? Hey, that was a great day, don't misunderstand. Timlin couldn't have stood much taller than he did that afternoon, when George W. Bush saluted a fellow Texan. But if you really want to take the measure of the man, beyond the fact that this is his 15th year in the big leagues and he has pitched for a half-dozen teams and has three World Series rings and has appeared in more games than all but 26 pitchers in big-league history, you'd do well to recall what Red Sox manager Terry Francona said earlier this spring.
"I know Foulkey's our closer," Francona said, referring to Keith Foulke, "but this has been Timlin's bullpen. He kind of leads that bullpen. He'll take the ball any day you give it to him, even when he shouldn't. You have to be careful of that, but it's also a real compliment for a guy when I say that."
Timlin heard about what Francona said.
"I'm not sure what he meant by that," Timlin said. "I walked up to him one day and said, `I appreciate you saying that.' He said, `What did I say?' I told him, and he said, `That's what it is.' "
They have a name for Timlin in the Sox bullpen. They call him "Captain," not in a formal, Jason Varitek sort of way, maybe even with a touch of old-goat teasing in there, but also because he's as steady as they come.
"I think guys respect Mike for what he's done," said Matt Mantei, a newcomer to the Sox pen. "He's been around a long time, and he's a hard worker. He takes charge. He tries to watch me throw every time I throw a bullpen, and tries to help out as much as he can. He's a guy who knows what he's doing, knows what he's talking about."
For a pitcher who works in roughly half the games the Sox play in a given season -- 72 in 2003, his first season in Boston, and a career-high 76 last year -- Timlin doesn't draw that much attention to himself, beyond the odd T-shirt controversy (baseball's fashion police objected to him wearing camouflage under his uniform jersey) and the rare cap inspection (Yankees manager Joe Torre had him inspected during the 2003 playoffs, to see if he might be doctoring the ball, a bit of gamesmanship that failed miserably).
Chances are, even the most ardent of Sox fans probably don't know that long before Doug Mientkiewicz stirred a fuss this winter, Timlin went out of his way to capture the last ball of the 1992 World Series. He was just 26 then, and had missed most of his second season in the big leagues because of elbow surgery, but was on the mound for the last out of the '92 Series, when Otis Nixon tried to surprise the Blue Jays with a bunt. Timlin, who had been told by just about everyone in a Toronto uniform to watch out for the bunt, fielded the ball cleanly, flipped it to Joe Carter, who was playing first base, then watched as Carter disappeared in a pile of joyous teammates.
"I remember walking off," Timlin said. "They got it on the World Series tape. We're right in front of the dugout, I grabbed Joe by the shoulder, and told him, `Dude, I need that ball.' I had three saves in the big leagues at that time.
"I have it at home, in a fish tank. All six World Series tickets for my wife, my jersey, my spikes, my hat, my glove, and the ball inside the glove, in the fish tank."
Did he have it inscribed?
"It just sits there," he said. "I know what it means."
Timlin comes into this season with 812 appearances. That ranks him fourth among active pitchers and 27th all time. He just passed Nolan Ryan and Walter Johnson, and if he appears in another 70 games this season, like he has done in each of the last three years, he'll climb another nine spots on the list. He's weathered some rocky times. He saved 31 games for Toronto in 1996, then lost Cito Gaston's confidence and was traded the next summer to Seattle, on the same day that the Sox shipped Heathcliff Slocumb to the Mariners for Varitek and Derek Lowe. Mariners fans, upset that promising outfielder Jose Cruz Jr. was dealt for Timlin, hated the deal from the get-go, especially when Timlin stumbled and didn't pitch well until the second half of the following season, when he saved 18 of his last 19 opportunities.
He signed a fat free agent contract with the Orioles that winter, but flamed out as closer again, and wound up being traded to the Cardinals the next summer. He thrived in the setup role for the next two years in St. Louis before he was part of another big deal, the one in which the Phillies surrendered and gave up Scott Rolen, before coming to the Red Sox.
"They said he had no guts in Baltimore," a veteran major league scout said here yesterday. "Nobody in Boston says that, do they?"
Not in Timlin's bullpen, they don't. Not in the presence of a man who three years ago buried his mother, Sharon, who succumbed to Lou Gehrig's disease (ALS) at age 60. Timlin arrived back home an hour after she died. Last summer, his wife, Dawn, ran a marathon for ALS, in memory of Sharon Timlin.
Survivor? The kid who can still smell that truck stop always figured he was good for the long haul.
"It's nice to be recognized for that," Timlin said of his longevity. "But that's just God working, trying to get me out there. That's all that is."