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Grand old gamer

Resilient Timlin is closing in on 1,000 appearances

NEW YORK -- This was the lead-up to the first of the 16,914 pitches Mike Timlin has thrown in the big leagues, which doesn't count the thousands he has thrown warming up in the bullpen, the thousands he threw in the minor leagues, the thousands he has thrown in spring training, the thousands he has thrown on winter days spent preparing for the next season in a string of seasons that has yet to come to an end.

Timlin was sitting down the end of the bench in the Blue Jays' bullpen, in a place that was called SkyDome in 1991.

"I think the fans started to do the wave," Timlin said. "I was sucking it all in, thinking, 'Wow, there are 50,000 people watching this game.' I couldn't believe it. Then the phone rang. I thought, 'It's not for me.' "

John Sullivan was the bullpen coach who answered the phone.

"All of a sudden," said Timlin, "it was 'Mike Timlin, let's go.'

"I was nervous. I couldn't feel my legs. I can't remember the first guy I faced [it was Tom Brunansky]. I walked him. The next guy was Carlos Quintana. He grounded out."

That was April 8, 1991. Timlin was a 25-year-old rookie for the Toronto Blue Jays, 6-2 losers at home to the Red Sox that day. Roger Clemens was the winning pitcher. In the account of the game published by the Toronto Star, there was one mention of Timlin, in the very last lines of type: "Rookie Mike Timlin, in his major league debut, worked the final 1 1/3 innings. He didn't give up a hit, but walked two batters."

Sometime this week, perhaps here in New York, 41-year-old Mike Timlin will pitch in the 1,000th game of his major league career, becoming just one of 13 big leaguers to reach that threshold. He has 998 appearances. If he pitches tonight, it's possible that No. 1,000 will come tomorrow, when Clemens is scheduled to start for the Yankees.

Timlin has pitched for six different teams to 32 different catchers in 41 different ballparks, in a career in which he has gone from Abbott (Jeff) to Zupcic (Bob) in the 4,806 times a hitter has settled into the batter's box against him.

"How many ballparks have I played in?" he repeated, with a laugh. "How many are there?"

He has faced nine Hall of Famers, one of whom, Paul Molitor, he offered an apology the first time he faced him.

"I threw a sinker, he hit a ground ball back to me," Timlin said. "He went three steps down the line and went, 'Awwww.' I went, 'Sorry.' I threw the ball to first and I apologized. I remember that."

Timlin will become one of four active players with 1,000 appearances, joining Mike Stanton, Jose Mesa, and Roberto Hernandez. He probably won't catch the all-time leader, Jesse Orosco, who pitched until he was 46 and made 1,252 appearances.

"I've been fortunate to be around Stanton and Orosco," said Gary Tuck, the Sox bullpen coach. "Those guys and Mike are mental giants to me. Think of the number of balls Mike has thrown, the stress on his shoulder, his elbow, his body, year after year. That shows you how tough he is, how big his heart is.

"He's had shoulder woes this year, but he's battled through them, because he knows he can flat-out still get people out, not just with his head, but his stuff. His stuff is good."

Timlin and Orosco were teammates in 1999 with the Orioles. In his rookie season, Timlin was teammates with Kenny Williams, now the general manager of the White Sox. Another teammate was Al Leiter, now in the broadcast booth for the Yankees. He has had 497 teammates in all, according to baseball-reference.com, from Dave Parker, who was 40 when Timlin was a rookie, to Clay Buchholz, the 23-year-old Sox prospect who was 2 1/2 years old in 1987, when Timlin made his professional debut in Medicine Hat, Alberta, after being drafted on the fifth round by the Blue Jays.

"Homesick?" said Timlin, who was a long way from Midland, Texas. "It wasn't that hard. My grandfather, Jake -- I called him Granddad -- said I could call his house collect any time I needed to call home. We flew to Calgary, and drove three hours to Medicine Hat, and it wasn't much different from West Texas. Wheat fields. Flat. Farm country. Not a whole lot different from West Texas."

Mo Vaughn is one of just three players who has hit as many as three home runs against Timlin, who has yet to face Prince Fielder, the National League home run leader, but gave up one to Fielder's daddy, Cecil, who hit one into the fifth deck in SkyDome.

Timlin pitched to Carlton Fisk, who was a Rookie of the Year -- in 1972. He is teammates with three guys who could be Rookie of the Year in 2007: Daisuke Matsuzaka, who starts tonight, Dustin Pedroia, and fellow reliever Hideki Okajima. He has been on the same side as Pedro Martínez, Randy Johnson, and Alex Rodriguez. He has pitched against them, too.

He had elbow surgery in his first season and was shut down with a strained oblique muscle and shoulder tendinitis this season. He has had bone chips removed from the elbow, an eardrum punctured by a Q-tip, a torn abdominal muscle, torn cartilage in his knee. Healthwise, he's been pretty lucky, all things considered.

"Injuries happen as you get older," Tim Wakefield said, "but I knew he had guts enough to go through rehab, get better, get healthy, and help us win games."

He won't get there this season, but when Timlin came to the Red Sox at age 37 in 2003, he began a run of four consecutive seasons with 65 or more appearances, including a league-leading (and club-record) 81 in 2005, when he was 39.

He's no longer the team's primary setup man, a role passed to Okajima and now Eric Gagné, but no one can accuse him of just hanging on, either. In his last 21 appearances, spanning 27 1/3 innings, he has been scored upon just once, allowing two earned runs, for an ERA of 0.66 in that span.

But with the Sox unlikely to pick up the option on his contract next season, he potentially will be replaced in the Sox' bullpen scheme by Manny Delcarmen, which hasn't stopped Timlin from helping Delcarmen in whatever way he can.

"He's the mark of a professional to me," Sox reliever Kyle Snyder said. "He still takes his job extremely seriously. He takes a lot of pride in what he does. He's very strict in his routine. His preparation is as good as anyone I've ever been around, and that's probably been molded over the years.

"He's the true glue in the bullpen. He's our leader, and a man of faith who's not afraid to talk about it. He assumes the responsibility of bridging the gaps between guys, teaching him about their roles. He knows that that's part of what he can give back."

Timlin wants 1,000 appearances on the back of his baseball card, but he wants more. "I want to pitch next season, too," he said. "I don't know if it will be here."

Wakefield is also 41 years old, and broke into the big leagues a year after Timlin did. He's closer to Timlin than anyone on the team.

"I think the man himself is far more important than his accomplishments on the field," Wakefield said. "A great teammate, a great father, a great husband, a great friend. He's just a guy, we hit it off from jump street. We both shared the same passion, the same hobbies -- we both like to hunt -- we both had the same kind of character."

The 6-foot-4-inch Texan is not a complicated man, Wakefield said, but there is more there than you might suspect.

"He wears his heart on his sleeve," Wakefield said. "He may not show it to everyone else, but deep down, he's very emotional."

Sometime this week, some of that emotion may leak out of Mike Timlin. But his mates in the bullpen will be there to pick him up.

"A thousand games, that's an incredible career benchmark for longevity and consistency," Snyder said, "but Mike is a very humble, quiet type leader. I look up to him as much as anyone I've ever played with.

"All of us will be very happy when he gets to 1,000, that we had opportunity to play with him."

Pop-up GRAPHIC: Timlin's tidbits

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