If Madison Bumgarner didn’t exist, someone would have to invent him.
Trouble is, no one would believe it if they did, because Bumgarner’s rise to baseball stardom and celebrity seems more folk tale than unembellished biography.
In fact, Bumgarner himself is more folk hero than sports idol.
Sure, he can throw a baseball with the kind of velocity and deceptive geometry that makes him an elite-level Major League pitcher. But he also does it with a unique quirkiness and self-assurance. And for sheer scale, the folk hero quality suits him.
He’s a big man – 6-foot-5, 250 pounds – who does big things in big moments.
Consider the first time he commanded a national audience. In Game 4 of the 2010 World Series, Bumgarner – a 20 year old rookie – threw eight shutout innings, allowed only three hits, and gave his San Francisco Giants a commanding 3-1 World Series lead.
But that probably doesn’t provide the full flavor of how impressive it was for someone with so little pro experience to own that big a moment when it should have swallowed him whole and spit out the bones.
Put another way – in action movie terms – Bumgarner stuffed the big, bad Texas Rangers into a dark room, locked the door, and kicked the keys down the hallway. Without breaking a sweat. And whistling the James Bond theme as he walked away.
World meet Mr. Bumgarner.
It gets better, though.
Almost four years to the day after he throttled the Texas Rangers in the World Series, Bumgarner stepped back into the spotlight and did something even more remarkable.
In the 2014 playoffs, the Kansas City Royals were the hottest team in baseball – downright incendiary. They beat Oakland in the Wild Card game and then swept the Angels and Orioles out the door in consecutive series. And they did it with a certain ruthless efficiency.
The Royals got on base and then stole them. In fact, Kansas City stole so much and so often that the ploy gave them a huge advantage, both strategically and emotionally. All of that running was a psychological wrecking ball to the opposition, kind of like a cat burglar who keeps getting into the house no matter what kind of security system is put up.
In the Wild Card game against the A’s alone, Kansas City stole seven bases. Seven. That’s 630 feet – over two football fields – worth of pilfered ground in the span of a single game.
The Royals also won with great defense – particularly in the outfield – and a bulletproof bullpen. So, the scarcity of runs to be had against Kansas City made all of those stolen bases the Royals took even more maddening, especially when they were cashed in for runs on otherwise harmless fly balls and grounders.
As it turned out, though, the Royals’ post season formula for winning had a fatal flaw. It didn’t work if they didn’t score any runs.
Kansas City meet Mr. Bumgarner.
In the four years since he shut down the Rangers in the 2010 World Series, Bumgarner refined his already impressive pitching skills. In 2014, he had career highs in wins, innings pitched, and strikeouts. He’d also been selected to his second straight All-Star team.
There had been no let down after his outstanding World Series splash as a rookie. If anything, the wakes he was creating just kept getting larger and larger.
So, when the irresistible force of the momentum-fueled Royals met immovable Madison Bumgarner to open the 2014 World Series, irresistible yielded. Bumgarner gave up only three hits in seven innings, halting Kansas City’s lethal running game because, of all the bases to be stolen, first isn’t one of them. The Giants won convincingly, 7-1.
Five days later, Bumgarner was even more immovable, throwing a four-hit shutout with eight strikeouts and no walks. The Giants won again, 5-0.
In his two World Series starts against the Royals, Bumgarner had only allowed eight baserunners and a single run in 16 innings. More importantly, Kansas City had stolen precisely zero bases when he was on the mound. And just like that, Bumgarner had managed to do what the entire American League could not – fold the Royals’ unblemished post season record into an airplane and sailed it into San Francisco Bay.
The problem, from the Giants’ perspective, was that Bumgarner couldn’t start every game in the series. And when he didn’t start, the Royals mostly kicked the daylights out of San Francisco. In the three games the Giants lost – with Bumgarner stored away safely in the dugout – Kansas City outscored them, 20-4. Truly daylight kicking stuff.
When the Royals forced a decisive Game 7 – after clobbering the Giants 10-0 in Game 6 – they knew San Francisco couldn’t start Bumgarner in that big game, either.
Three days earlier, he had thrown 117 pitches during his masterful Game 5 shutout. So, conventional thinking had Bumgarner right back in the San Francisco dugout for the entirety of Game 7, his pitching arm safely holstered.
After all, the modern manual for proper use of a Major League pitching staff clearly draws the line of demarcation for a starting pitcher at 100 pitches per start. Anything over that number requires management to place the affected hurler’s arm on a velvet pillow for five days before he can take the mound again. It’s right there in writing and bold type.
Except, how many folk heroes are conventional, instruction followers?
Given that, Bumgarner not only made himself available to pitch in Game 7, he placed no caveats on the role or length of his participation. With a championship to be won, he knew he was the best chance for San Francisco to win it. And so did the Royals.
However, Bumgarner sat undetonated in the Giants’ bullpen for four innings at the start of Game 7. Everyone knew he was there – his teammates, the Royals, and a stadium full of nervous Kansas City fans – just a wave of his manager’s hand away from entering the game and turning the whole series on its ear. But through the early part of the game, he was more threat than tangible obstacle, like a great, big storm cloud hovering overhead needing only the necessary change in conditions to bring its pent up fury.
In the fifth inning, with the Giants holding a 3-2 lead, those necessary conditions presented themselves. San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy waved his hand toward the bullpen, tapping his left arm, and that was pretty much that.
Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
So, expecting the Royals to somehow figure out how to beat Madison Bumgarner when all he’d done for the past week and a half was punch them in the mouth would have been kind of insane. Most everyone watching the game – and probably a goodly number of those who were playing in it – must have realized it, too.
Of little surprise – except to the Einstein-defined insane – Bumgarner just kept doing what he’d been doing to the Kansas City lineup. He shut them out for an inning, then two, and three. By the time he had recorded his fourth scoreless inning, he’d somehow squeezed more than 50 pitches out his arm – which were 50 more pitches than any modern baseball god-fearing soul had a right to expect.
The real question was whether or not he could keep it going for one more inning to close the game out. Any chance the Royals had to come back and win in the ninth stemmed mostly on how many more pitches Bumgarner had left.
That number, it turned out, was 16. Unfortunately for Kansas City, that was also precisely the number of pitches it took for Bumgarner to retire the last four hitters of the game. That number also included a play that nearly wrecked his heroic evening.
With two outs, Kansas City’s Alex Gordon hit a lazy, looping drive into shallow center field. However, San Francisco outfielders Gregor Blanco and Juan Perez misplayed the ball so badly – even kicking it across the warning track at one point – that Gordon motored all the way to third base.
With the tying run at third – and was only there because Blanco and Perez had decided to step on banana peels at the worst possible time – Bumgarner calmly got the next hitter to hit a harmless infield popup to seal the win.
When Bumgarner was named Most Valuable Player of the series, it was probably the least suspenseful announcement in the history of the award. He’d commandeered the entire championship competition, single-handedly shaping the outcome like few others ever had, from the opening game to the very last pitch.
It was, in fact, a king making moment – the kind that only happens after total victory with the whole world watching. However, a funny thing happened in that moment.
And maybe this gets directly to the heart of his folk hero quality. He did something truly magnanimous when he didn’t need to, and he did it mostly on his personal instinct to be gracious in success.
With everyone expecting him to take a well-deserved bow and revel in all of the singular adulation, Bumgarner deflected the praise. Instead, he thanked his teammates.
“I couldn’t be happier for my teammates. There were a lot of guys that couldn’t deserve it anymore (than) they do. Like I said, I’m thankful for them and (it’s) truly an honor to be part of this team and organization.”
Even though he’d been the one who kicked in every single door that needed kicking to win a championship, he couldn’t bring himself to take appropriate credit for it. So, he thanked his team – thanked them for essentially allowing him the opportunity to save them.
But if anyone thought that seemingly misplaced gratitude was false humility, they really don’t understand what Madison Bumgarner is all about.
He can be a lot of things, a jumbled bag of dichotomy at times, but entirely genuine in his expression. Maybe growing up in tiny Lenoir, North Carolina – a place where humility and honest intentions are part of the local harvest – had a lot to do with that. He says what he means and believes in what he does.
So, thanking others for something he had accomplished wasn’t a dodge. It was part of his truth.
However, the truth about Bumgarner is sometimes edgy and sophomoric and curious, too.
While he’s been a humble champion, he can also be brazenly cantankerous in competition. On several occasions, he has stepped off the mound, loudly challenging opposing players whom he felt disrespected by.
The most famous iteration of this happened in 2014, when Los Angeles outfielder Yasiel Puig flipped his bat after hitting an enormous home run off of Bumgarner. Before Puig reached home, Bumgarner confronted him halfway down the third base line and yelled at the outfielder for his showmanship.
A year later, he had three separate altercations with players who had thrown their bats in anger after failing to get hits against him.
Like any self-respecting Carolina farmer, Bumgarner would never back down from a fight, even if he’s the one who starts it.
However, it is strange that someone known for his calmness during high-pressure playoff baseball also has a reputation for anger issues during less intense regular season games.
Yet, it is easy to forget that for all Bumgarner has accomplished in his big league career he is still a very young man. When he confronted Yasiel Puig in May of 2014, Bumgarner was still 24 years old. Later that season, after the Giants won the National League pennant, he decided to celebrate the moment like any good twenty-something would. He picked up five beers and chugged them all at once.
After all, big men do big things in big moments.
For someone who mostly tries to deflect attention while in the spotlight, it is curious how much of a knack he has for creating spectacle.
He’s a pitcher who people want to see compete in the All-Star Home Run Derby. When he hits, he swings as hard as he possibly can, like he’s channeling his inner Ted Kluszewski.
And it’s working, because he’s hit the most home runs by a pitcher since 2014 – nine – including two off of Dodger lefty Clayton Kershaw, widely considered the best pitcher in the big leagues.
During batting practice before a game in St. Louis this season, Bumgarner hit a ball that reached the highest deck in left field, traveling over 450 feet.
On the mound, he routinely blows his nose directly on to the ground. These blasts, affectionately referred to as “snot rockets” by Giants fans, have become so commonplace that they almost look like part of Bumgarner’s pitch routine.
Other quirky details about San Francisco’s reluctant pitching hero include his request to ride a horse in the victory parade after the 2014 World Series, the team’s refusal on the parade request but allowing him to ride a horse into the ballpark for the following Opening Day, and his purchase of cattle as a birthday gift to his wife in 2011.
He’s part rural pragmatist – with little patience for egocentric nonsense – part frat boy, part Southern gentleman, and part Bunyanesque sports hero with a healthy dose of humility. He hits tape measure home runs and baffles hitters with a lethal pitching repertoire. He’s a devoutly loyal teammate and post season badass who’s never been defeated in the World Series.
He’s also a devoted husband, with a penchant for unpretentious gifts, and mindful of his hometown roots. He does commercials for Ford, because he drives a Ford pickup truck. After being named Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsman of the Year” in 2014, he had to buy a suit to attend the ceremony, marking not only the first suit he had ever purchased but also the first time he’d ever worn one.
Bumgarner is all of these things – all rolled up in one person.
So, the next time he does something that draws widespread attention, take a good look. Otherwise, you might not believe it. That’s how folk heroes work.
And Madison Bumgarner is most certainly one of those, too.