The Tall Tale of Madison Bumgarner

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.

2010 WS

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.

Royal Steal

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.

Bum 2014WS

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.

World Series Giants Royals Baseball

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.

End Game7

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.”

Press Conference

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.

Division Series - Washington Nationals v San Francisco Giants - Game Four

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.

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.






Big Enough

For weeks, Sergio Romo told anyone who would listen that he wasn’t sure if he was big enough for the moment.

Turns out, the moment wasn’t nearly big enough for him.

With the 2012 World Series on the line, the exuberant, eyelash of a relief pitcher for the San Francisco Giants needed one more strike to bring a championship title to his team. However, he needed to push that final pitch past the most intimidating hitter on the planet, Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera – the first player in 45 years to win a Triple Crown.

After teasing Cabrera with a procession of sliders bending like elbows of macaroni, Romo summoned his resolve – and all 170 pounds of his lean body mass – and threw a fastball on the inner half of the plate. It was a pitch that barreled into the most dangerous part of a right-handed power hitter’s swing – precisely the kind of pitch an accomplished slugger like Cabrera routinely turned into loud headlines.

Under the circumstances, though, it may have been the last thing in the world Cabrera expected to see from his whipcord-thin adversary. So, Romo threw it – threw it with the cool of a safecracker and the conviction of a drill sergeant.

The most vulnerable pitch in the game went directly into the teeth of the most dangerous swing in the sport…and went completely untouched. Cabrera’s bat never moved – as if rusted to his beefy shoulder – and Romo’s iron nerves were rewarded with a happy mob of teammates racing each other to reach their self-effacing savior.

In the end, the moments – and there were plenty of them during an inexplicably magical season – were never too big for any of them. The 2012 San Francisco Giants answered every critic, cleared every hurdle, and conquered every doubt on their way to a second World Series triumph in three years. And they did so with the kind of unshakeable resolve and affable unity representing the truest qualities of the team concept.

A Major League roster contains twenty-five players, and the Giants used every last one of them to find ways to win often enough and timely enough to push past every other team in the sport. Each player left a distinct set of fingerprints on the championship season – twenty-five pairs of hands helping to lift the World Series trophy and carry it back to San Francisco.

And they came from everywhere, landing on the Giants’ roster as if carried by a serendipitous tide.

They came from Dotham, Alabama – like Matt Cain, the sturdy starting pitcher who opened the All-Star Game less than a month after throwing the first perfect game in franchise history. In the playoffs, the Giants relied on him to propel them forward in the deciding game of each round, which he did dutifully and doggedly, somehow squashing the pressure of the moment to answer the call every time.

They came from San Felipe, Venezuela – like Marco Scutaro, who started the year with the Colorado Rockies, his fifth team in eleven big league seasons, and drifted to the Giants at the trade deadline in a deal that barely registered amidst higher profile swaps. But the veteran second baseman wasted little time in being noticed. For a player who spent his entire career doing everything well but nothing great, Scutaro was spectacular from the moment he put on a San Francisco uniform. In 61 games with the Giants, he hit .362. And he carried his torrid hitting into the playoffs, peppering St. Louis with 14 hits over seven games of the National League Championship Series – a journeyman who finally found purpose in the journey.

They also came from nearby Carabobo, Venezuela – like Pablo Sandoval, San Francisco’s cherubic third baseman, whose unlikely agility earned him the affectionate nickname, “King Fu Panda.” Moreover, Sandoval’s endearing naiveté and buoyant personality brought smiles to fans and teammates all season.

But he was more than just a source of cheerfulness. His slashing, unpredictable approach at the plate produced moments of wonder – none bigger than the three thunderous home runs he hit in the opening game of the World Series en route to being named MVP of the Fall Classic.

They came from Atglen, Pennsylvania – llike Ryan Vogelsong, who pitched across three continents and through major arm surgery to get one last shot in the big leagues. At 35, he didn’t waste it, either. Starting three of the biggest games of his life for the Giants in the playoffs, Vogelsong was superb in each. And San Francisco won them all – in Cincinnati with elimination looming, in San Francisco against the Cardinals with the season again on the line, and in Detroit with a title inching closer. Through it all, Vogelsong allowed just three runs in over 24 innings of work.

They came from Leesburg, Georgia – like Buster Posey, the team’s phenomenal young catcher who missed nearly all of the 2011 season with a horrific ankle injury but came thundering back with a likely MVP year in 2012. Despite having less than three years of big league experience, Posey’s remarkable poise and knowledge of the game commanded respect in the locker room and on the field. Behind the plate, his extraordinary insight into pitch selection earned the unwavering confidence of a pitching staff that excelled when the stakes were greatest. He was also the anchor on offense, the hitter opposing teams justifiably feared the most in the Giants’ lineup. His grand slam off of Mat Latos in the deciding game against Cincinnati provided San Francisco’s final margin of victory in that playoff round and was one of the biggest swings of the bat in the entire postseason.

They came from Las Vegas, Nevada – like Barry Zito, who signed one of baseball’s biggest contracts in 2007 but had delivered a litany of disappointment and misery from the mound ever since. In fact, Zito’s San Francisco legacy deteriorated to such low ebb that his name alone prompted derision and bitterness from fans.

So, when he took the mound against the Cardinals in the league championship series and with the Giants needing to win yet again to stay alive, few believed Zito could save them. But he did. He pitched brilliantly, shutting St. Louis out for almost eight innings – nearly restoring his reputation in one magical night. As if to finish the restoration job, Zito outpitched Detroit’s fire-breathing ace Justin Verlander in Game One of the World Series, an 8-3 San Francisco victory.

They came from Fort Worth, Texas – like Hunter Pence, a gangly but powerful outfielder who, like Marco Scutaro, arrived in San Francisco at the trade deadline. But unlike Scutaro, Pence came to the team with sizeable expectations and initially struggled to meet any of them. Although he did produce enough timely hits to drive in 45 runs in 59 regular season games for the Giants, his true impact came right before a playoff game in Cincinnati. After losing two important games to the Reds, Pence tried to rally his deflated teammates. With evangelical zeal, he implored that “no matter what happens we must not give in. We owe it to each other, play for each other. I need one more day with you guys.” His fiery plea turned out to be the rallying point they needed to push past Cincinnati and keep tomorrows appearing on their postseason calendar all the way through the World Series.

They came from Renton, Washington – like Tim Lincecum, the Giants’ unorthodox star pitcher who parlayed his unusual throwing motion and outstanding ability into consecutive Cy Young awards in 2008 and 2009.

However, in 2012, his remarkable pitching prowess vanished, his struggles magnified by the unexpected nature of the erosion. His velocity dipped, he gave up the most earned runs in the league, and no one could figure out what had gone wrong so quickly. By the time the playoffs rolled around, Lincecum had offered little evidence that his fortunes would improve in the postseason. So, he was sent to the bullpen – baseball Siberia for any starting pitcher, let alone one with his sparkling resume. Rather than complain or sulk, the former trophy-winning starter accepted his demotion as a challenge. Fittingly, he had spent his entire baseball life overcoming them. At 5’11” and 175 pounds, he wasn’t supposed to be a power pitcher. But he was. His unconventional delivery wasn’t supposed to work. But it did. And, now, his postseason banishment to the bullpen was supposed to confirm a slide into mediocrity. But it didn’t. With his shoulder-length hair snapping and his diminutive frame contorting furiously, Lincecum regained his extraordinary pitching form when it mattered most and annihilated hitters in his new role. In 13 postseason innings from the bullpen, he gave up just three hits and struck out 17. Baseball’s biggest rock star was back and had the renewed swagger to prove it.

There were so many key contributors to the Giants’ extraordinary season that the heroics seemed to come in waves, with different players showcasing specific skills just as the team needed them.

Brandon Crawford grew up just a few miles from San Francisco, likely never imagining that he would become the starting shortstop for the team he grew up idolizing. But when he did, his spectacular defense and timely hitting proved to be the necessary anchor for the infield. Pitcher Madison Bumgarner won 16 games – tied with Cain for the team lead – and played with such poise and tenacity that it was easy to forget he had just celebrated his 23rd birthday. Although reliever Jeremy Affeldt recorded so many important outs throughout the year, none were bigger than the five he registered in Game Four of the World Series – cutting right through the heart of Detroit’s fearsome lineup, striking out four of them – including Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. Outfielder Angel Pagan provided much needed speed – leading the team in steals with 29 – at the top of the order and energized the team with his terrific defense and passion for the game.

Collectively, the 2012 Giants came back – again and again and again. In fact, they pulled themselves from the edge of oblivion so many times it defied all baseball logic.

In April, the club lost its flamboyant All-Star closer, Brian Wilson, to a season-ending elbow injury but used the remaining relief pitchers in enough variations to finish games until Sergio Romo claimed the job for good late in the season.

In August, one of the team’s best hitters, outfielder Melky Cabrera, was suspended 50 games for violating Major League Baseball’s rule against performance-enhancing drugs. Rather than explaining what he had done and why he had done it, Cabrera simply fled the scene, leaving his teammates to sort through the betrayal on their own.

The best way to deal with the duplicity, they decided, was to play even better without him. In the 45 regular season games after Cabrera’s suspension, the Giants won 30 of them.

Ten days after Cabrera abandoned the club, the rival Los Angeles Dodgers acquired perennial slugger Adrian Gonzalez from Boston in a stunning trade that most experts believed would propel the Dodgers to the division title.

Instead, San Francisco rallied to increase its hold on first place from two games to eight, clinching the National League West with over a week to spare.

And in the postseason, their restorative powers were taken to an entirely different realm.

In the first round of the playoffs, the Giants lost the first two games of the best-of-five series to Cincinnati at home. The second defeat, a demoralizing 9-0 blowout, seemed an emphatic stamp by the Reds on their way to a dominant series win. After all, Cincinnati needed only to win one more game in the next three opportunities – all in their own ballpark – to eliminate San Francisco. However, Pence preached, Posey slammed, and Cain was able. The Giants won all three elimination games – all on the road, the first time a playoff team survived such a stretch while living out of suitcases.

In the best-of-seven National League Championship Series, the Giants once again lost early ground, dropping three of the first four games to St. Louis. Although San Francisco faced the familiar scenario of having to win three straight to advance, the team at least knew if they could win one more game on the road the final two games would take place at home in front of 45,000 of the loudest fans in the sport. Once Zito pitched his way back into the hearts of San Franciscans everywhere, Vogelsong and Cain made sure it mattered by shutting down the Cardinals in front of packed Bay Area houses.

Perhaps, as fitting punctuation, Scutaro caught the final out off the bat of St. Louis outfielder Matt Holliday, the very same player who – earlier in the series – barreled viciously into him nearly mangling the much smaller infielder’s left knee. Moments before the final clinching catch, Scutaro extended his arms out from his sides as far as they would go and tilted his head back as a sudden downpour drenched the field. Literally and figuratively, he soaked in the moment as an impending National League champion and series MVP.

In the end, the Giants had played six games in less than two weeks facing the immediate end of their season – and had won them all.

In a way, the World Series was anti-climatic. Sandoval’s three-homer haymaker and Romo’s gutsy gamesmanship served as bookends to a lopsided Giants’ sweep over the Detroit Tigers. The team that thrived on tension and adversity all season long encountered little of it in the final series of the year.

Of course, San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy probably welcomed the change – his personality better suited for calm and steady. However, whenever the pressure surged or the amalgam of hardship threatened to swallow the team, it was Bochy who soothed them. His even-tempered nature set the tone in the clubhouse and dugout and out on the field, his deep Southern drawl a soundtrack for thoughtful, committed play.

Behind the placid persona, the Giants’ skipper was relentless in preparing and executing his game strategy. When Wilson was injured, Bochy simply rearranged his bullpen until he found a workable combination, all the while getting his veteran relief pitchers to willingly accept new roles.

After Cabrera vanished and the Dodgers fortified, Bochy motivated his team to rely on each other rather than allow others to push them apart. In the playoffs, he trusted Zito and happily accepted the dividends. In the World Series, he used Gregor Blanco in left field primarily for his defense and watched as Blanco made three spectacular catches in crucial situations.

More to the point, the Giants played relentlessly and confidently amidst near-historic pressure, and the manager of the team deserved a goodly portion of praise for the effort.

Perhaps, few embodied that relentless spirit better than the newly-minted closer Romo. Growing up in Brawley, California – a desolate farming town 20 miles from the Mexican border – the Giants’ undersized bullpen lion probably knew better than most how difficult but rewarding defying the odds could be. After all, he rose all the way to the big leagues as a 28th round draft pick largely relying on one pitch – a knee-buckling, gravity-rebelling slider.

Yet, there he was, staring down big, bad Miguel Cabrera in the World Series and then decided to throw him something other than the pitch responsible for getting him to the majors. That kind of extraordinary belief was an utterly perfect way for San Francisco to crown its title run.

The familiar mantra the team had used to stave off elimination in all of those pressure- packed games was that they wanted one more day together, because they simply weren’t ready to go home.

Well, the 2012 San Francisco Giants finally went home – as World Champions.