From the moment you lay your eyes on him, the man stands out. Exceptional. He stands 6-5 and weighs 235. Left-handed, fastball, slider, cutter slinger where the ball appears as though it's coming from first base itself. But this optical illusion is the only thing that's remotely tricky about Bumgarner.
Maddy, as they called him, grew up in North Carolina not far from "Bumtown". He started playing baseball when he was four years old. His father wouldn't let him throw a curveball until he had his driver's license. We call him MadBum because that moniker fits him perfectly. He pitches mad but he also does things one might consider to be mad, like buy his wife a cow as a birthday gift or not own a suit until he has to attend the Sportsman of the Year ceremony (this might also make the bum part of the name more fun-spirited). And then there's the shouting and the fist pumps and the shaggy hair and beard. Yeah, okay, maybe that's why he's called MadBum.
But he wanted to quit baseball shortly after being drafted because he missed his home and family. Giants management publicly criticized him in 2010 for being emotionally affected by the death of his half sister (sure, the official line is that he reported to camp out of shape and with poor fastball velocity) and perhaps this challenge to his ability was enough to convince him to recommit to the sport. Or perhaps this call to action was a reminder that playing to the top of his natural talents and hard work in the game of baseball could secure a strong future for his family.
His ragged appearance makes it seem like every season somebody from the Giants has to travel out to his farm to convince him to come back to pitch again. "I don't do that anymore," he'll say as he chops wood. "But we need you," Bobby Evans or Bruce Bochy will plead. "Well, okay," Bumgarner will sigh in response. And that's the thing -- Madison Bumgarner doesn't lust for the spotlight and doesn't scramble for every dollar he can squeeze out of the market.
He's the straight-shooting, plainspoken, humble athlete off the field that America adores, or rather, has been told told love. But his straightforward manner isn't an act. This ax-wielding, cattle-roping, pinch-hitting farmer/pitcher has an authenticity that verges on parody, but it's our familiarity with the trope of the tough southerner who just wants to blow it by his opponent and then go back to his farm and be left lone that helps us recognize the genuine article that is Madison Bumgarner.
He's never won a Cy Young award and has yet to be considered one of the two or three best pitchers in Major League Baseball but his postseason exploits are what have elevated him into the national conversation. And it wasn't until Tom Verducci's feature article for Sports Illustrated's 2014 Sportsman of the Year where Madison Bumgarner made the jump to mythic status.
- He comes from a county of Bumgarners. He once dated a woman named Madison Bumgarner. He is certain they're not related, but anytime you live in a situation akin to Blazing Saddles' Rock Ridge, you really can never know.
- He practiced cattle roping during rookie instructional league on a statue of a bull outside of an Arizona mall.
- He chopped up a snake and inside he found a live jack rabbit. He and his wife Ali nursed it back to health.
If you've followed the Giants at all, then you're well-versed in all of that offseason myth-making. It's what happened on the field in 2015 that took The Myth of Madison Bumgarner to the next level, almost like a second volume of Tall Tales:
- He homered off of Clayton Kershaw.
- He once pinch hit against 101 mph-throwing Aroldis Chapman.
- He had a career-best season the season after he helped win the World Series for his team and threw more pitches and innings than he's ever thrown before.
He strikes fears into opposing pitchers as much as he does opposing hitters. He earned a Silver Slugger Award this season after going 19-for-77 with 2 doubles and 5 home runs. Really, though, his 2014 was even betterHe has 11 career home runs, including 9 in the past two seasons, and only 4 home runs away from surpassing Babe Ruth's career HR total (as a pitcher), he relishes every chance he gets to swing the bat and by virtue of this greatness, every single instant that Madison Bumgarner is on a baseball field demands our attention.
He is the greatest pitcher in World Series history (0.25 ERA in 36 innings pitched). His 2014 postseason run (1.03 ERA in 52.2 IP, including a 10 strikeout shutout of the Pirates in the Wild Card Game) was so incredibly dominant that it created a national media frenzy to figure out "who will be this year's Madison Bumgarner?" Once the same people who said "What Madison Bumgarner did will never be duplicated" start saying "Who will be this year's Madison Bumgarner?" then you know you've truly arrived as one of the greats. Every playoff team embraced the idea of using their starter in a long relief role to lock down a victory, even though none of those pitchers were Madison Bumgarner.
The history of Giants pitching features impossibly great arms. Christy Mathewson. Juan Marichal. Carl Hubbell. Tim Lincecum. Madison Bumgarner has already risen to that level of notoriety.
Adored by the nation, adored by us, even adored by his teammates...
The Giants tend not to deify their own while they're still on the active roster. In fact, outside of Willie Mays, there are few San Francisco Giants who are publicly praised to the extent that they become the story. There are few Giants who have been as beloved inside the clubhouse as they are outside of it. There are few Giants who have been and will continue to be at least three times' greater in performance than their salary. There are none like Madison Bumgarner.
On a team with Buster Posey and Hunter Pence, Larry Baer, and incredible run of success that's netted the organization three world championships in six years, Madison Bumgarner stands tall as the ultimate Giant.
Rating: (5 out of 5 Snot Rockets)