Fans tuning-in to Game Seven of the World Series witnessed an astronomical phenomenon as much as a sporting event.
Madison Bumgarner, who won two games, saved the finale, and boasted a .43 earned-run average against the Kansas City Royals, became before America’s eyes a star so blinding that even the bright lights of the big game couldn’t drown out his brilliance.
The 6’5” hurler’s performance harkened back to the era before pitch counts and automatic five-man rotations. More than that, it put the exclamation point on the end of the steroid era. The San Francisco Giants star wasn’t yet born when another Bay Area-hero, Jose Canseco, won the American League MVP award in 1988, ushering in a period when a leadoff hitter knocked 50 dingers and previously nondescript players’ shoe sizes, head circumferences, and teeth mysteriously grew along with their power numbers. Jose, as he later admitted, won awards through steroids. Bumgarner earned his achievements by relying on more ancient performance enhancers: hard work, determination, perseverance.
Bumgarner hails from a town in North Carolina called Hickory, named for a tall tree that’s tough, hard, and resistant to the pressure of the elements. It’s roughly 2,500 miles from San Francisco but exactly a world away. His father built the house in which he grew up. His mother helped build Madison into a grown up in her Father’s house, a local Baptist church. At 20, the pitching phenom, bedecked in jeans, married his high-school sweetheart, a girl he had telegraphed his intentions to by gifting her a cow.
Bumgarner captivated Americans this postseason because he embodied the best in them and demonstrated what one can accomplish by adhering to their work ethic and values. After decades of Bonds, McGwire, Clemens, Sosa, and other cheaters, the humble ace exemplified the no-shortcuts, grinding ethos that made America’s Pastime, and America, great.
And in doing so, the baseball-famous Bumgarner metamorphosized into world famous, a figure that transcends a sport and permeates the consciousness of the casual fan. Before the playoffs, the Giant surely didn’t stand tallest in his division. Dodgers star Clayton Kershaw, compiling a jawdropping 21-3 record and a 1.77 ERA, pitched as the story all season. Even from his own team, the names of two-time Cy Young Award-winner Tim Lincecum, throwing a no-hitter for the second consecutive season in June, and veteran Tim Hudson struck a more familiar sound to the ears of the casual fan. But Octobers, as the leaves of the hickory tree remind us, change everything.
Tim McCarver, who caught Bob Gibson, called the 25-year-old “Gibsonesque.” Jack Morris, World Series workhorse for the Tigers, Twins, and Blue Jays championship teams, labeled the 2014 Fall Classic MVP “my kind of guy.” Curt Schilling, he of bloody sock fame, simply tweeted “best post season performance ever.”
But the most meaningful compliment came from the man who enrolled a four-year-old Madison Bumgarner in a baseball league full of bigger boys. “OMG,” his father texted him before the ninth inning of Game Seven. “You’re so much more than awesome. To see you work on the mound reminds me of watching you in high school. You are willing yourself to perfection and dragging the team along with you. I couldn’t be more proud of your baseball accomplishments.”
The accomplishments were his, not a chemist’s. They were made in Appalachia, tested near the Ozarks, and applauded betwixt and beyond. Their elbow-grease ingredients proved the same stuff that lifted the Wright Brothers, elevated Andrew Carnegie from rags to riches, and pushed Audie Murphy on to new battlefields nursing wounds that would have removed other men from them. It’s an American story, even if Americans periodically forget that’s how we got from there to here, even if baseball forgot that’s how one makes it from the bush leagues to the big leagues.
Baseball lost its way. A grounded guy from Hickory, North Carolina, reoriented the game in the right direction on Wednesday night.