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Madbum, Telecat and Me

Well, I called it in July .. sort of. “The Dodgers,” I wrote, “concluded a convincing three game road sweep of the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park last night, and, much like the Giants’ early season 9 1/2 game lead, it doesn’t mean much.” I wasn’t being hopeful so much as I was reflecting on a lifetime of baseball experience; years of learning that this game, like no other, shows that you can win when all odds seem stacked against you and lose when everything appears to be in the bag.

“Just one chip” was the poker analogy being made when the Giants sneaked into the postseason with a one game, do or die wildcard road game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The amended and more accurate version would have been “just one chip plus Madison Bumgarner.” From taking the mound at PNC Park on the first of October to riding down San Francisco’s Market Street atop a flatbed truck for the Giants’ Halloween World Series victory parade, Bumgarner dominated this postseason like no pitcher of this era, and probably like none of any other.

Arguing generational stats in baseball can be a tedious affair with armchair historians and seasoned blowhards reciting rote phrases like “DiMaggio’s 56” and “Ed Ott body-slamming Enos Cabell at second base.” ( OK, OK .. that second one is particular to my personal baseball vocabulary.) There was a lot of grumbling prior to Game Seven of this World Series — following a spectacular outing by Bumgarner, a dismal one by Jake Peavy, and before starting the 39 year-old Tim Hudson — that they should let the big man from Hickory, North Carolina start on two days’ rest. Even I, despite my normally reserved nature, got into it briefly with a fellow using the handle ‘Telecat’ on the SF Chronicle website. “No way do you start Bum,” I argued. “You keep a short leash on Huddy, go to your pen early, and bring him in for three or four in the middle.” ‘Tele’ was somewhat less gracious in his response, dubbing me a ‘moron’ in need of learning my ‘baseball history’ and citing a 1963 duel between Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal where the starting pitchers went all sixteen innings. I wasn’t around in ’63, but I’m fairly certain that the game has changed since then. Even adjusting for inflation, I think Madison Bumgarner’s 2014 arm is worth more dollars than Juan Marichal’s was in 1963. Luckily ‘Tele’ hadn’t stopped there .. he went up and down the boards proclaiming Giants’ skipper Bruce Bochy an “idiot” who should “never make the Hall of Fame” for not starting Bumgarner.

The thing about baseball is that it’s played on the field; not on Internet discussion boards, in the middle of cocktail party chats, or on radio call-in programs. It lends itself to statistics and numbers like no other sport, this is true. It welcomes folklore, and offers the time and space necessary for reflection. But anybody who’s ever played the game, be it on a Little League field among fellow eleven year-olds or under the glaring, big city lights of Yankee Stadium, will tell you one thing: it ain’t as easy as it looks. I was fortunate enough to attend two World Series games in San Francisco this year, and for the first I sat in some very good seats with my brother. From our vantage, you looked straight down the line from first to second base; you couldn’t ask for a better perspective on turning a double play. With nobody out in the sixth inning in a tight 4-4 game, the Royals’ Nori Aoki hit a hard ground ball to Giants’ first baseman Brandon Belt with the speedy Jarrod Dyson breaking for second. Belt fielded the ball cleanly, made a perfect throw to second (avoiding hitting Dyson) and got back to the bag in time to catch the return throw from shortstop Brandon Crawford, completing the double play. Watching the replay later on television was one thing — mighty impressive, but nothing like the intensity of witnessing it in person. It occurred so fast that Belt’s back was still to the oncoming ball from Crawford’s hand as he put his foot on first and turned to receive it. I looked at my brother and knew we were both thinking the same thing: “never in a hundred lifetimes do I make that play.”

Telecat may have been right about Bumgarner, but he wasn’t about Bochy. The Giants’ manager did start Tim Hudson, then yanked him after one and two-thirds innings, the shortest outing for any Game Seven starter. The Royals had, at that point, come back from two down to tie the game. From there he went to Jeremy Affeldt who gave him 2 1/3 shutout innings, and then, with a one run lead, Bumgarner. The rest is, as they say, history. What Madison Bumgarner did this postseason is another matter, from another planet, and suitable for another few postings. For now, two facts will suffice: He quite literally hoisted the team on his twenty-five year-old, six-foot-five shoulders and carried them to their third World Series victory in five years. And, when he married his wife Ali last year (both Hudson, NC natives who had dated since high school) he got her a cow as a wedding gift. (OK – as a caveat Ali says that it wasn’t, technically, a wedding gift, and he happened to buy it for her just before they married.) Bochy, for his part, once again pulled all the right strings, from a one game, win or go home wildcard, to two five and one seven game series. That’s one solid month of baseball under the most demanding and unforgiving circumstances. I’m not sure what happened to Telecat, but he’s been curiously absent from the discussion boards since Thursday night.

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