The once and future kings

The final trick in Madison Bumgarner’s inexhaustible bag of postseason magic was the high fastball. It’s a classic bit of witchcraft, right out of classic Americana, like sawing the lady in half or escaping from chains while hanging under water.

The high fastball, when thrown just right, intoxicates — the ball looks juicy and helpless until it disappears. Classic magicians named Koufax and Gibson, Ruth and Schilling, Johnson and Seaver featured it in their own World Series magic shows. Now, Madison Bumgarner, the big man from North Carolina awkwardly called MadBum, dusted off the high fastball for his final illusion. And, the Kansas City Royals were awed.

Fans often ask: What is a sports dynasty? What does it take to become one? The New York Yankees of the 1950s, a team that won six World Series and appeared in two more, were clearly a dynasty. In that time of American boom, the Yankees were indomitable, undeniable, unconquerable, compared to U.S. Steel, and the only place the Damn Yankees seemed to lose was on Broadway, when the devil became involved.

Those Stengel-Mantle Yankees were a clear dynasty. But what about the Oakland A’s of the early 1970s? They wore canary yellow and won three World Series in a row between the shorter reigns of Earl Weaver’s Baltimore Orioles team and the Big Red Machine. Those A’s were long-haired and cocky, their owner, Charlie Finley, a bit of a mad genius. But they rose and fell so quickly that, like the Vietnam War and Watergate swirling around them, it was hard to tell exactly what they meant.

The Bronx Zoo Yankees ruled as disco died, and Joe Carter’s Blue Jays had a brief time as monarch in the time of Jurassic Park. But dynasties? It’s a matter of interpretation. Those Yankees again, Derek Jeter and Joe Torre and Mariano Rivera and that cast, won four World Series in five years and once more left everyone else muttering about the unfairness of baseball, and that was probably the last dynasty in baseball. In ensuing years Boston and St. Louis would win often but sporadically.

Then came these Giants. What is a dynasty? Over the last five years, the Giants have never had the best record in baseball or, indeed, the best record in the National League. In a different time, when the playoffs were the World Series and only the teams with each league’s best record played in October, these Giants would have been afterthoughts.

That is to assume the Giants would not have come up with a different magic act. With this team, that is a poor assumption – they seem to play whatever hand they’re given. Baseball is about the short season now, not the long one, and nobody has understood this better than the San Francisco Giants. Three times since 2010, they have come into the short season with hopelessly flawed teams — the first team couldn’t score, the second had a broken rotation and this one, the third, revolved somewhat desperately around one man. All three times, they won the World Series.

What is a dynasty? The 2014 Giants bear only scant resemblance to the 2010 Giants. The only remaining regulars in the lineup are the stoic Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval, the great Panda, and those two were just kids on that first championship team. The 2010 pitching staff revolved around the gyrations of Tim Lincecum, the sturdiness of Matt Cain and the bearded lunacy of Brian Wilson. A 20-year-old left-hander named Madison Bumgarner began that season with Triple-A Fresno.

That 2010 Giants team seemed touched by the supernatural. They beat the Phillies when an old warhorse named Juan Uribe blasted a go-ahead home run and Wilson conjured up a line-drive double play after things got tense. Uribe homered again in the first game of the World Series against Texas. Then Cain and Bumgarner and, finally, the maestro Lincecum silenced the Rangers’ bats, and that was the first championship.

Two years later, the Giants looked completely different. Lincecum had lost his mojo. Brian Wilson blew out his elbow. The team’s best hitting outfielder, Melky Cabrera, was suspended for using a banned substance. They still played breathtaking baseball the last six weeks of the season to get into the playoffs.

It looked like a short stay – the Giants promptly lost the first two to Cincinnati, the second of those by the convincing score of 9-0, and then, what can you say? Magic again. They beat the Reds on an error, a Lincecum revival and a Posey grand slam. The Cardinals (who have displayed their own mastery of the playoffs) had them on the brink, down three games to one, and the Giants again won three straight, this time teed off by the sorcery of once-broken pitchers — Barry Zito (who had signed an enormous contract and seemed paralyzed by it) and Ryan Vogelsong (who had been cast off to Japan years before).

The 2012 Giants then rolled through the Detroit Tigers in four straight games to win their second championship in three years.

Then came this year’s team, the team that even manager Bruce Bochy — who has seen it all — calls mystical. These Giants tied for the fourth-best record in the NL. They had serious injuries and existential crises and a creaky starting rotation made up of old stars like Tim Hudson and Jake Peavy.

From the broadcasting booth, Duane Kuiper would sometimes look down at this team and laugh – there was a roly-poly Panda at third, and first baseman Brandon Belt sort of resembled a giraffe, and left fielder Michael Morse looked like he had just left his job a circus strongman, and right fielder Hunter Pence played like a man who periodically was jolted by electrical shocks. This wasn’t a baseball team, it was a vaudeville act, but Kuiper had seen the act enough times to know that there was something resilient about it. He saw how much the people of San Francisco loved these guys. He saw how they could suddenly turn on and rocket shots all over the park and shut offenses down with that bullpen. “With the Giants, I’ve learned, you wait until October,” Kuiper would say.

Also: They had Madison Bumgarner.

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He grew up in a place I know pretty well called Lenoir, a place in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. You could not talk to him for more than five seconds without guessing that. Everything about Bumgarner, from his Southern accent to his uncomplicated view of his job, exudes the Lenoir I know. There’s a Lenoir legend I once heard about a man called Rooster Bush, who through persistence and hard work and honest deal-making, built up his Lenoir auto dealership from a few cars on a grassy plot into a small empire. The story goes that one day, old Rooster walked onto a car lot wearing the work clothes he often wore, and found that none of the salesmen thought enough of him to approach. He then went over to one of them, asked if he could use the phone, promptly called another dealership and ordered a slew of expensive cars, hung up, thanked the man and walked off.

No idea if that story is true, but it is the one I always think of when watching Bumgarner; that seems to be his style. He slings pitches with a deceptively easy delivery. When Bumgarner was drafted – the 10th overall pick in the 2007 draft – coaches tried to change that delivery, tighten it up, and Bumgarner did what he could. Then, he came back to them and said in that drawl of his: “Look, I gotta throw like I throw.” He put up a 1.46 ERA in Augusta, and they left him alone.

Bumgarner carried these Giants through the 2014 playoffs like no one since, perhaps, Orel Hershiser for a seemingly frail Los Angeles team in 1988. There were other Giants heroes, of course, like Yusmeiro Petit, who blockaded Washington for six innings in an 18-inning game of attrition during the Division Series, and Travis Ishikawa, who returned to San Francisco after years in the wilderness and hit the walk-off home run that won the pennant.

But, mostly, it was Bumgarner. Relentless, he smothered Pittsburgh in the one-game wild-card crapshoot, and he anchored the Giants’ relatively easy ride into the World Series. And then, in the World Series against Kansas City, well, how do you describe it? Magic, right? You might know that Harry Houdini would sometimes show up at other magicians’ shows and do something remarkable to prove who was the true master.

So it was with Bumgarner.

The Royals came to the World Series on an implausible eight-game postseason winning streak – 11 games if you went back 29 years to their 1985 World Series triumph. Kansas City was one giant scream of joy; I have not seen a city so electrified by its World Series team since, well, San Francisco back in 2010. People walked in a daze, not only because of the history — the city had a quarter-century of almost uninterrupted bad baseball since the Royals mattered – but because this Kansas City team had become so inexplicably wonderful. They couldn’t score, did not have great starting pitching and were led by a manager who constantly made what could best be called quirky decisions. But Lorenzo Cain ran down every fly ball, their three-man bullpen never gave up anything and third baseman Mike Moustakas kept running into pitches, and here they were, in the World Series, and it seemed like destiny.

Madison Bumgarner pitched Game 1, stifled the lineup, hushed the crowd, and bumped destiny off course.

Then Bumgarner rested, and the Royals partied. They roared to victories in Games 2 and 3, took a three-run lead in Game 4, it looked easy, they were pulling rabbits out of hats and making the Ace of Spades appear at will and turning handkerchiefs into birds.

Then, in San Francisco, Madison Bumgarner pitched Game 5, and he pitched the first World Series shutout in more than a decade. It was remarkable and cut entirely against the time; starting pitchers are not supposed to go the distance. More than that, starting pitchers are not supposed to matter as much in this day when managers can dispatch 100-mph relievers at will. In this postseason, we had seen great starting pitchers like Clayton Kershaw and Jon Lester give up the ghost in the late innings — analysts talked about how starters in today’s game cannot get through the lineup a third time. Bumgarner, alone, seemed immune.

But then, he was done, and the series came back to Kansas City. The Royals won, 10-0, in front of a delirious crowd, and they prepared for a Game 7 celebration at home. No home team had lost a World Series Game 7 in 35 years. The Giants scored first, then the Royals responded, then Kansas City seemed ready to take control when San Francisco rookie second baseman Joe Panik made a dazzling diving stop, flipped the ball from his glove, and started a double-play that kept the game tied.

Then Bumgarner walked back to the mound.

Bumgarner! He had thrown 117 pitches two days before. Didn’t matter. He had thrown 260 innings this season. Didn’t matter. He did not have time to warm up the way he liked. Didn’t matter. He faced a Royals lineup that now knew him intimately, had studied him religiously, had broken down his every strength and weakness. It did not matter, because nothing mattered, because Madison Bumgarner of Lenoir, N.C., owner of cows, blower of nose on the mound, speaker of clichés, pitcher of record, is not of this earth.

Bumgarner threw high fastballs. This was his final and greatest illusion. He threw high fastballs to Alcides Escobar, who swung under. He threw high fastballs to Nori Aoki, who grounded out. He threw high fastballs to Lorenzo Cain, who popped up and slammed his bat in frustration.

The Royals had no answer. They had no explanation. They did not want to swing at Bumgarner’s high fastballs, but they could not stop themselves. The ball looked so ripe. The line drive felt so close. Bumgarner threw high fastballs to Eric Hosmer, who swung under. He threw high fastballs to Billy Butler, who popped out.

The Kansas City fans, so excited and so full of hope for this team that had shocked them again and again, had one last glimmer. Alex Gordon flared one of those high fastballs to left for a single. The ball skipped by centerfielder Gregor Blanco and rolled all the way to the wall, where left fielder Juan Perez bobbled it again.

This bit of Giants comedy allowed Gordon to run all the way to third, and everywhere it seemed Royals fans screamed for Gordon to try to run home. Had he tried, Gordon would have been what in Little League we used to call a dead duck – merely a reasonable throw from shortstop Brandon Crawford to catcher Buster Posey would have beaten Gordon to the plate by 20 feet or more. But there was the hope of one more comedic blunder by the Giants, one terrible throw, one bobbled catch, one collision that knocked the ball free, something miraculous like that. And, for many Royals fans, that hope for a miracle was brighter than the hope of getting one more hit off Madison Bumgarner.

Sure enough, Bumgarner threw a high fastball that Royals catcher and leader Salvador Perez hit high and foul and into the glove of a Panda, and Posey raced over to hug that big lug Bumgarner, and soon the rest of the Giants players piled on, and Kansas City fans stepped over their fallen hearts toward the exits, and the baseball season was over.

Are the Giants a dynasty? It all depends what you mean by the word but, in the modern world, I would say that yes, they are, because baseball no longer rewards the team that plays best over six months, through hot days and cold ones, through slumps and ascents. Baseball rewards the best team in October, and the Giants are kings of October again.

“I can’t lie to you anymore,” Bumgarner said when it was all over. “I’m a little tired.” And then he asked if he could take his MVP trophy, and he walked into the celebration. This time, the Giants won because of the country brilliance of Bumgarner. Next time, you can be sure, they will win because of somebody else. That’s their magic.

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