Want to understand Madison Bumgarner, World Series legend and SI's 2014 Sportsman of the Year? Start with his humble beginnings in rural North Carolina, and go from there.
Wind whispers through the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, a land so remote that no one of European descent set eyes on it until 1752, and even today the howls of coyotes can be more reliable than cellphone reception. In one of Earth's great hardwood forests, that wind swoops and soars through white pines, maples, oaks, chestnuts and poplars. It's the kind of place where American legend still survives against the advancement of Google soldiers, the fact-finding troops armed with the science of satellite imagery, big data and server farms, one of which is buried in these very hills.
"I've never told anyone this story before."
One of the most famous men to come out of Caldwell County is ready to make a confession. Madison Bumgarner is at home, standing inside a steel building that is mostly a huge barn with almost an afterthought of living space attached to it for him and his wife, Ali, his high school sweetheart. If you know Bumgarner only from his implacable clutch pitching for the Giants, especially in the 2014 World Series, this Bumgarner is unfamiliar: anxious and vulnerable.
"So this will be the first time," he says, "outside of family and friends."
To stand on the knob of land in Lenoir, where Bumgarner's barn sits amid his 116 acres, is to stand in the footsteps of the Catawba and the Cherokee. It is about 12 miles from Brown Mountain, where strange lights glow like balls of fire in the night sky, still nearly as much a mystery as they were when the Cherokee thought they were torch-carrying maidens searching the mountain for their loved ones lost in battle. It is 17 miles south of Blowing Rock, where the snow is said to fall upside down, ever since a benevolent wind raised a fallen Cherokee brave from the valley below to his love on the rock high above.
It is 23 miles south of Boone, a town named for legendary pioneer Daniel Boone, who established camp there, and 66 miles southwest of Mount Airy, the inspiration for television's Mayberry. It has been, is and will be home to the latest legend from the foot of the Blue Ridge: the greatest pitcher in World Series history and the 2014 SI Sportsman of the Year. He is the third-youngest baseball player to be so honored in the award's 60-year history, behind only Johnny Podres in 1955 and Tom Seaver in '69.
Bumgarner, 25, was four years old when he noticed the mountain wind.
"Look, Paw-Paw," he said to his maternal grandfather, Lewis Abernathy, "those leaves are afraid."
"Why do you say that, Maddy?"
"Because they're trying to run away from the wind."
Abernathy showed Bumgarner how to hunt and fish. "He taught me everything I know about that," he says. Life in No'th Ca'lina was all Bumgarner knew and wanted. That is, until he became a professional baseball player. To be one required something Bumgarner was not ready for: leaving Lenoir (pronounced la-NORE). The Giants, after selecting him 10th overall in the 2007 draft, assigned him to their Instructional League team in Scottsdale, Ariz. The secret he can tell now is this: After hardly a week there, he called San Francisco assistant general manager Bobby Evans, then the director of player personnel, and told him he wanted to quit baseball. He missed Lenoir so much that he would stand on the field during practice and look at the airplanes overhead, and if he noticed one from Southwest Airlines — the carrier he knew serviced the direct route from Phoenix to Raleigh — he imagined himself sitting in one of its seats, happy to be going home for good.
"I was out of high school and had just turned 18 years old," Bumgarner says. "I had been away from home a couple of times, but never more than a couple of days at a time, and I always had someone with me — family or friends, someone. I was out there by myself. I had no idea what to expect. Honestly, I contemplated just going home and choosing not to have this lifestyle because it was so different from what I was used to."
"It was awful," says his mom, Debbie. "He called all the time. He didn't like baseball. He didn't like nothing. I told him he had to stick it out and be tough. He just missed home. But he got over it pretty quick."
Bumgarner would pass the downtime by walking from his room at a Days Inn to the Scottsdale Fashion Square mall. But he didn't go inside. In a courtyard there was a statue of a bull. Bumgarner would bring a lasso and practice his roping against the inanimate animal, pretending he was home.
Instructional League lasted only about a month. Bumgarner made it through. He even got engaged while there. His career, as spectacularly as it shines today, began as does most everything else with Bumgarner: humbly, and with home in his heart.
Bumgarner has won three world championships through age 25, joining Vida Blue as the only pitchers to accomplish that at such a young age. What sets Bumgarner apart from all others, regardless of age or era, is his pitching in the World Series. In 36 career World Series innings, Bumgarner is 4-0 and holds all-time records for lowest ERA (0.25), fewest hits per nine innings (3.5) and fewest walks plus hits per inning (0.53).
His Series performance this year was the stuff of instant legend. On two days of rest after winning Games 1 and 5 as a starter, he came out of the bullpen to throw five shutout innings in Game 7, capping the longest save in World Series history by getting the last out with the potential tying run at third base. Such a bulwark of strength was the 6-foot-5, 235-pound Bumgarner that his manager, Bruce Bochy, voiced an odd concern when asked if he would have been O.K. with the big lefty riding a horse in the championship parade in San Francisco. "I would have," Bochy said then, "although it might've been more humane for him to carry the horse."
Bumgarner pitched 40 times and threw 270 innings in 2014, including a record 52 2/3 innings just in the postseason. On the memory of October alone he forever will be linked with 2014, the way Christy Mathewson is with 1905, Carl Hubbell with 1933 and as Sandy Koufax (1965), Orel Hershiser (1988), and Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling (2001) are with the years they were named SI Sportsmen. In the heat of the postseason, Bumgarner struck out 45 batters, threw two shutouts and saved a game while posting a 1.03 ERA. Nobody ever did all that before in October. Baseball records only two pitchers who have ever had a month like that even in the regular season: Jim Shaw in September 1914 and Billy Pierce in August 1953.
When it was over, Bumgarner went back to his 116 rolling acres in Lenoir. He rose each morning at daybreak and ventured out in the cold to feed the 20 horses and 60 cattle, to run through the woods, to mend and replace fences, to clear brush for pasture, to ride his horses and to practice his roping, to hunt deer and coyote, to live the same quiet mountain life he has always known.
There would be, however, one obvious change in his life as a consequence of being named Sportsman of the Year: Bumgarner would have to acquire the first suit and tie he ever owned.
The legend of Madison Bumgarner fits neatly in the space where we keep our idea of the archetypal outdoorsy, countrified man, where also reside the embellished, fictionalized Boone and Mayberry's Sheriff Andy Taylor. It's just that in Bumgarner's case, the stories are true.
It's true that one day in April 2012, upon making his usual call to his mom, he didn't tell her that he had just signed a contract extension worth as much as $59 million over seven years through 2019 (a flat bargain for the Giants). Debbie, who had heard about the deal from media reports, had to coax it out of him by saying, "Uh, do you have something to tell me?"
It's all true. That he was so good so young that he started playing coach-pitch baseball at age four against seven-year-olds, and is so adept with either hand that he shoots a bow, bats, writes and ropes righthanded, but throws from the left side. That his father, Kevin, wouldn't let him throw a curveball until he had a driver's license. That before he dated Ali, he dated a girl named Madison Bumgarner ("No relation, I'm sure of it"). That he was married in a white, open-collar shirt and blue jeans while carrying a pocket-knife. That he bought Ali a cow just before their wedding (though not specifically as a wedding present), and she loved it. That he still calls Paw-Paw just about every day during the season, as he did the day of Game 7. ("I knew he was ready; he told me he wanted to start the game," Abernathy says.) That the main living area on the side of the big steel barn in Lenoir, just inside the front door, includes a Ping-Pong table, two stationary bikes, a dining area, a large television and a kitchen, including a fridge stocked with Sun Drop, a highly caffeinated citrus soda that is a local favorite.
This may be the best Boone-like tale about the man they call Mad Bum. One day during spring training this year in Scottsdale, Bumgarner and his wife were roping cattle when Madison was startled by a large snake he figured was a rattler. He quickly grabbed an ax and hacked it to pieces. When Ali, an expert field dresser, examined what was left of the snake, she found two baby jackrabbits inside pieces of it and extracted them. A short while later the Bumgarners noticed that one of the rabbits had moved slightly. It was alive. Ali brought the rabbit back to their apartment and for the next few days kept it warm and bottle-nursed it. The rabbit soon was healthy enough for them to release into the wild.
"Think about how tough that rabbit was," Bumgarner says. "First it gets eaten by a snake, then the snake gets chopped to pieces, then it gets picked up by people and it lives. It's all true."
True, too, is that he embodies another archetype, one that is rare in an era when self-promotion defines too many athletes: He wants success without spoils, achievement without attention and the ball without excuses. He pays little to no mind to video analysis, advanced analytics, scouting reports, pitch counts or innings limits, yet nobody his age in his lifetime ever threw as many innings in one year as Bumgarner did this year.
Several towns wanted to throw a parade for Bumgarner when he returned home from the World Series, but he didn't see the need for everyone to make a fuss. What makes the people in Caldwell County swell with pride is not just that Bumgarner is from here, but also that he chooses to stay here. "They let me know they appreciate it, which is weird to me," he says, "but they appreciate me just staying here. This is just a slow, easy life. Me and my wife, we've never considered moving away. This will always be home. It's a special place for both of us."
Bumgarner drives onto the rolling property of his father-in-law, about a five-minute drive from his own land. His truck is greeted by a one-eyed dog and a herd of steer in a pen next to the riding arena. Bumgarner was here just the previous day, riding on horseback "from daylight to midnight," he says, searching for one of the cows that slipped past a fence and wandered off. He never did find it, but it showed up the next morning. "Cows, they don't like to be alone," he says.
Bumgarner wants to rope some of the steer, which he does virtually every day, but the arena is too wet from an overnight rain.
"Let me show you my new horse," he says, the pride unmistakable in his voice. He talks about the horse exactly the way other people talk about him.
"That's a bad sumbitch right there," he says to Tom Little, a friend who works for the agency that represents him. "He's so much faster and stronger than the other horses."
"That horse carries some power," Little says.
"Whatever you think he has," Bumgarner says, "he has more than that, though. They don't make 'em like that every day. I tell people I bought a Clayton Kershaw horse."
"You mean," Little says, "a Madison Bumgarner horse."
One day in the late 19th century, a train carrying furniture manufactured in Grand Rapids, Mich., overturned near High Point, N.C. Local craftsmen of all kinds were summoned to repair the pieces. It was a classic case of reverse engineering: In reassembling the pieces, the men learned how the furniture was made. An idea took root. With plentiful access to hardwood and a rail line that had opened only five years earlier, the men started their own furniture company in 1889 in Lenoir. Within a little more than a decade, seven furniture mills in the area were cranking out chests, tables and chairs. Production exploded with the post-World War II housing boom, and by the late 1980s, half of all the furniture bought in America was made in North Carolina.
"They paid good during that time," says Jeff Parham, an all-county three-sport athlete at South Caldwell High in the early '80s who became the school's — and Bumgarner's — baseball coach. "A lot of kids dropped out of school to go work in the factories. Things were booming in Caldwell County."
"Highway 321 from Hickory almost to Boone was billed as '28 miles of the furniture capital of the world,'" says Kevin Bumgarner, the son of a furniture factory worker. "Now it's just 28 miles. They closed up the factories, and now there's grass growing up through the parking lots. It looks like a hydrogen bomb went off."
It wasn't a bomb that did it. It was international trade and competition. More and more of America's furniture began to come from overseas, and furniture jobs in the state shrunk from 90,000 in 1988 to 61,000 in 2003, to say nothing of the sawmills, cotton mills and other ancillary businesses that fed off the furniture.
Today in Lenoir (pop. 18,042), 23.7 percent of the people live below the poverty level (a figure 59 percent greater than the national average), the median household income is $38,207 (28 percent below the national median), and only 14.3 percent of the people hold a bachelor's degree (half the national average).
After the World Series, South Caldwell High printed T-shirts to celebrate Bumgarner's success, noting his state championship, three World Series titles and 2014 National League Championship Series and World Series MVP Awards. The back of the T-shirts includes a quote lifted from a Bumgarner postgame interview: thankful and blessed. The school sold more than 800 of them and began taking orders for a second printing.
"He has given Caldwell County a lift," Parham says of Bumgarner. "We needed a lift in this county, you know what I'm saying? It's been hard times here. What he brought us was a good shot in the arm."
Madison Kyle Bumgarner was born Aug. 1, 1989, at the height of the furniture boom along that 28-mile stretch of Highway 321. He grew up expecting to work in a furniture factory. "Yeah, probably," he says. "That was the big thing. It wasn't baseball. It wasn't like I said, ‘Baseball is what I want to do' and did it. I just enjoyed playing and competing.
"When I got good enough, when I saw where I could do something, then I knew that's what I wanted to do, I guess. I mean, who wouldn't want to?"
The idea of pursuing baseball professionally occurred to him as a sophomore in high school. Throwing his first pitch at 90 miles an hour is what convinced him. At 16, he joined an elite travel team in North Carolina called the Dirtbags, which required that all applicants fill out a questionnaire that included these two questions: What are your short-term and long-term goals as a person, and what are your short-term and long-term goals as a player? This is what the 16-year-old Bumgarner wrote:
"My short-term goal as a person is to witness an activity of Jesus in my life, and my long-term goal is for people when they look at me to see something in me about Jesus. My short-term goal as a player is to win the state championship. My long-term goal is to be a Hall of Famer."
"People are real proud of him," says Peter Haas, the proprietor. "He's just a real down-to-earth, good ol' country boy. My dad, he was dying with cancer, and he'd be dreaming about talking to Madison, because Madison always took the time to say hello to him, ask him how he was doing. I'll never forget that.
"But tell me this: Why do people say he's from Hickory? Hickory tries to claim him, but he's not out of Hickory, no way. He's from Hudson-Granite Falls. I wish people would get that right. Listen, this place used to be the furniture capital of the world. Now, it's nothing. Nobody knows Hudson-Granite Falls. But Madison put this little old spot on the map. And he's still just Madison to us."
This was Bumgarner's moment. Upon the ball's descent, this broad-backed man who secured the most outs ever to save a World Series game and who obtained the most outs by any pitcher in any postseason would not need to throw another pitch. And after such quiet determination, when the baseball did fall, Madison Bumgarner would be that much closer to what brought him to that moment in the first place: home, to Carolina.