Last night, the San Francisco Giants, my favorite baseball team–heck, my favorite sports team since I was, like, eleven–won the World Series. If human beings are, by nature, tribal–we Oogites good, you Jookians bad!–sports fandom is an artificial recreation of ancient warfares and hostilities. We choose up sides based on accidents of geography, or on whim, caprice–we find ourselves rooting for laundry. Sometimes even explicitly–we root for the team wearing red socks, though we carefully misspell it ‘sox’ as though to distance or even absolve ourselves of the inherent silliness of the enterprise.
But sports fandom is also a celebration of human accomplishment. In that sense, a great athlete’s accomplishment are similar to any amazing thing done by homo sapiens. When I look at the cave drawings at Lascaux, I’m filled with awe, and also with a sense of human kinship. Watching a great pitcher pitch or a great sprinter sprint or a great gymnast fly is like listening to a great symphony or reading a great novel. It’s something amazing done by a fellow sojourner on this planet.
So today, I celebrate the San Francisco Giants. Which means, this year, celebrating the one reason above all that my favorite team won the championship. It means, above all, celebrating Madison Bumgarner.
Madbum, as he’s affectionately known, is a 25 year old from Hudson North Carolina. In fact, he’s from an area known locally as ‘Bum-town,’ named after his family. He’s distantly related to the actor James Garner. He married his high school sweetheart, Ali Saunders. He gave her a cow for a wedding present, and wore jeans to their wedding. He’s a Baptist. And this World Series, he pitched better than anyone ever has in the history of the game of baseball.
The World Series is best of seven, which means that the first team to win four games wins the series. No single pitcher has won four games by himself, but Bumgarner is the 13th to win three. So let’s say that those are the thirteen greatest pitching performances of all time. If winning the World Series is the ultimate goal in the sport, then it follows that pitching brilliantly in three games in any series would give your team an immense advantage. Here’s the list of 3 game winners.
Five of the 3 game winners pitched back in baseball’s Pleistocene era, when teams may not carry more than five pitchers, where home runs were rare, and therefore pitchers could afford to coast through some early innings, and rest wasn’t as paramount as it would become. So I’m going to discount the accomplishments of Bill Dinneen, Babe Adams, Jack Coombs, Sam Wood and Red Faber all of whom pitched from 1903-1917. Christie Mathewson of the Giants, however, was 25 years old in 1905, same age Bumgarner is now, and pitched three shutouts in that series. He gave up zero runs in three games. He’s the closest comparison to Bumgarner.
Bob Gibson won three games in pitching the Cardinals to the World Series victory in 1967, won two games in 1968, and was on the mound in game Seven in ’68, losing to Mickie Lolich. I remember that game vividly. I had ‘borrowed’ my Dad’s transistor radio, and taken it to school, and I spent all of recess wandering around the playground at my school, trying to find the best radio reception. Mr. Elkins, the one male teacher teaching at Grandview Elementary saw me, and kept sidling up to me for updates, and he allowed me to have a little longer recess so I could keep him posted. Gibson pitched games 1, 4 and 7 of the ’67 series, and allowed 1, 0 and 3 runs in those three games. It was an astonishing performance.
The other comparable performance would be Randy Johnson’s in 2001. Johnson pitched a shutout in game 2 of that series, and allowed 2 runs in the game 5 blowout. He then pitched in relief in game 7, and won the game, but he did give up what should have been the winning run in the 8th inning of that game. But the Diamonbacks rallied against Mariano Rivera in the 9th, and Johnson was named MVP.
Bumgarner started game 1 of this year’s series, and won, allowing one late run, a meaningless home run by Salvador Perez. He pitched a shutout in game 5. Then, in game 7, on two days rest, he pitched the last five innings, allowing nothing. All the pressure in the world on him. The Giants led 3-2 when he came into the game, and that was also the final score.
The greatest World Series pitcher of all time is probably Bob Gibson. The greatest single World Series may be that of Christie Mathewson. But Bumgarner has a collective Earned Run Average, in five Series games, of 0.25. Nobody’s close to that. At the very least, he deserves to be mentioned along with Curt Schilling, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson as one of the most remarkable clutch pitchers ever. And I put him number one. By almost any measure, the Giants should not have beaten the Royals in this World Series. They won because of Madbum. What a remarkable pitcher. What an extraordinary series.