Some people believe Madison Bumgarner is racist. They say the evidence speaks for itself. Just use your eyes — he keeps yelling at hitters who flip their bats, and none of the bat-flippers he’s yelled at are white.
Here’s a list: Jesus Guzman, Yasiel Puig, Alex Guerrero, Carlos Gomez, Delino Deshields (last night).
In all honesty, the thought has popped into my mind. Numerous times. And each time, I scrub my mind clean, because I’ve talked to Bumgarner on several occasions. And from the first time (2011 media day, when he was a short-haired kid with just one World Series ring), one thing was clear: he’s no country bumpkin.
I waited my turn in an AT&T Park suite with Bumgarner’s name on the door, just happy the Giants’ social media director was kind enough to invite some no-name blogger who, at the time, spent most of his hours pretending to care about a mind-numbing desk job. I actually had to walk from 4th and Market (the location of my cubicle at the time) to 3rd and King to get my first one-on-one experiences with professional baseball players. To say I was a bit nervous would be an understatement.
Patiently, I listened to reporters, columnists and radio hosts ask Bumgarner questions. They were all of a similar tone: “Hey, aren’t you one happy, lucky hick?!?! Ain’t it crazy to go from some small town in the North Carolina sticks to a crazy parade in big ol’ San Francisco? Do they even have cell phones where you grew up? Did you ride a cow here?” You get the picture.
Bumgarner answered each question politely. After waiting for the suite to clear out, I stepped forward — with nothing even remotely approaching confidence — and stuttered out some question about his strikeout-to-walk ratio being in the top-10 all-time among pitchers younger than 22. (I’m paraphrasing, but the stat isn’t really all that important in the context of this story.)
Bumgarner gave me the funniest look. He was almost embarrassed, and not because I flattered him. He knew the stat I was referencing. It was almost like he hoped someone would bring up the fact that he’s a really good pitcher, possibly historically so, but couldn’t let me know he was so well-versed on his own statistical greatness.
(I’ve noticed the same reaction in recent years, whenever anyone brings up something Bumgarner did well. But he’s gotten A LOT better at pretending he wasn’t aware.)
After my stammering was complete and he answered my questions, Bumgarner stuck his hand out to shake mine. There was something there, beyond an awkward connection between a young major league pitcher and an inexperienced quasi-journalist. He knew I came into that suite with respect, and was more than willing to pay it back in kind. I’ve always remembered that moment.
Bumgarner is not going to change the way he talks. If anything, his drawl is more pronounced now than it was four years ago. But it’s foolish to assume stupidity or ignorance, based simply on what your ears and the history books tell you.
He doesn’t throw 96 mph. He doesn’t have the best curveball in the game, nor the best cutter. However, from the moment he steps off the mound and reaches the dugout, he always knows what happened during his outing and why. His attention to detail is unwavering. If he’s beaten, it’s because he either missed his spots or the other team hit good pitches. No hitter or situation is going to intimidate him, and we found that out (again) during the last postseason, when he performed feats with the human arm that aren’t supposed to be possible anymore.
Let’s be clear: Madison Bumgarner has a temper.
He doesn’t celebrate most of his accomplishments (other than series-clinching wins, which he celebrates with multiple beers at once), but he is extremely emotional. Yet to look at the skin color or nationality of each player who made his ass red, before looking at the actions of those players, is far worse than treating him like a small town doofus. He takes his career incredibly seriously. He would never admit it, but I believe his goal is to win as many championships as possible, wait five years, and get inducted into Cooperstown.
The way to ensure he doesn’t get there? Go into games looking to take a racist timeout every time he sees an excuse to start sheriffin’. This isn’t about petty bullshit. This is Bumgarner’s way of controlling a game that is nearly impossible to control, and he’s not going to stop.
This is why Bruce Bochy would never dream of calling Bumgarner into his office and convincing the big fella to ease up. If a reporter suggested this to Bochy, he’d make that familiar expression that’s half smile and half sneer while staring out into the distance, which means the person bringing it up has no idea what it takes to dominate at the major league level. The game is difficult enough. There’s no way Bochy is going to have his ace out there thinking about stuff like, “Did I hold back enough? How did it feel to let that guy flip his bat and say nothing?”
Conversely, that’s exactly what Bumgarner wants. He wants hitters to be afraid to let loose. Once they have that freedom, that 60 feet, six inches space between the raised hill of dirt and home plate is no longer his. He wants the players to feel tense, to know who controls this moment.
We’ve seen what happens when it all goes according to plan. Just ask the Royals, who were gently laid down to sleep in Game 7 of the World Series. That is, until Gregor Blanco roused everyone with his misplay, then Bumgarner came through with another dose of melatonin against Salvador Perez.
That’s the way Bumgarner likes it. If you get a hit, fine. Take your base(s). But don’t act as if you’re taking this game away from Bumgarner. Don’t try to show your teammates that Bumgarner is an easy mark. Or else, you’re going to feel his wrath. He will be unapologetic. He will make enemies, and he’s willing to pay that price.
It’s not Bumgarner’s job to encourage exuberance and expressive behavior. He’s not worried about marketing the game of baseball to teenagers. His only worry is setting a tone of dominance. In the ultra-tense world of the postseason, it’s no problem. Players aren’t worried about flipping their bats after homers or spiking their bats in frustration after popping pitches to the shortstop that they think they should’ve hit 420 feet.
To play devil’s advocate: What’s the harm? Why not let the hitters vent? They’re under a lot of pressure, too!
Isn’t it obvious why not? Most of Bumgarner’s kerfuffles are the result of pop flies, because displays of frustration are messages to the dugout: Man, I bailed this weak-ass pitcher out. He ain’t got shit. The next time a teammate of mine sees that pitch, he’s going to hit it a mile.
To the person with no stake in the game, this might sound ridiculous. It’s normal human emotion. Who is Bumgarner to keep a hitter from getting upset, when the hitter’s livelihood is just as much at stake?
When I lived in Santa Cruz, the amateur CHP jerks on Highway 17 drove me crazy. They’d drive under the speed limit in the fast lane, next to a car in the right lane so no one could get by. Once a passing opportunity emerged, the amateur CHP jerk (usually a middle-aged man in a big pickup) would gun his engine to close the window. No one likes it when people play the role of law enforcement without a uniform — or, in this case, while wearing a baseball uniform.
But we see this throughout all sports. Why did Kevin Garnett, one of the best players in NBA history, find it necessary to swat away harmless shots taken after whistles were blown? Why did Barry Bonds make it a point to barely flinch when pitchers threw inside? Why do safeties hit receivers late across the middle, knowing they’ll get fined and possibly even suspended a day later?
It is so difficult to defeat pro athletes at anything. It takes extraordinary talent to do it once, and to do it a majority of the time requires something beyond the physical realm. Confidence comes and goes. Isn’t it going a little overboard to complain when Bumgarner, who feels like he’s got a handle on what can make him one of the best pitchers over the last 50 years, thinks he knows the answer? It’s not only disrespectful and incredibly lazy to call Bumgarner a racist because of a few incidents, it’s disrespectful to the game.
How so? Because the game is too difficult for one of its best players to focus on policing different ethnic groups. Do we really believe that Bumgarner goes into these games thinking, “I’m going to pound their cleanup hitter inside, and I’m going to elevate the fastball on their No. 5 hitter, and that No. 6 hitter speaks Spanish so I’m going to watch closely and fly off the handle if he shows any sign of frustration.”
Baseball is so provincial, and as a result I know there are some people who will never be convinced that Bumgarner isn’t a racist monster. The truth is, we don’t really know what he’s like away from the game. I’ve spoken to him several times in a “business” setting, and seen him interact with his teammates enough to believe that he isn’t racist at all, just an extremely fiery competitor.
However, I don’t know enough to make a judgment either way. Nor does anyone else based on the evidence. He doesn’t like it when players are demonstrative after swinging at his pitches, but is there one incident we can point to where he’s let a similar gesture slide with a white player?
If I felt there was something behind this idea that Bumgarner has something against players who don’t look like him, I wouldn’t be writing this. However, as someone who’s seen him pitch over 100 times and seen him up close on several occasions, I truly believe that those accusing him of racism are only looking at the surface, only looking at one side, and frankly are being a bit lazy.
I could go the trite route and bring up the cowboy boots he bought for Pablo Sandoval last year. Or show these shots of Bumgarner and Jean Machi in the bullpen before he pitched in Game 7.
But then I’d be running the risk of sounding like someone who says “I have plenty of ___ friends.”
Instead, I’ll say this: baseball is a game for kids, but only 750 men get to play it at the highest level at any given time (until September call-ups). They’re all looking for an edge. Bumgarner’s method is harsh, and it might seem like it’s focused on taking emotion out of the game, but in reality he’s just matching emotion with emotion. And since we’re talking about an entertainment product, what Bumgarner does actually makes the game better.