I haven’t watched a baseball game start-to-finish for maybe ten or more years. It’s a wonderful game to play — the big, wide openness of the field; the brightness of summer skies and the anxiousness of sitting in a dugout, on dirty, etched benches, with spit and sunflower seeds underneath your feet; the quietude between the bursts of activity; the unnaturally vibrant green of the grass and the silty recently-dampened dirt; the snap of a ball in your glove, that hurts, but only a little. Blah blah and other rhapsodic things of youth and will and all that.
But it’s a really boring game to watch. Really boring.
Apparently the San Francisco Giants have won the World Series twice in the last few years (2010 and 2012). I was busy — I missed it. Again, baseball is boring. But I always like the way a winning team can work its way through a community. People are happier, more unified. SF doesn’t always feel like a very unified place.
This year the Giants and the Oakland A’s were “wildcard” teams — both playing a single-elimination game to determine whether they’d go to the playoffs. For no particular reason, I watched the Giants play their elimination game. What I saw was Madison Bumgarner pitch a 4-hit complete game shutout that left no doubt that the Giants were going to roll away with that game.
Bumgarner is a long-haired, bearded 25-year-old North Carolina beanpole with sloped shoulders and sleepy eyes. He looks and sounds like he needs to hurry up and finish the game so he can rush home, sneak back into his bed, and get his rest before getting up before dawn to spend the next day baling hay for his tough-love father. Outside of that, I couldn’t stop thinking about how poised and calm he was on the mound. Totally in control. And that’s a thing that happens — dudes throw great games. He’s a professional athlete. It’s a thing that happens.
After the game, I listened to some of the players do their post game interviews — which are always entertaining for their non-controversial platitudes and the way players seems to want to bland their way away from reporters. But I was really struck by how blithely confident the players were. “Just a game, we’ll start preparing for the next one.” (etc.) I thought, Well, they’ve won a couple World Series, right? They probably are confident. But, if they were really any good, they wouldn’t be playing a wildcard game to get in the playoffs. They’ll probably just roll over in the next series. Right?
And then I tuned out again. Over the next couple weeks, I watched that regional excitement swell — people that never really seem interested in sports talking about it constantly. “Where are you watching the game tonight?” or, “Let’s talk later, the game’s on soon.”
I had to work on Saturday, but the guys I was working with had to watch the Giants World Series game (game 4 of the best-of-seven series, played in San Francisco). The Giants won and everyone was happy. I was home on Sunday, exhausted, nothing on TV, so I turned on the game that day — game 5, also in SF. And there was Bumgarner. Apparently he was on a roll since the wildcard game and had won the most valuable player award for the last playoff series. He had won game 1 of the World Series.
So I watched him, still that oversized NC kid, still poised, with an otherworldly calm. He threw another 4-hit shutout game. Dominant, totally relaxed. Accurate and in control.
I think I wanted to watch him fail. That’s the thing about sports. To its fans, sports are an arena for excellence. It’s aspirational to watch that excellence happen, so they say. At any time, you might see something incredible — life itself, in all its mundanity, might actually, momentarily, prove to be excellent instead.
But games mostly aren’t excellent, and they’re so often anything other than incredible. Which isn’t even to say anything about the more complicated social components of sports and its culture. It just isn’t often very incredible. It’s often just some guys, perhaps people that you may or may not want to impact the culture at large, given maybe a disproportionate platform with which to do so, just doing some stuff that rarely follows any kind of satisfying script.
Bumgarner kept pushing his way into that script, though. After his masterful game 5 win, the Giants only needed to win one of the two remaining games, even though it would be back in Kansas City, in the opposing team’s home arena. The narrative became, “will he pitch again in game 7, if it comes to that?” Because Major League pitchers don’t pitch that often — only every 5 games. It would be a stretch for him to pitch again so soon, even at the end of the season. It wasn’t just that it would be weird, it’s that it would be assumed that he wouldn’t be very good. Pitchers need rest, etc.
I didn’t watch game 6, but the Giants got blown out — 10-to-nothing. The game wasn’t in doubt after the second inning.
It was game 7 coming up — only one more game. Whoever won would win the whole thing, and then it would be over. Would Bumgarner pitch again?
That’s the script: He would pitch, they would win. He would be tired, sore, wobbly from the long season — but he was unstoppable, unbeatable, an ubermensch of the highest order. He would lead them to impossible, last-second victory, and mankind would be capable of great things.
The other reason I wanted him to fail was that I kept expecting him to. I know baseball pretty well. Bumgarner is good — he has “good stuff,” as it’s said. But he doesn’t have dominating, intimidating “stuff.” He just has good stuff. Whenever I watched him, he got hit — hard. The whole goal of pitching is to make people miss. He just threw strikes — an unusual amount of strikes. He wasn’t trying to make people miss, he was daring people to hit him. I’ve seen pitchers do that before, but they usually have extraordinary “stuff.” And even those extraordinary pitchers sometimes fail spectacularly.
He didn’t seem to care about that. He seemed utterly focused and unafraid. He believed in himself and his team, and he showed up, focused through all the quiet moments, and the preparation, and the lights, and reporters, and fans, and all of those distractions — and just did the simple thing, that he’d practiced thousands and thousands of times — he threw the ball straight at a glove, sixty feet away, slightly downhill.
Even though he got hit hard, the ball always found its way to his teammates’ gloves, or they made great plays, or guys missed hittable pitches. It was the perfect combination of great play around a pitcher just throwing great pitches. It seemed like it could fall apart at any moment. As soon as some of those hard-hit balls started falling into uncatchable places, that sync would splinter, and then the whole thing would collapse. Once it collapsed, I could stop paying attention again. And through the 5th game of the World Series, the walls just kept holding. But at any moment, Bumgarner’s unnatural cool and confidence would be shattered.
In time, everything is destroyed. But sometimes, if something lasts long enough, you wonder…
Game 7, the Giants up 3-to-2. Bumgarner hadn’t entered the game. That’s normal. We wouldn’t be following the script, we’d be following reality — the boring reality of so many professional sports games. And then they put Bumgarner in.
He went on to keep pitching strikes, guys kept catching balls in play, and five shutout innings later, Bumgarner had forced himself into some grand narrative again.
It was amazing to watch. He built up the tension and then held it together, gloriously — for weeks. And maybe all those incredible things that people say live within the lines of these games were real. Maybe excellence was real, and demonstrable. I had just seen it.
The outstandingly named Buster Posey, a former most valuable player, and the guy catching the ball when Bumgarner pitches, didn’t play very well in the series. During the post game interviews, Buster was in tears, overcome by Bumgarner’s performance. In the slow-mo replay of the last out of the game, when it was clear to Posey that the ball would be caught, he turned to Bumgarner and smiled hugely, slowly walking up to the mound. Bumgarner didn’t look away from the ball until it was secure in Pablo Sandoval’s glove. And then he turned to Posey and they embraced. In that moment, Bumgarner was the emotional epicenter of his entire team. They had trusted him and he had improbably delivered.
After the game, Bumgarner drawled to the reporters, “I’m tired.” I don’t believe him. I think he felt like he could crush a rock in his hands.
And a little while after, I thought about him — just twenty-five, too young to have felt his body start to betray him. He’s been on three World Series championship teams in his first five seasons. He just pitched at a level that almost no other people have — in a sport that’s been fastidiously tracked for over a hundred years. He’s an all-timer, and he’s only twenty-five.
What will he ever do in his life that comes close to bringing him into the surreal harmony that he just experienced? He might have a great, long career, free of injury, retiring on his own terms. But it would be impossible for him to achieve that high again, right? Will he go to sleep tonight knowing that he will never again be what he once was? Will he live and die unable to stop believing in an inevitable moment of transcendence that never comes? Will he be haunted by himself? I really hope not.