Thursday, October 30, 2014

29 Days in October

I. The Sportsman

A few days ago, I started thinking about a blog post on likely candidates for Sports Illustrated's annual "Sportsman of the Year" award.  Ostensibly, the award is given each year to "the athlete or team whose performance that year most embodies the spirit of sportsmanship and achievement."  I say "ostensibly" because when you look back at the history of the award, it's pretty clear that the "achievement" portion of that equation has far outweighed "sportsmanship."  There are exceptions to the rule, one example being Arthur Ashe winning the award in 1992, long past his playing days.  But more likely than not, the award winner is going to an American from a major sport, who has completed a great achievement, either in that year's season or during the course of his/her (almost always his) career.

This has led to some choices that SI might wish it could recall because of subsequent events - Pete Rose in 1975, Joe Paterno in 1986, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998, Lance Armstrong in 2002, and even Tiger Woods himself, in 1996 and 2000.  But it's also led to many choices that have withstood the test of time, including John Wooden, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jack Nicklaus, Sandy Koufax, and many others.

In looking at this year, I tried really hard to come up with the ideal mix of achievement and sportsmanship, and came up with what I felt were two viable candidates:

- The San Antonio Spurs, the very embodiment of team achievement in sports, a collection of elite players each of whom has demonstrated over a long period of time that they are willing to sacrifice their own individual goals in pursuit of team success.

- Bill Snyder, the football coach at Kansas State University, who has demonstrated in this era of big money college football that it is still possible to compete at the highest level with players that few people (outside of the diehard fans) have heard from, for a campus that few people would identify as being a Mecca of college football.

I'd still be happy with either one of those choices.  But frankly, you can just throw them out the window, because after what we've seen in the last 29 days, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the Sportsman of the Year has to be Madison Bumgarner.  Now, to be fair I don't know anything about Bumgarner's personal life outside of the fact that he is from and lives in North Carolina.  I can't vouch for whether he is, in fact, a "Sportsman."  Based on the entertaining locker room scenes after the Giants' wins in the NLDS and the NLCS, he seems to be a bit of a goofball.  But in this era of social media where each athlete's foibles are examined and exposed like never before, I've never seen or read anything to suggest that Bumgarner is a jerk, or someone who gives his teammates and competitors a difficult time about anything.

So in this case, I'm comfortable saying that what Bumgarner achieved in the month of October has clearly set him apart from every other athlete in the sports world in 2014.  As one scribe put it earlier this week, for the month of October, Madison Bumgarner became 1968 Bob Gibson.  And he did it on the very biggest stage in all of baseball, under the greatest pressure one could possibly imagine.

He is, or at least should be, your Sportsman of the Year for 2014.

II. The Game

When the Giants brought Madison Bumgarner into the game last night, I posted this comment on Facebook:

"Well, this is either going to make history, or be one of the most disappointing World Series moments ever."

Right at the beginning, it didn't look good, but once he got out of the first inning he pitched, it seemed as if he got stronger, as if he were drawing strength from the moment.  And the thing was - there was just no margin for error.  The Royals triad of relievers was well rested, and as they proved last night, were damn near unhittable.  And Bruce Bochy was determined to ride the big hoss into the sunset, regardless of whether it was in victory or defeat.  It was Bumgarner's game to lose.

After the seventh inning, thinking that we would HAVE to see Sergio Romo in the 8th, I posted:

"Wow.  Just wow. #MadBum"

It was one of the few moments in a lifetime of watching sports that I was truly understanding and appreciating everything that I was seeing, as it was unfolding before me.  This was history - this was the kind of thing that in 50 or 100 years, an 8-year old kid might read about in the Baseball Encyclopedia and try to imagine what it was like - just like I did when I was 8 and read about the great moments in World Series past.  And the thing was, once Bumgarner got past a certain point, it really didn't matter how the game ended - it was going to be a legend, and the only question that remained was whether it would be a story of triumph or one of tragedy.

And at the end of the game:


It's hard to even describe it.  It was one of those moments that you wanted to keep on going.  And so I kept watching, whether it was on Fox Sports 1 or ESPN.  I wanted to hear others talk about it, I wanted to see the players talk about it, and celebrate it.  And today I've read everything about it that I could possibly get my hands on - including the thoughts of the legendary Roger Angell - 94 years young.

III.  The Team

If you had told me that there would come a day that the San Francisco Giants would be widely referred to within baseball circles as "a model franchise," well...let's just say it would be a tough choice between laughing out loud and giving whoever said such an outlandish thing a very funny look.  But that is now the world that we live in, a world where the Giants have won three World Series Championships in the past 5 years.  

A cousin of mine posed the question on Facebook after the game of whether this championship topped the last two.  And the best response to that is probably "who cares?," because each one of them was great in its own way.  The first one will be remembered for being the first one, ending decades of frustration (and, at times, utter misery); the second one will be remembered for being about a team that just refused to die, winning six consecutive elimination games; and this one will be remembered, not just for the historic brilliance of Madison Bumgarner, but for the heroic efforts of stalwarts Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval.  

I've said before, it never gets old.  I know how lucky we Giants fans are.  And amazingly enough, we have become the team that others root against because now "we're getting greedy."  Well, to heck with that.  I'm ready for some more.

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