There is a sense that baseball is primed for a comeback in the sporting public’s conscience, even though the effects probably won’t be felt in Minnesota until we get to that steamy night this August when Jose Berrios is on the mound, Byron Buxton is in center field and a spot in the lineup has been found for Miguel Sano.
Across much of the nation, it should not take that long, for there were some negative clichés destroyed last October that have been aimed in the past at the Grand Old Game.
The idea that baseball’s lack of a salary cap eliminates the chance of lower-revenue teams for glory had been well-refuted over the past decade, and it happened again with Kansas City’s dramatic push to the World Series.
Also, the sight of big leaguers such as Bartolo Colon provides the game’s critics a chance to stereotype ballplayers as marginal athletes and certainly not in possession of the warrior’s spirit that you see in a football, basketball or hockey player.
And then here comes Madison Bumgarner, handling pressure with the cool of Tom Brady, accepting a physical challenge that would strain LeBron James in a seven-game playoff series.
It was not getting rushed from the blind side, not getting double-teamed in crunch time, but there is no greater strain on a limb in sports than that on a pitcher’s arm, and Bumgarner was magnificent as he dealt with it.
The interaction between Bumgarner and San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy will stay among my all-time favorite sports dramas. It was wonderful because there was no interaction.
Bumgarner had pitched 47⅔ innings since starting the postseason Oct. 1 with an 8-0 shutout of the Pirates in Pittsburgh. He had pitched another shutout Oct. 26, beating the Royals 5-0 and giving the Giants a 3-2 lead in the Series.
The Royals responded with a 10-0 home blowout in Game 6, and there were suggestions by Bochy and Bumgarner that the lefty might be available for a couple of innings the next night, if the Giants really needed him.
Starter Tim Hudson did not get out of the second inning, Jeremy Affeldt was able to get seven outs, and the Giants had a 3-2 lead entering the bottom of the fifth. The bullpen gate opened and here came Bumgarner.
As he strode to the mound, a long-ago quote from Jim Finks, then the general manager of the Vikings, came to mind.
It was March 1967, and Norm Van Brocklin officially was gone as coach, and Finks was going to hire Bud Grant of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Finks told Bill McGrane, his PR director, to go to the airport and meet Grant when he got off the plane.
“I don’t know Grant,” McGrane said.
Finks solved the problem by saying, “Grant will be the guy who looks like the town marshal.”
Wasn’t that Madison Bumgarner last October: The town marshal, the lefthanded gun, arriving to save the small covey of innocent San Franciscans, surrounded by the zealous citizens of this Cowtown?
This was the sheep farmers against the cattle ranchers, and here came Paul Newman (a lefty) to save the interlopers from harm.
Bumgarner went through the fifth, and walked to the dugout and took his seat. Name a manager who wouldn’t have sat down next to him, asked Bumgarner if he was OK, asked him if he could give the team another inning.
There was one: Bruce Bochy.
This was the essence of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Bochy wasn’t going to ask, and Bumgarner wasn’t going to tell.
Four times Bumgarner got to the dugout, and sat there as Bochy draped himself over the dugout rail, and then came the bottom of ninth — three more outs, 68 pitches total, and the Giants were World Series champions again.
I saw the sport’s comeback last October, in the Royals and in Bumgarner, in the madness for the Nationals in Washington, a city with a baseball past that was captured in the line, “First in war, first in peace and last in the American League,” and in Pittsburgh, where football is king and so is Andrew McCutchen.
I see it now with the Cubs stockpiling World Series-level talent, with a Caribbean invasion of talent that will become even more amazing when the gates of Cuba are completely open, and with the likelihood that more extra-gifted young athletes will decide the risk of Tommy John surgery is more acceptable than the risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
Baseball is on the way back, and we’ll even appreciate it in Minnesota once again, as soon as Sano starts hitting balls to the back of the top deck at Target Field.