He emerged out of a small opening from the clubhouse behind home plate. A few thousand fans scattered across the green seats of Surprise Stadium in Arizona shouted in his general direction, mostly in a positive manner.
Yet, the clamor of noise didn’t seem to phase him as he methodically stepped left foot in front of his right in rhythmic pattern towards the endless outfield grass. He adjusted his belt at the waist while keeping his stride. His hat shaded most of his face as he gazed five feet in front of him straight at the perfectly groomed dirt.
“Lets go Bumgarner,” one fan yelled from just above the visitor’s dugout. A handful of others followed in unison, raining down the encouraging phrases on the lanky 6’5 left-hander from Hickory, North Carolina.
“Uptown Funk” rang from the stereos below the press box, echoing throughout the half-full park-occupied by more Royals fans than Giants. The mood emulated a calming presence as stakes couldn’t be lower in a back-end spring training game one week from Opening Day. It was Friday, March 22, 2019-temperature in the mid-’60s and no sign of a breeze anywhere.
On this night, a handful of Kansas Citians tuned into Fox Sports Kansas City to catch one of the rare glimpses of this year’s Royals club on a live broadcast.
Maybe time heals wounds or at least masks them until a flash of remembrance overcomes them. However, when dealing with heartbreak, forgetting isn’t as simple as being blinded by the neuralyzer from the Men in Black movies. There is no bright light that eliminates your prior experiences. 1,604 days before this night, the name “Madison Bumgarner” morphed from the unhittable pitcher to being a stamped an unprecedented villain in Kansas City sports history.
Four and a half years ago, number 40 emerged from the right-field bullpen in Kauffman Stadium, stepping left foot in front of his right in rhythmic pattern-his hat shading most of his face while gazing five feet in front of him. Where in this instance, his appearance wasn’t met with encouraging remarks, but rather looks of disbelief. Some fooled themselves into believing the common man was not capable of surmounting more than one or two innings of work only four days removed from a 117 pitch complete game. But this was no common man and in no common circumstance. This was Game 7 of the World Series.
Back in the desert, Bumgarner toyed with the ball in his left hand while kicking the bottom of the mound for a solid landing spot for his stride when he delivered his first pitch. There wasn’t much noise, just the sound of the ball popping the glove of first basemen Brandon Belt during warmups.
Then the PA chimed in. “Leading off the right-fielder, number 15, Whit Merrifield.” Bumgarner eyed towards home plate, his gaze lifted just barely over his glove. He stepped to the side with his right leg, coiled it back up with his number angled towards the batter and slung one in. *pop. The radar gun displayed the number 89 on its pitch tracker for speed.
Later in the at-bat, Merrifield cracked a single back up the middle. Then Adalberto Mondesi whacked a double to left, followed by a seeing-eye dribbler by Alex Gordon that softly rolled into the shallow outfield grass. Hunter Dozier capped off the inning by sending a missile that dented the Royals bullpen in left-tallying four total runs off the four-time all-star.
His facial expression didn’t change or even twitch a muscle. At the innings merciful conclusion, the left-hander calmly kept a steady pace as he shuffled back to the dugout. It didn’t seem to phase him that during his last outing of the spring, he was bludgeoned by a group who manufactured a 104-loss season in 2018. Of course, most of this lack of frustration or dismay comes from the pointless outcomes and stats of spring training, but this didn’t take away the sense of shock that the new age Royals managed to tee-off on perhaps the most feared pitcher in the franchises existent. An Impressive performance regardless if it counted or not.
Ultimately surrendering seven runs on 10 hits, Bumgarner was chased off by the hit parade Kansas City showcased and he exited the field quietly without a whisper. Even fresh after the thrashing he took, it couldn’t be said with certainty if the perception of this athlete anomaly had changed in the slightest.
His effectiveness was at the level of a fringe minor leaguer being tossed into the fire during a blowout game in mid-June. His off-speed stuff rarely fooled a soul and the fastball he uncorked was met with loud cracks of the bat, sending the ball into all gaps of the field like a spray chart.
It’s true, the outing couldn’t have gone worse for the 29-year-old San Francisco ace and at times, few could question his abilities to anchor the rotation following his poor execution or lack thereof. But the negative outlook and the hammering Bumgarner took is far from the lasting image one can take away from that Friday evening.
What people witnessed four years and five months ago was a single man defy logic, physics, fatigue, and limits, in the brightest of lights in the highest pressure situation imaginable. The memory of it sits like a permanent scar on forearm, contained with a riveting backstory of how it came to be.
For some, the painfulness of remembering of Pablo Sandoval drop to his knees in foul territory, arms outstretched towards the night sky in jubilation can be overwhelming. The vision of the countless grey jerseys with a black and orange trim dog pile on the mound after rewriting the perfect ending to the Cinderella 2014 run by the Royals into a harsh slap of reality may send a chill down the spine.
It certainly wasn’t pleasant at all for some. However, every once a while, the victory of 2015 and the triumphant return runs its way back into the minds of Royals fans everywhere and the pain ceases to exist. The hoisting of the trophy in New York seemingly put an end to the suffering of dealing with the heartbreak Bumgarner had instilled in us all.
Now, with the years passing and Kansas City’s playoff prominence coming to an end, the focus shifted from World Series aspirations to rebuilding a core once again to one day return to 2014-15’s legacy. Reflecting on the back-to-back pennants and dwelling on moments in the past slowly withered away in time.
But every now and then, his presence returns and the memories come flooding back. Even at his weakest moments in a glorified exhibition game, the majority of the baseball world will forget it happened a few weeks later.
But to Kansas City, Bumgarner will always be the unhittable freak who singlehandedly shattered the dreams of a snake-bitten city when it comes to the postseason. Many will never forget where you were, what you were doing, and who you were with when contemplating back on that night. When dealing with this heartbreak, time is something that just can’t heal it.