Arizona the region and not necessarily the baseball team said something to Madison Bumgarner for long before he became a Diamondback at last. Enough to compel him to sign a new contract paying him less than he probably could have earned, even though he’s in the re-invention stage of his career. Sometimes there’s no place like a second home, too.
And more often than you think, money isn’t everything.
Time was when you couldn’t have pictured Bumgarner in anything other than the black-and-orange Giants hat and cream fatigues. When you saw the tenacity on the mound that turned him into a postseason myth in those fatigues and assumed, no matter what else came into play around him, that a Giant he was and a Giant he’d stay.
Madison Bumgarner and the Giants? Married even in the free agency era like Hall of Famers George Brett and the Royals, Tony Gwynn and the Padres, Chipper Jones and the Braves, Mariano Rivera and the Yankees, and Mike Schmidt and the Phillies. Not to mention future Hall of Famers Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers (so far) and Mike Trout and the Angels, plus Yadier Molina and the Cardinals, and David Wright—whom injuries obstructed from consummating a Hall of Fame career—and the Mets. Right?
But maybe you didn’t catch onto Bumgarner and his wife falling in love with something aside when the Giants hit spring training every year in Scottsdale, Arizona. Something like Arizona itself. The place means almost as much to Bumgarner as the heat of baseball competition and the chance for winning that, right now, the Diamondbacks present better than the Giants do.
“First and foremost, winning,” he said when the Diamondbacks introduced him as their newest Snake Tuesday. “That’s what the whole decision is based on, and being with a team that’s my brand of baseball. They play the way I like to play. They just play hard. They’ve got a bunch of grinders on this team, guys that don’t take any pitch off. They’re just a hard-nosed group of guys.”
That’s a terrific reason for a pitcher who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “quit” to think about a new team, of course. But the lure of Phoenix and the surrounding ambience of Arizona itself was just as powerful, maybe the only presence that could hit Bumgarner for distance and get away with it.
The long-enough-time Giants horse becomes the Diamondbacks’ own Electric Horseman. The Bumgarners imported a few of their horses from Bumgarner’s native North Carolina to Arizona every spring. The Giants training there was so seductive to him that, once he knew the Diamondbacks were more than interested when he finally became a free agent, he was even willing to trade a fan base he came to love as deeply as he loves to compete to surrender.
“It’s tough,” he admitted about leaving them behind. “The fans in that city mean so much to me. I mean, shoot, it’s been ten years there and we won three world championships and have been through a lot together. They’ve always been as good as they could possibly be to me, and I’ll never forget that. I’ll always be thankful for it. That part of it was tough, but coming here, so far, this place has exceeded all my expectations, and like I said, I’m really excited about it.”
The fact that he still gets to have a few skirmishes a year with the Dodgers now that he’s staying in the National League West couldn’t possibly have eluded MadBum, either.
Stephen Strasburg re-signing with the Nationals, like Trout extending for life with the Angels last spring, said essentially that there’s no place like home, even an adopted home. (Strasburg is a native southern Californian; Trout is native to a region near the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border.) Bumgarner signing with the Snakes says there can be no place like the home you long for.
The Giants could have offered him everything including ownership of McCovey Cove, his own private cable car, free feed for the rest of his life at the Fisherman’s Wharf eatery of his choice, and an on-the-house lease to any piece he chose at Hearst Castle down Highway 1 in San Simeon. Once the Diamondbacks indicated they wanted him, you couldn’t pay him enough not to swap the Bay for the desert.
If you think that’s even just a slight exaggeration, be advised that assorted published reports say the lefthander with the Dreamliner wing span in the split second before he throws to the plate had nine-figure offers to ponder from elsewhere, but he instructed his agent, VC Sports’ Ed Cerulo, that Arizona was “the number one place for me.” And money wasn’t everything.
“We definitely left some money on the table,” the newest Diamondback said when the team introduced him formally Tuesday. “You can say that.” If the published speculation is true and Bumgarner looked at $100 million or better for five years in other offers, he’s left at least $15 million behind overall while agreeing to pitch—according to The Athletic‘s Zach Buchanan—for $6 million in 2020 before hitting $14 million for 2021, $18 million a year in 2022-23, and back to $14 million in 2024.
Essentially, Bumgarner gave the Diamondbacks a new-home discount. No, make it actually: Buchanan reported that $5 million a year is deferred from the 2021-23 annual salaries until the deal is finished. And general manager Mike Hazen—who traded a somewhat more expensive desert lover named Zack Grienke to the Astros in 2019’s marquee trade deadline swap—“plans to use that [2020 payroll] flexibility” to shore up the Diamondbacks for contention.
Buchanan thinks Bumgarner all but willed the new Diamondbacks deal into existence, sort of, but don’t dismiss Hazen—who once said that on the one hand he wasn’t exactly starving for starting pitching but, on the other hand, he wasn’t exactly going to say no to the chance for more—being just a little bit shrewd in his own right, either:
Hazen admitted that adding to his rotation wasn’t his top priority, or really any sort of priority, entering the offseason, but that Bumgarner made it plain early on that he preferred to end up in Arizona. Though Hazen stopped short of saying that affinity for Phoenix prodded him into engaging on the longtime Giants starter, the structure and overall value of Bumgarner’s deal—and Arizona’s lack of rotation holes before offering it—suggest the Diamondbacks were able to capitalize on a specific advantage they had over the 29 other major-league teams.
It also looked like the early speculation that made the Bumgarner deal a possible to-come trade scenario for incumbent starting pitcher Robbie Ray isn’t necessarily so. Bumgarner’s deal flexibility lets the Snakes shore up without having to invent payroll room. They’d rather save the invention for the field if they can help it.
And, more important, Hazen’s willing to gamble that Bumgarner continues re-inventing himself on the mound to the point where he’ll deliver better goods than he could with the Giants since 2017. “We just watched a guy leave here in the middle of last season who reinvented himself every year he was here,” Hazen told the Tuesday presser, referring to Greinke. “We feel like [Bumgarner] has that ability.”
The entertainment possibilities can’t be resisted, either. Assuming the Diamondbacks have a better sense of humour now than they had when the late Kevin Towers was their general manager, don’t be shocked to discover a hitching post outside the players’ entrance at Chase Field. Or, to see Bumgarner galloping up to the park aboard one of his horses, maybe hollering, “Hi yo, Tumbleweed! Away!”
Or (sorry, it’s impossible to resist), to see a staredown and bawl-out with an enemy batter (preferably a Dodger?) who’s just hit one over the right field fence in Chase Field turn into a cheerfully snarky “Go get it out of the pool!” T-shirt.
Life and baseball with Bumgarner could be mad fun for the Diamondbacks, even if Bumgarner isn’t yet ready to resign his Fun Police commission. Almost as much fun and soul embracing as life in Arizona for Lieutenant and Mrs. MadBum themselves.