Mariotti: The right kind of history

The same path Barry Bonds took all those tainted, tawdry years — out of the third-base dugout, over the foul line, into left field — was the same one traveled Wednesday evening by Madison Bumgarner. As MadBum launched his preparation routine in the grass, Clayton Kershaw was in right field doing the same, stretching and sprinting and long-tossing. You turned in the stands to your son or grandson, whether you actually had one or not, and said, “Don't ever forget this night, kid.”

One man authored baseball's most extraordinary October pitching performance ever. The other man, very possibly, is the finest pitcher of his generation. And they were dueling, at dusk.

Now, isn't this the kind of history that should be carved out at China Basin? As opposed to the infamy once wreaked by Bonds, who made the wrong kind of news earlier in the day?

It somehow didn't matter that neither lefty factored in the decision, with a hunch by Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly — pulling Kershaw after six innings and 93 pitches — turning into a pinch-hit, two-run home run by Alex Guerrero that prompted Giants manager Bruce Bochy to yank Bumgarner after 109 pitches. Nor did it matter, early in a very long season, that Kershaw isn't looking like a Cy Young Award winner yet, while Bumgarner hardly is resembling Paul Bunyan.

We had two legends in our midst. Perfection wasn't necessary. Let others be the heroes, including Joe Panik, all 185 pounds of him. His sacrifice fly in the ninth scored Gregor Blanco in a wild finish, the Giants winning 3-2 after Mattingly had ripped the umpires a new one. Before Panik's at-bat, Blanco had collided with third base coach Roberto Kelly after sluggishly running past the bag. The rulebook states a coach can't touch, hold or assist a baserunner, and clearly, Kelly was touching Blanco, though the contact was induced more by Blanco. Said third base umpire Fieldin Culbreth: “If he doesn't physically assist him in returning him to the base, then there's no interference.” Mattingly paraded around the field in a huff, first arguing with Culbreth, then arguing with home plate ump Clint Fagan, then calling a meeting at the pitcher's mound to establish a five-man infield with Yasiel Puig planted between first and second base. The play was not reviewable via replay, allowing Panik to end the night.

“I was already on the base. He grabbed me,” said Blanco, who probably didn't want to say that. “It was kind of weird. I knew I wasn't going to score.”

Said Mattingly: “They missed the call basically. I don't know who was supposed to be watching, but they weren't watching. [Culbreth] didn't see it.”

The night had the energy of September, with the 9-5 Dodgers again losing a chance to emotionally bury an injury-depleted, dubiously assembled Giants team that is now 6-10. The Giants dinked their way to a 2-0 lead in the third — a Bumgarner bunt moving up the runners, an infield slap by Nori Aoki scoring one run, a bloop to center by Matt Duffy bringing in another. Those three balls collectively didn't go as far as Guerrero's crush job into the left-field seats. Kershaw struck out nine, allowed three singles and outpitched Bumgarner, who allowed six hits and struck out six. By the end, when the Giants poured onto the field and hopped together in celebration, both pitchers were footnotes.

But never forgotten.

“I felt pretty good. I felt my stuff was good, command was good,” Bumgarner said. “Regardless of who I'm pitching against, I've got to get the hitters out.”

Not a soul in AT&T Park should have cared much that Bonds, in what amounts to deodorant being sprayed in a rancid bathroom, had won a hollow and suspicious legal reprieve in a federal appeals courtroom a few blocks away. This was no time to debate whether Bonds, who technically can say he never has been convicted for a steroids-related offense, should regain our voting affections and be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The answer, once and for all, is no — never, never, ever — and as former Commissioner Fay Vincent told The Associated Press, “I think sadly his reputation has been tarnished, not because of the indictment or the reversal, but because of all the PED use. I think the public has made up its mind.”

Rather, this was the time to observe that baseball now is defined by the antithesis of those fraudulent, bloated-body power freak shows. Since the day last decade when Congress shame-forced Bud Selig and the players union into a real drug policy, the sport has evolved toward a higher level of intellect, one that places a premium on defense, metrics, creative run production and, ultimately, pitching. We're in a deadball period where runs aren't scored much at all, which isn't going to help the sport with its millennials crisis but at least celebrates the integrity of greatness. I remember those nights at the ballpark when Bonds was shattering milestones, fully aware that I'd have to take three showers when I arrived home.

Watching Bumgarner battle Kershaw, in the first-ever pitching showdown between a reigning World Series MVP and a reigning league MVP, is legitimate theater. It inspires what is so precious about baseball — thoughtful discussion. No one of sane mind can say Kershaw doesn't have the better body of work after an MVP award and three Cy Young Awards in four years. But if the question is who has made the bigger impact in sports history, the answer is Bumgarner. Notice the 14-karat white-gold ring he was modeling on the field last weekend, the one with three diamonds on top and five underneath? It was the latest championship ring, symbolic of three World Series titles in five years, all of which Bumgarner has contributed to as a starting pitcher. But it was his Herculean effort in October that makes his historical footprint even larger than Kershaw's. It earned him Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year cover. It made him a legend in a championship context. And with apologies to regular-season sports gods everywhere, it means more to dominate and hoist a team trophy at night's end than to dominate and win individual awards.

Isn't that right, Tom Brady?

Isn't that right, Peyton Manning?

While Bumgarner was plow-horsing his way into immortality, Kershaw was bounced out of the postseason again by the St. Louis Cardinals. He wasn't helped the last two Octobers by having to pitch on short rest, this last time because the splurge-spenders at Guggenheim Partners elected not to acquire a big-time starting pitcher at the trade deadline. Still, don't go there — Bumgarner pitched on two days' rest in Game 7, after a 117-pitch shutout in Game 5, and eliminated the Kansas City Royals with five shutout innings of unforgettable relief. Don't tell me about Kershaw's arm fatigue when Bumgarner defied every hardship in a record 52²⁄³ postseason innings, allowing just seven runs while striking out 45 and walking only six.

The recent concern was that Bumgarner's 270 innings, coupled with an exhausting offseason of media attention, might be burning him out. He allowed more runs in his first three starts this season than he did last postseason. His release point was off in San Diego, leading to a rare pummeling, and his strikeout ratio is down. He looks ordinary, even vulnerable, and the doubts will continue when he left a mistake over the plate for Guerrero, a heralded, $28 million Cuban who can't crack the lineup. As the ball soared into the night, Bumgarner dropped into a crouch and tugged at his facial hair. Invincible, he is not. But at least he showed flashes of 2014, such as when he backed his old nemesis, Puig, off the plate, causing Puig to stare into the Los Angeles dugout while contemplating a reaction.

Hours later, the umpires were explaining themselves away and the Giants were pumping clubhouse music. Barry Bonds? Who was Barry Bonds?

Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at Read his website at

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