A small group of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED editors and writers were sitting at the bar of a downtown Cleveland restaurant postdinner on Oct. 29. We were in town for the following night's Cavs game, when LeBron James would reintroduce himself to his hometown. A Moment‚Ñ¢ was unmistakably in the air, though a night early. Madison Bumgarner, three days removed from a 117-pitch shutout of the Royals in Game 5 of the World Series, was putting up a fresh set of zeros, the fifth inning, the sixth, the seventh, the eighth, each peeling away like the pages of a cartoon calendar. In near lockstep with Bumgarner's brilliance were a series of texts, DMs and emails, their all-capped enthusiasm becoming more insistent with each pitch: HATE THE GIANTS BUT C'MON ... GRANTED HUGE GIANTS FAN BUT THIS IS EPIC.... And this one, at 11:24 EST, moments after the postseason's final pitch, a 93-mph fastball that capped inarguably one of the three best October performances in history: SOY.
Truth? Mad Bum wasn't even on the Sportsman of the Year radar when a dozen SI editors met on Sept. 25, the Thursday before the start of the MLB postseason. The informal votes cast pointed to another Left Coast lefthander whose path to history was unfolding more clearly. By every statistical measure, traditional and advanced, Clayton Kershaw has been baseball's most valuable pitcher, perhaps even player, over the last four years, winning three Cy Young Awards. A cover image had even been conceptualized: Kershaw and SPORTS ILLUSTRATED KIDS' SportsKid of the Year, Mo'ne Davis, side-by-side, pitching arms extended forward, each holding a ball autographed by the other. The two had met this summer, when Mo'ne, in the midst of her inspiring Little League World Series run (page 150), had coyly invoked the name of the Dodgers' pitcher: "I throw my curveball like Clayton Kershaw ... and my fastball like Mo'ne Davis."
Within two weeks the Cardinals, of course, had laid waste to these plans, thumping Kershaw twice in four games in the NL Division Series. Like clubhouse hands hastily disassembling the temporary award podium, we were left to consider a new course. Kershaw still had his supporters, who argued that his collective body of work outweighed his short-term, small-sample failings. You can't help but wonder if, given a vote, Mad Bum himself would have joined that bloc. In Tom Verducci's Sportsman story, which begins on page 56, Bumgarner is showing off a new horse to the writer on his 116-acre North Carolina farm. "They don't make 'em like that every day," Bumgarner says admiringly. "I tell people I bought a Clayton Kershaw horse."
When the dozen editors met again met on Oct. 23, appeals were made for Kershaw, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and two-time golf major winner Rory McIlroy. Also Mo'ne and Pete Frates, the former Boston College outfielder turned ALS advocate turned Ice Bucket Challenge driving force (page 104), among others. And, for the first time, Madison Bumgarner was mentioned, by assistant managing editor Hank Hersch. This was three days before his Game 5 Series shutout and six days before Game 7, after which there was really no further discussion to be had. As Verducci writes, "In the heat of the postseason Bumgarner struck out 45 batters, threw two shutouts and saved a game while posting a 1.03 ERA. Nobody ever did all that before in October. Baseball records only two pitchers who have ever had a month like that even in the regular season."
This year's Sportsman celebration represents a first for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, a two-day, two-city event meticulously planned and choreographed by the teams of our director of experiential sales Hillary Drezner, and VP for activation and player relations, Christine Rosa. It began in Philadelphia on Monday, when Mo'ne was honored as the SportsKid of the Year, an event that brought together more than 150 Philadelphia children (and 76ers guard Michael Carter-Williams and WNBA star Skylar Diggins) in a celebration of active play and sportsmanship. On Tuesday night Mo'ne was part of a New York City extravaganza that mirrored the pages of this issue, which was edited by assistant managing editor Stephen Cannella. The night feted the moments of the year; the inspirations of the year, including Frates; the Executive of the Year, NBA commissioner Adam Silver; and SI's Legacy Award, which was presented by Silver to Magic Johnson for using sports as a vehicle, both directly and indirectly, for social, economic and cultural change.
Then there was the Sportsman himself. Like Mo'ne, Mad Bum has grown used to attention and politely indulges his newfound celebrity. He is laconic but an excellent storyteller. Madison Bumgarner dated a girl named Madison Bumgarner in high school, he'll tell you. He once roomed with Russell Wilson at a high school baseball tournament but barely recalls his time with the future Seahawks quarterback. The suit he wore to New York? His first. And that photo we wanted to shoot with Mo'ne and Kershaw? The SOY was a fine stand-in, a damn fine one.
Mad Bum wasn't even on the radar in September. But by the end of Game 7, there really was no discussion to be had.
BRAD SMITH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (BUMGARNER)
VICTORIA WILL FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (STONE)