One of baseball's most competitive rivalries may have ended with a tip of the cap
Yankees-Red Sox. Cardinals-Cubs. Dodgers-Giants. These are some of the most intense rivalries in baseball, battles between foes that have been waged for decades. They've spanned generations, involved different ballparks and a plethora of eras of franchise domination, and they'll continue for as long as baseball does.
For the past decade, Dodgers-Giants has been highlighted by the pitching exploits of two left-handers, Madison Bumgarner of the Giants and Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers.
Sunday afternoon's Dodgers-Giants game in San Francisco marked what could be Bumgarner's final appearance as a Giant, as he'll be a free agent in the offseason. When he came out to pinch-hit against Kershaw in the fifth inning, the scene was electric. From Giants fans giving Bumgarner a well-deserved ovation after years of success and his role in multiple World Series championships to Kershaw tipping his cap in the direction of possibly retiring Giants manager Bruce Bochy after Bumgarner lined out to end the inning, it was powerful, since it was essentially capping off the Bochy-and-Bumgarner era which intensified this rivalry for so long.
It's also worth noting that as Bumgarner headed to the plate, Kershaw called catcher Will Smith out for a quick mound visit, almost assuredly so Bumgarner could get a few more seconds to bask in the ovation he was getting from the fans who've adored him for so long.
That little gesture -- Kershaw taking a few extra seconds to allow Bumgarner a longer moment in the sun, so to speak -- is at the heart of the respect these two have for each other. It's a respect that shows that no matter how heated a sports rivalry can be, the concept of "game recognize game" is omnipresent.
Kershaw made his MLB debut in 2008 at 20, while Bumgarner began his ascent the following season with the Giants at the same age, and ever since, each pitcher has been the ace of his staff, the anchor upon which his team relied at all times, through thick and thin.
Having watched this Dodgers-Giants rivalry intensely since right after Kershaw's first season with the Dodgers, I came to appreciate every time he'd square off against Bumgarner, and the heightened anxiety that each Giants-Dodgers game brought with it. Each team REALLY wanted to beat the other, and in lean years when the Giants weren't a postseason threat, you knew they'd always give the Dodgers a tough time regardless. A lot of that had to do with these Bumgarner-Kershaw games.
Far beyond a pitching matchup that energized both fan bases, this was a heavyweight battle between two elite pitchers who may both find themselves in the Hall of Fame one day, and it was usually explosive entertainment.
Sometimes, Bumgarner even crushed homers off Kershaw to stoke the fire:
Bumgarner actually got to Kershaw for five hits over the years, and two of those were homers.
Stuff like that -- the sinking feeling of, "Uh oh, here comes Bumgarner. Is he gonna launch another one?" -- made their head-to-head matchups even juicier than they already were, due to Bumgarner's skills with the bat.
But while the Dodgers-Giants rivalry, led by Bumgarner's fiery demeanor, was heated as far as the teams were concerned, heightened emotions sometimes inspiring trash-talk T-shirts and leading to on-field fireworks every now and then, there was nothing but the highest respect shown between the two pitchers. Each knew the other was at the top of his game, and while this led to intense showdowns on the field whenever they'd face each other -- which happened 11 times as of this past June -- the mutual respect remained.
And I'm talking about respect as humans, not just as athletes competing on the same baseball diamond.
It’s time to remind everyone that Madison Bumgarner named his strongest horse after Clayton Kershaw. That's the type of competitive spirit I can get behind. https://t.co/RVc83Naml4— Lindsey Adler (@lindseyadler) September 29, 2019
Naming a horse after your competitive rival is the most perfectly Madison Bumgarner honor that he could give somebody, as the man's a near-mythical figure in baseball for his ability to, among other feats, deflect foul balls with his abs and kill a rattlesnake with an axe, saving a baby rabbit in the process.
This is why what happened Sunday makes so much sense. It was a bit of perfect timing from the Giants and Bochy, calling upon Bumgarner to come off the bench for perhaps his last moment as a Giant ... and square off against Kershaw. You knew both pitchers wanted to "win" the moment, because that's who they are.
But they're also friends, now, too.
Kershaw and Bumgarner have become friends over the years and chat before every Giants-Dodgers series. Kershaw threw him seven straight fastballs today, definitely gave him a shot.— Alex Pavlovic (@PavlovicNBCS) September 29, 2019
It doesn't matter if the Dodgers will be playing into October and the Giants won't. Bumgarner wanted to own Kershaw one last time, and Kershaw wanted to nab Bumgarner one last time, because of that competitive drive that has been at the heart of their face-offs for years.
And it was all capped off with a great gesture from Kershaw as he left the mound, a simple tip of the cap to Bochy, riding off into the sunset after a wonderful managing career, which also effectively felt like a nod from Kershaw to his friend and longtime sparring partner, Bumgarner.
The Giants-Dodgers rivalry will continue no matter what happens to the individuals involved, sure, but if this was the last time Bumgarner and Kershaw would face off in this setting, it was a hell of a way to go out.
Adrian Garro joined MLB.com in 2016. Throughout his travels, both Bartolo Colon and Vin Scully have placed their hands on his shoulders. Not at the same time, though. That'd be amazing.