All-Star Game: 7:30 p.m., WJZY

Bumgarner gives NC hometown a Giant lift

jperson@charlotteobserver.comJuly 15, 2013 

— Debbie Bumgarner will settle down in front of her bedroom TV for the All-Star Game on Tuesday night.

Most nights when her son, San Francisco left-hander Madison Bumgarner, pitches, Debbie watches on her 62-inch TV in the living room. For West Coast games, she stays up past 1 – her 5:30 a.m. wake-up be darned – to see if Madison gets the win.

Tuesday night she’ll watch from her bedroom because her living room is being re-painted.

A couple miles south on U.S. 321, the TVs at the Pancho Villa Mexican restaurant also will be showing the Fox broadcast of the All-Star Game in New York.

Bumgarner eats at Pancho Villa a couple of times a week during the offseason, ordering the steak burritos with cheese sauce. A signed Bumgarner “Gigantes” jersey – from a Latino Heritage game – hangs above the double glass doors, while an autographed photo of Bumgarner is displayed behind the cash register.

“We always put the (Giants game) on when he plays,” said Roque Morales, the manager at Pancho Villa. “Everybody knows him around here.”

In a region hurt by the closing of many of the furniture factories that supplied jobs and an identity to the Hickory area, Bumgarner – who led South Caldwell High to a state baseball title in 2007 – has given residents something to cheer about.

After winning two World Series rings in his first three full seasons, Bumgarner made his first All-Star team this year. He ranks among the National League leaders with 10 wins and a 3.02 ERA, and opponents are batting .191 against him – second only to the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw (.188).

Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who will manage the National League squad, said he plans to use Bumgarner in relief.

Seemingly, the entire Hickory region will be watching.

‘Always the most feared’

Bumgarner was 4 when he started playing organized baseball on a team of 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds.

“But you’ve got to understand,” Debbie Bumgarner said, “he was also as big as those kids.”

When he was 8, Bumgarner played in the Granite Falls rec league, where his long frame and fastball had a lot of batters bailing out.

“He was always the most-feared guy because he threw it so hard growing up,” said Daniel Coffey, who played with Bumgarner in high school and on AAU teams. “He developed real good control. But when we were younger he scared a lot of kids.”

South Caldwell coach Jeff Parham met him when Bumgarner came to Parham’s summer camp as a sixth-grader. Parham didn’t need to see Bumgarner throw a pitch to sense he would be a special player.

“You could see his demeanor. He was tall and lanky, but his demeanor separated him,” Parham said. “(He was) a little more serious than most kids.”

Bumgarner kept developing and growing, reaching 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds by his senior year at South Caldwell.

Debbie Bumgarner remembers her son ordering foot-and-a-half long subs and entire pizzas, and devouring boxes of Honeycomb and Cheerios.

His family jokingly called him “the cereal killer,” and Parham still refers to Bumgarner as “the big left-hander.”

The big lefty pitched in a series of big games his final two years at South Caldwell, which lost to Scotland County in the state finals his junior year before defeating Ashley High of Wilmington for the 2007 championship.

Nights when Bumgarner pitched became events for the Spartans. Fans and scouts would fill the bleachers, prompting Parham to rope off a section for scouts and – at the urging of Bumgarner’s father, Kevin – put up a chain link fence around the bullpen to keep the crowds at bay while Bumgarner warmed up.

He would light up the scouts’ radar guns with a fastball that reached 97 mph. And while Bumgarner toyed with a slider, former South Caldwell catcher Charles Leprevost said anything other than the heater was extraneous.

“He just had so much natural movement on the ball,” Leprevost said. “We didn’t want to push. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel here.”

Would’ve been a Tar Heel

Bumgarner was set to play at North Carolina until the Giants drafted him 10th overall in 2007. The following year, he pitched in Hickory with the Augusta Greenjackets, the Giants’ single-A affiliate, and drew what is said to be the biggest crowd in Crawdads history.

Bumgarner’s rookie season in 2010 began on a tragic note after his half-sister, Dena, died of an accidental drug overdose in February following a divorce, Debbie Bumgarner said.

He went 7-6 with a 3.00 ERA in 18 starts as a rookie, then came through with several clutch postseason performances. Bumgarner – at 21 years and three months – became the fifth-youngest pitcher to start a World Series game, hurling eight scoreless innings in a Game 4 win against Texas.

Debbie Bumgarner was in the crowd in Arlington, Texas, for his shutdown performance in Game 4, which earned him national acclaim for his veteran-like poise.

“It was exciting, nervous,” Debbie said. “He was so calm and cool. Mama’s sitting on edge.”

Bumgarner matched that with another dominant World Series start last year against Detroit, tossing seven scoreless innings in a 2-0 win in Game 2. He became the first pitcher to start his World Series career with at least 15 scoreless innings since Boston’s Bruce Hurst in 1986.

South Caldwell printed T-shirts of Bumgarner’s postseason accomplishments after both of the Giants’ World Series titles, selling 1,800 shirts after the 2010 Series.

“We’re a very poor school,” assistant principal Chris Ackerman said. “When you have something like this, it gives kids something to be (excited) about.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in the Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton region was 10.1 percent in May, higher than the state (8.8 percent) and national (7.6 percent) averages.

No one in the region believes Bumgarner’s success – or that of South Caldwell’s baseball team – takes away the sting of the jobs lost to outsourcing. But every five days from April to October, it’s at least a welcome distraction.

“The furniture industry has been hit very hard with some of the recent economic downturns, with outsourcing and things of that nature,” said Leprevost, the former South Caldwell catcher who was valedictorian of his senior class. “But our baseball team was definitely an inspiration for some people and gave them a way to get away from some of the troubles our hometown has experienced.”

Leprevost, who works for Blue Cross/Blue Shield in Durham, said he will be in front of his TV on Tuesday, waiting for Bochy to bring Bumgarner into the game. He won’t be alone.

“I’d be surprised if half of Caldwell County isn’t watching,” he said.

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