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2014 Sportsman of the Year: Madison Bumgarner

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The left-handed pitcher they call MadBum is a throwback to the old days of baseball. He ropes steers, rescues baby rabbits from snakes, and in all ways is "as country as they come". He also throws a crazy number of pitches in the era of the "quality start", hits home runs, and -- unlike some other pitchers -- gets even better in the playoffs.

I love the story of the leaves.

"I've never told anyone this story before."

One of the most famous men to come out of Caldwell County is ready to make a confession. Madison Bumgarner is at home, standing inside a steel building that is mostly a huge barn with almost an afterthought of living space attached to it for him and his wife, Ali, his high school sweetheart. If you know Bumgarner only from his implacable clutch pitching for the Giants, especially in the 2014 World Series, this Bumgarner is unfamiliar: anxious and vulnerable.

"So this will be the first time," he says, "outside of family and friends."

To stand on the knob of land in Lenoir, where Bumgarner's barn sits amid his 116 acres, is to stand in the footsteps of the Catawba and the Cherokee. It is about 12 miles from Brown Mountain, where strange lights glow like balls of fire in the night sky, still nearly as much a mystery as they were when the Cherokee thought they were torch-carrying maidens searching the mountain for their loved ones lost in battle. It is 17 miles south of Blowing Rock, where the snow is said to fall upside down, ever since a benevolent wind raised a fallen Cherokee brave from the valley below to his love on the rock high above.

It is 23 miles south of Boone, a town named for legendary pioneer Daniel Boone, who established camp there, and 66 miles southwest of Mount Airy, the inspiration for television's Mayberry. It has been, is and will be home to the latest legend from the foot of the Blue Ridge: the greatest pitcher in World Series history and the 2014 SI Sportsman of the Year. He is the third-youngest baseball player to be so honored in the award's 60-year history, behind only Johnny Podres in 1955 and Tom Seaver in '69.

Bumgarner, 25, was four years old when he noticed the mountain wind.

"Look, Paw-Paw," he said to his maternal grandfather, Lewis Abernathy, "those leaves are afraid."

"Why do you say that, Maddy?"

"Because they're trying to run away from the wind."

Also check out this hilarious video of his teammates doing their impressions of him:


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