SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The year was 1987. It was the weekend before the All-Star break. We were stuck at the Toronto airport waiting on flight delays.
And Bo Jackson shared a little secret.
He was planning to play football for the Los Angeles Raiders when the Kansas City Royals’ season ended, agreeing to a five-year, $7.4 million contract.
Royals management was furious with the decision, but were powerless to stop him
But, the drama soon quieted and Jackson became known as perhaps the greatest athlete since Jim Thorpe. He was an All-Star in baseball and an All-Pro running back in football. And who knows how great he could have been if he had simply stuck with baseball?
Now, here we are, 33 years later, and it turns out that Arizona Diamondbacks ace Madison Bumgarner has been living a secret life as a dual-sport athlete, participating on the professional rodeo circuit, roping steer.
But if the Diamondbacks are concerned or aggravated, they aren’t showing it.
“Madison is a grown man,’’ Diamondbacks GM Mike Hazen said. “Look, these guys are professional athletes, and they're grown adults. They have lives outside of baseball.’’
Bumgarner signed a five-year, $85 million deal with the Diamondbacks this winter. (Photo: Darron Cummings, AP)
Hazen was well-aware of Bumgarner being “a very strong horseman,’’ and lived on a ranch, but until The Athletic story, conceded he didn’t know anything about his rodeo gig. He didn’t scour through Facebook to find a picture showing Bumgarner and another rodeo professional winning $26,560 in a team-roping event in December in Wickenburg, Ariz.
“Well, he hasn’t done that since being an Arizona Diamondback,’’ Hazen said. “I don’t have comments on what guys would have done prior to being an Arizona Diamondback.’’
While Bumgarner used an alias – “Mason Saunders" – he insists he was never discreet with his hobby. Many of his former teammates with the San Francisco Giants were aware of his rodeo activities, and he already shared his secret with a few of his new teammates the first week of spring training.
“He’s a cowboy,’’ veteran Diamondbacks pitcher Edwin Jackson said. “He’s proud of it. He’s probably been riding horses and doing this his whole life.’’
Hazen doesn’t think Bumgarner has participated in steer roping since signing his five-year, $85 million contract with the Diamondbacks, but if he resumes those activities, it’ll be at his own risk. There’s a standard provision in every contract that prohibits players from engaging in any sport “involving substantial risk of personal injury.’’
Hazen declined to say whether he will ask Bumgarner to stop riding horses, partaking in rodeo events or even chop wood.
“I’m not going to get into any contract-language conversations,’’ Hazen said.
It’s no different than when the New York Yankees released third baseman Aaron Boone after he tore his left ACL playing basketball in 2004 (which led to the trade for Alex Rodriguez). Or when the Atlanta Braves released Ron Gant after he broke his leg on a dirt bike in 1994. Or when the New York Mets slashed the salary of outfielder Yoenis Cespedes after he broke his ankle being chased by wild boar on his ranch.
The Giants could have responded the same in 2017 when Bumgarner rode a dirt bike in the Colorado mountains, slipped and fell, spraining the AC joint in his pitching shoulder. He missed nearly three months and made just 17 starts that year.
The Giants scolded their World Series hero, but didn’t fine him or threaten to withhold his salary, still picking up his $12 million option in each of the last two seasons.
Bumgarner kept riding his horses, and, yes, occasionally dirt bikes too, understanding the consequences.
It’s unknown whether he plans to curtail his activities now that he is locked up to the second-largest contract in Diamondbacks history. Ultimately it's up to the organization if it wants to stop him.
“I’m sure we’ll have conversations with him at various points of time,’’ Hazen said, “where all sorts of subjects come up. The majority of our conversations center around being ready to pitch.’’
Yet, rodeo circuit or not, Bumgarner is expected to continue riding horses and maybe an occasional dirt-bike ride – but plans to be smart about it.
But if the Diamondbacks or anyone else think that Bumgarner simply is going to sit at home all winter, or stay home and watch TV on his off days this season, they don’t know the man.
“No matter what hobbies I have,’’ Bumgarner told The Athletic, “I take them serious. That’s just my personality. I don’t do anything just for fun, per se. I wish I did.”
Sorry, golf is not his game. He’s an outdoorsman. He rides horses, hunts, fishes, and yes, chops his own wood.
Those hobbies, of course, never necessitated an alias. Really, he thought he was being shrewd by using a shortened version of his first name and taking his wife's maiden name to become Mason Saunders.
Now, Mason Saunders is a household name.
Bumgarner declined to comment Monday on his gig being exposed, but surely will be asked about it Thursday when he makes his Cactus League debut against the Cincinnati Reds, answering whether his rodeo life will be on hiatus for the duration of his Diamondbacks’ career.
Then again, maybe he’ll dare anyone to find out.
If Bumgarner’s cover wasn’t blown, he might have been found this weekend at the 56th annual Lost Dutchman Days Rodeo in nearby Apache Junction, Ariz. The rodeo will feature bareback bronc riding, bull riding, calf roping, and yes, steer wrestling. If nothing else, he can Hazen out personally to show him what he’s missing. Hazen, who grew up in Massachusetts and went to Princeton, concedes he has never seen a rodeo in his life.
But for now, Bumgarner will be relegated to only being a pitcher again, albeit one of the fiercest competitors in the game.
And for the rodeo circuit, man, are they ever going to miss Mason Saunders.
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