Why Madison Bumgarner's rodeo hobby should concern Diamondbacks so much

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Madison Bumgarner was able to keep his identity more or less a secret while competing in rodeo, but there’s no hiding the dangers associated with the former Giants pitcher’s preferred hobby of roping calves.

Using the alias of “Mason Saunders,” Bumgarner has been surreptitiously participating in team roping events — and doing quite well, even winning $26,560 in a December competition — The Athletic reported Sunday. Not that the man who signed a five-year, $85 million deal with the Diamondbacks needs the extra cash — roping runs much deeper than that for Bumgarner, who said “it’s just part of who you are.”

And that could pose a problem for the Diamondbacks, who can’t be thrilled Bumgarner’s side job is among the most dangerous in sports, even for a strapping, 6-foot-4 man. In an interview with The Athletic, Arizona general manager Mike Hazen refused to discuss whether Bumgarner’s deal includes any clause regarding participating in rodeo events. But, the Diamondbacks likely already are aware of the risks their star left-hander has taken during rodeos.

There’s a real risk of injury for Bumgarner, whose other hobby of riding dirt bikes cost him three months of his 2017 season with the Giants when he injured his shoulder in an accident.

According to one study by a sports epidemiologist at the University of Calgary, rodeo isn’t just an unsafe sport, it’s even more dangerous than playing football. Dale Butterwick’s research shows nearly 20 of every 100,000 rodeo competitors will suffer a catastrophic injury (either death or a life-altering injury). For football, the rate is fewer than one of every 100,000 players.

“I haven’t seen any sport that comes close to that. In a scientific setting, alarm bells go off,” Butterwick told The Canadian Press.

Many rodeo injuries, though, are the result of bull riding. Bumgarner’s event of choice is team roping, where two teammates take turns roping steer — a header, whose job is to lasso (or “dally”) the horns or neck, and the heeler, who ropes the animal’s hind legs.

However, just because team ropers such as Bumgarner don’t leave the saddle while competing doesn’t change the fact they risk serious injury. Losing a thumb during the event is not an uncommon injury.

As Team Roping Journal reports in a story on the big decision whether to save or amputate a thumb, “Rodeo thumb, or traumatic amputation of the thumb during team roping, is a relatively common injury, particularly among team ropers.”

Bumgarner does take some precautions while competing as the left-handed pitcher uses his right hand in competitions. That’s a good thing, too. Among team roping injuries, the roper’s dominant hand was injured 83% of the time, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. The traumatic thumb injuries occur when the heeler’s digit gets caught in the rope’s coil against the saddle’s horn while the line between the horse and steer tightens. The sheer weight of a 650-pound steer on the end of the rope has been known to pop a team roper’s thumb off.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the traumatic nature of the avulsion injuries doesn’t seem to faze cowboys. Take Justin Johnson, a standout roper who lost his thumb at the National Western Stock Show in Colorado in 2017.

“I was not in a panic, I just dallied, a little tug and there goes my thumb flying across the arena,” Johnson told Denver’s KDVR-TV. “This is probably the No. 1 danger of team roping events is cutting your fingers out.”

Johnson was mostly proud he earned four first-place scores while losing his thumb. He was able to have his thumb reattached but, like others who have suffered the injury, he’ll never completely recover from it. The best cowboys can hope for is for the thumb to return to 80% normal, said Dr. David Schnur, a Colorado plastic surgeon at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center.

“These roping kind of injuries are some of the most difficult we deal with,” Schnur told KDVR-TV, noting the problematic long recovery process. “Ranchers and cowboys are always hard because they want to go back to work the minute they get out of the hospital.”

In the American Journal of Sports Medicine’s 20-year study of 19 thumb amputation cases related to rodeo injuries, only 5 of the 15 attempts of replantation were successful. Perhaps not surprisingly, every one of those studied returned to competing in rode, including seven patients whose thumbs couldn’t be saved.

Given the evidence of potential risk for Bumgarner, it’s easy to see why it may not be a good idea for him to continue to compete in the rodeo arena. But what we may see as just a dangerous hobby, Bumgarner sees as a way of life.

“No matter what hobbies I have, I take ‘em serious,” Bumgarner told The Athletic. “That’s just my personality. I don’t do anything just for fun, per se. I wish I did.”

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