To those who had never heard of Matt Bush before watching him work a perfect ninth inning in the Rangers’ 5–0 loss to the Blue Jays Friday night, it probably looked easy. It was anything but. Twelve years ago, the Padres made Bush, a high school shortstop from nearby Mission Bay High School in San Diego, the top pick in the 2004 draft. In the dozen years between that selection and his major-league debut as a righthanded reliever on Friday, nothing came easy to Bush, who battled alcoholism, injury and himself, ultimately landing in a north Florida jail in December 2012.
Bush was an alcoholic before he was a nationally renowned baseball player, chronologically and in order of significance. He had his first drink at 13. Less than two weeks after being drafted by the Padres at the age of 18, he got into a drunken fight with a nightclub bouncer and found himself in court incurring probation and a suspension before his first professional game. He didn’t hit in short-season ball in 2004 or in the full-season Midwest league in 2005. In 2006 he suffered a broken ankle in spring training and missed the first half of the season. Promoted more because of who he was than how he was playing, Bush continued to struggle at the plate in High A in 2007 and was converted to pitching mid-season. That August, he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow prompting Tommy John surgery.
Bush’s off-field problems increased with the increase in time spent away from the field as a result of his surgery. During his recovery from surgery in 2008, he got into another fight and suffered an additional injury. In February 2009, he was caught on camera drunkenly assaulting two high school lacrosse players, prompting the Padres to designate him for assignment and trade him to the Blue Jays. In late March, he violated the Blue Jays’ zero-tolerance policy for further legal trouble when he allegedly assaulted a woman, resulting in his release. That June, video of Bush hogtied and crying after a DUI arrest made national news.
Despite all of that, the Rays signed Bush in January 2010, but elbow soreness limited him to 10 appearances and 13 2/3 innings that season. Finally healthy in 2011, Bush managed to avoid further trouble and make 36 appearances for the Rays’ Double A team in Montgomery, but on March 22, 2012, another drunken rampage changed everything. Having borrowed the SUV of a Rays teammate, Bush was allegedly involved in multiple hit-and-run accidents on that fateful Thursday, the last of which saw him hit a 72-year-old motorcyclist then drive over the man’s head in making his escape, saved from a manslaughter charge only by the man’s helmet. That December, Bush was sentenced to 51 months in jail.
By that point, Bush’s baseball career was an afterthought. The damage he had done to himself, his family and to the individuals he had injured far outweighed the remaining potential in his right arm. However, after 25 months in prison, Bush was moved to a halfway house and began a work-release job at a Golden Corral restaurant in Jacksonville. It was there that he was visited by Roy Silver, a former minor league outfielder, coach and manager who had helped Josh Hamilton return to baseball after similar battles with addiction and had befriended Bush during his brief time in the Blue Jays’ organization in early 2009.
Silver, now a player development assistant for the Rangers, thought he could help Bush get a job as a scout or a coach. However, casual games of catch in the Golden Corral parking lot revealed that Bush’s arm retained all of its potential. Catch matured into full parking-lot bullpen sessions, with Bush not allowed to leave the property and Silver crouching down between the cars in full catcher’s gear. Bush was released from prison in October. In December, the Rangers signed him on Silver’s recommendation.
Again on a zero-tolerance policy with his new club, Bush neither drank nor drove after his release, walking to the ballpark from his hotel in spring training and relying on his father for rides to 12-step meetings and constant companionship. In spring training, the 5'9" Bush hit 100 mph with his fastball. Assigned to Double A, he started throwing a slider to compliment the fastball and curve he’d been throwing since high school. On Friday, he was called up to the majors based as much on the raw quality of his stuff as his performance.
When Matt Bush entered from the Globe Life Park bullpen on Friday, he removed his name from the short list of No. 1 picks to have never appeared in the major leagues, a list now comprised entirely of Steven Chilcott (Mets, 1966), Brien Taylor (Yankees, 1991) and the last three top picks, who are still working their way through the minors. That was by far his greatest accomplishment on that day. That he sat down Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion in order, sitting at 97 mph with his fastball, dropping a curve in for a strike on Bautista, working in low-90s sliders, striking out Donaldson with a fastball at the knees and getting Bautista and Encarnacion to pop out to the infield, was gravy.
An even greater accomplishment than reaching the big leagues after that 12-year odyssey, however, is the degree to which Bush appears to have turned his life around. Sober, humble and apologetic, Bush wrote to the man he injured in the 2012 accident after his release from jail, apologizing and expressing his remorse.
“I have to understand that I’m an alcoholic and that I can’t be around that. I can’t control myself when I am,” he told The Dallas Morning News in February.
“I’m very sorry for my mistakes,” Bush told the San Diego Tribune in March. “I’m going to do everything that I can to stay sober and not ever put anybody in that situation again.”
Speaking to Fox Sports’ Gabe Kapler in 2014, the victim in the 2012 accident said that he hoped Bush could return to baseball and do “something positive.” Bush’s debut on Friday night was neither the first step nor the last in that journey. Every day will continue to be a battle for Bush, just as it has been for Hamilton and for their fellow addicts in all walks of life. One only hopes that, having come so far to get on the right path, Bush can remain on it and that, with each day, it does get a little easier.