01/12/11 6:36 PM EST
Bush seizing second chance at baseball career
By Dawn Klemish / Special to MLB.com
A broken ankle. Tommy John surgery. Released by two clubs in less than two months for off-field issues.
He has been labeled a bust. Troubled. A problem.
It's a lot to deal with in one lifetime, and Bush has lived through it all before his 25th birthday. But even though he was soft-spoken while talking with media members Wednesday at Tropicana Field, there was a fire in Bush's eyes. He displayed a firm resolve that the Matt Bush who couldn't control his life was not the Matt Bush the Rays took a chance on.
"It's very exciting for me to get another chance, another year," he said, after Tampa Bay wrapped up its Winter Workouts for the day. "There was a little worry there that maybe this was the year that I may have to be looking [for another job]. I was hoping I had another chance, another job, and the opportunity was given to me. It just made me want to work so hard and take advantage of it, to not let a year go by where I have to look back and say, 'I wish I would've done this better.'"
Wednesday marked the first time since 2008 that Bush has worked out on a Major League field, and he was determined this time not to take it for granted. He commented on how exciting it was to see his name above a locker in the Rays' clubhouse, and to be able to get out on the field with his teammates again. Though he still battles his demons "day by day," the 24-year-old has now fought through enough now to understand that each day on that field is a gift.
To look into Bush's eyes is to know that he means every last word of what he says. This time around, he knows there won't be any more do-overs.
"To be back here, it's like I've been given a new life," he said with a smile. "It's a thrill, it's just surreal to me."
Bush was a high school shortstop out of San Diego in 2004, scooped up by his hometown Padres as the No. 1 overall Draft pick and given a hefty $3.15 million bonus. The trouble began shortly after, when he was suspended for an Arizona nightclub fight before he even got to take the field.
"I had," he said, taking a deep breath, "a serious off-the-field problem with alcohol."
But he battled it silently, and for nearly five years after the initial incident, he stayed out of trouble.
Except that alcohol was seriously affecting his game. Once the slick-fielding shortstop who hit .450 as a senior with 11 homers and 35 RBIs, Bush's problem reduced him to hitting .192 in 2004, and .221 the year after.
In 2006, a broken ankle sidelined him for more than half the season. Concerned about his hitting, the Padres decided to try a different angle in 2007 and converted the 5-foot-11 righty into a pitcher.
It should've worked -- Bush had a mid-to-high-90s fastball and a 0.42 ERA in high school -- but something still wasn't clicking.
Tommy John surgery was needed after just seven games pitched, and it forced him to miss the entire 2008 season. It was during workouts that offseason that Bush saw his last time on a Major League field: He was released in early February 2009 after assaulting a high school lacrosse player while drunk. The Padres had had enough.
"It got to the point where [alcohol] was kind of running my life," he said. "I couldn't really do the things on the field that I had done before when I didn't have such bad problems. It really got to me emotionally, physically, everything."
Although he was picked up by the Blue Jays just days later, he was also released in less than two months after violating the club's "zero tolerance" policy in his contract.
Bush hit bottom in June of that year, when he was videotaped in an altercation with police, and was then charged with driving while drunk, resisting arrest and vandalism. The video depicted an emotional Bush being handcuffed on the ground, and was quickly picked up by local news stations. He went home and fell off of the radar for more than six months, trying desperately to get his life in order. Bush, who was sentenced to three years probation and 120 days in a sober living facility after the two incidents, divided much of his free hours then between spending time with his family and hoping desperately that someone, somewhere would give him another chance.
Two things happened during that time: Aided by the love of his family, Bush found the strength to overcome his addiction. Then, the Rays came calling.
Tampa Bay took it slow with Bush at first, declining media interviews and allowing him to pitch just 10 games in 2010. The Rays wanted to make sure he was ready.
On Wednesday, his first group interview as a Ray, Bush proved he was.
"I think more than anything, I knew that I had to be the person I know that I am so that I could live and have a life, because my life was going nowhere," he said. "I'm just so fortunate to have the opportunity to play baseball and I didn't want to let that pass, because that's what I love to do."
Tampa Bay had enough faith in Bush to place him on this season's 40-man roster. Bush has enough faith in himself these days to want to try and be a mentor to some of the younger guys in the clubhouse, like 2008 No. 1 overall pick Tim Beckham, his teammate at Class A Charlotte last season.
His message is simple but strong: Learn from my mistakes, so you don't follow in my footsteps.
"I think [Beckham's] a tremendous talent," Bush said. "You get a lot to be a No. 1 pick, but you have a lot to deal with. You try to help out, you know, 'This is what I did,' and hopefully he'll be wise enough to listen, because I didn't listen back then."
Now back on the right side of the law and his life, Bush has his entire career ahead of him. It's so exciting to contemplate, he said, he can barely put the feelings into words. He does know this, though: No matter where the Rays place him come Spring Training, he's just grateful to have finally put the past behind him.
"It doesn't matter [where I go], that's not up to me," he said. "I'm just going to work hard and wherever it is, it'll be great. ... Wherever it is, it's going to be a joy for me."
Dawn Klemish is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.