Under the blue skies of a sunny Arizona afternoon, Matt Bush escaped from his baseball prison Wednesday.
The metaphor is not misspent. Bush wore blue jersey No. 31 of the Texas Rangers in Wednesday’s Cactus League game against the Chicago Cubs.
Five months ago, he was inmate No. C07392 of the Florida State Department of Corrections.
In March 2012, Bush borrowed a minor league teammate’s Escalade and proceeded to get drunk, hitting a light pole, getting kicked out of a strip club and then striking a 72-year-old motorcyclist, driving over the man’s head and fleeing the scene. The man’s helmet saved his life.
Bush pleaded guilty — his third driving under the influence offense — and was sentenced to prison. Instead of lawyering up, however, as athletes often do, Bush came to the realization that he had to straighten out.
He served 34 months before being released in October 2015.
Six weeks later, upon the recommendation of Roy Silver, a special assistant in the team’s player development department, the Rangers signed Bush to a minor league contract.
At age 30, Bush is still a rookie. Twelve years ago, when he was a prep phenom shortstop, the Mission Bay, Calif., native was the first player selected in the 2004 draft.
Two weeks later, he was suspended by the San Diego Padres after an underage drinking incident that resulted in a bar fight.
It was only the first incident, not the last.
“I’d like for people to know my past,” Bush told reporters when he arrived at this Rangers spring training camp. “There have been a lot of mistakes, and I’ve had a lot of troubles with alcohol. I understand that I am an alcoholic, and I can not drink alcohol.
“But the past is the past. I was young and immature and didn’t have a handle on everyday life.”
Bush’s tale was chronicled in print and graphically told on TV by Fox Sports One. The two scenes, in particular, where Bush, drunk and wailing, was being restrained and arrested are chilling.
The man that Bush nearly killed, Tony Tufano, has survived but not without difficulties. Tufano has said that he has forgiven Bush for the incident and hoped that some major league team would give the pitcher another chance.
There are few crimes more infuriating and more preventable than drunken driving. The toll in lives lost or ruined is staggering.
Truth be told, I was ready to despise Matt Bush when the Rangers signed him last December. I didn’t want another ungrateful drunken athlete driving our streets.
As it turns out, though, Bush doesn’t drive any longer. He’s been sober since March 2012. His hair is cropped close and his voice is soft.
His life nowadays is Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and daily counseling. His mentor is Silver, and his father rooms with him at a nearby hotel.
Bush walks to Rangers camp each morning.
His life, Bush said Wednesday, is “day by day. There are things I have to take care of each day.”
Bush last appeared in a minor league baseball game five years ago. The Rangers, therefore, have spoken cautiously, if at all, about the 30-year-old rookie on the back fields who’s been blowing away hitters with a 97 mph fastball and a knee-buckling curveball.
He had earned a relief cameo, if nothing else, they decided.
Bush was excited, and that was a good thing, he said:
“I like being really excited. I’m a guy that depends on velocity, and it kinda helps me out.”
And so it was that the once-troubled young phenom who had been incarcerated for 34 months — and hadn’t pitched in five years — reached 97 mph, as billed, on the radar guns Wednesday. He pitched two innings, gave up no hits, walked one and struck out two.
“Pretty impressive,” manager Jeff Banister said. “It was fun to watch.
“An explosive fastball and he showed the plus breaking ball. He threw strikes down in the strike zone.
“It was as good a stuff as we’ve seen in camp.”
Banister was asked to repeat that assessment.
“I’m just telling you what I saw,” he said. “I saw a 97 mph fastball at the knees, both sides of the plate, and a plus breaking ball.”
Bush likely will begin the season at Double-A Frisco, and Banister cautioned, “Let’s don’t get ahead of ourselves on that. He’s a guy who knows how far he has to go.”
Matt Bush has already come far. His voice is humble. His remorse seems sincere.
He vows that he is forever finished with alcohol.
His bondage is over. He’s a baseball player again.