Editor's Note: This story was originally published on April 7 in ESPN the Magazine's MLB Preview issue. Subscribe today!
ANOTHER SPRING TRAINING workout has started, and Matt Bush is supposed to be out there warming up. But even his own father can't find him on the crowded infield. "How many pitchers does one team need?" Danny Bush says, because in front of him are 98 professional baseball players dressed in identical Texas Rangers warm-ups, stretching their backs and arms.
His son had always been easy to find -- the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 draft, with a 98 mph fastball and a fleet of luxury cars -- but now he's been assigned to Auxiliary Field Six with a bunch of 18-year-old rookies and career minor leaguers. The Rangers' star players have left for an afternoon golf outing. The security guards are headed home. The fans have put away their autograph books and retreated into the shade of the main stadium to watch a college game. All that's left on this lazy February afternoon in Surprise, Arizona, are the minor league pitchers grinding out another practice in the desert heat.
"Is that Matt?" Danny asks, pointing to a pitcher in the outfield. He watches the player toss a ball. "Nope, not him," he says. "Why can't I find him?"
This is particularly concerning because Danny is contractually obligated to keep an eye on his son, who turned 30 this year -- to live with him in the hotel room, monitor his curfew and take him to 12-step meetings. Those are just some of the conditions of Bush's tenuous return to professional baseball, his last chance to redeem a decade of blown opportunities that made him perhaps the biggest disappointment in the history of the MLB draft. He's not allowed to drive. He's not allowed to drink alcohol. Just one night earlier, the Rangers flew in his 12-step sponsor from San Diego for what they called a four-day sobriety and wellness visit, and now the sponsor joins Danny along the fence.
"Find him yet?" the sponsor asks, shielding his eyes against the sun, staring out at the field.
"Not yet," Danny says.
The last time Bush went missing from spring training was four years ago. He was playing for the Rays, throwing well out of the bullpen and finally on the brink of making his major league debut. He'd been clean and sober for several months when one day his roommate, Brandon Guyer, let him borrow his Dodge Durango to drive home from practice, just half a mile away. How much could go wrong? But an hour later, Bush was 40 miles away in Sarasota, Florida, buying beer at a gas station. "Just a few," he had told himself then. Next he was at a liquor store, stocking up on airplane bottles. "One final bender," he had decided. Then he was at a strip club, getting kicked out for trying to climb onstage. Then he was back behind the wheel and blacked out, speeding toward the wreck that so many in his life had long believed was coming. He careened into a 72-year-old motorcyclist, knocking the man off his bike, driving over his head and leaving him in critical condition as Bush sped away. The police caught up to Bush a few miles later and charged him with three felonies, including DUI with serious bodily injury and leaving the scene of an accident with an injury.
He was sentenced to 51 months in a Florida prison. He played right field on the prison softball team and then was released to a halfway house in Jacksonville, where he took a job for $8.05 an hour at Golden Corral. It was there that a Rangers employee had rediscovered him in the parking lot, still throwing 95 mph in sweatpants and sneakers, with a department of corrections GPS tracking device locked to his ankle.
"A highly unusual scouting process, to say the least," says Jon Daniels, the Rangers' general manager, and now equally unusual are the stakes. Will Bush take advantage of his last chance in baseball, or will he combust in a way that threatens much more than just his career?
"Where's Matt? Where the heck is Matt?" Danny says now, still pacing along the fence. He scans the field until he spots a player with broad shoulders and a muscular build. "Is that him?" Danny wonders. He calls to the player and waves. The player waves back.
"There's Matty," Danny says, relaxing now, sitting to watch the workout. On this day, at least, his son looks healthy and stable. He looks happy even here on Auxiliary Field Six.
"He's out there," Danny says again. "He's right where he needs to be."
WHEN THE MINOR league season began this April in Double-A Frisco, it made official one of the unlikeliest comebacks in the long history of the sport. Bush is now throwing 100 mph, and the Rangers believe he has the talent to make an impact as a reliever in the major leagues, maybe as soon as this season. "I'm set up in the perfect position," Bush says, and yet he's made a mess of that same setup more than once before.
For the 1,317 days of his endless baseball offseason, Bush had spent most of his time in a prison cell in Jasper, Florida, thinking over the opportunities he'd wasted and the mess he'd made of his life. He was his high school team's star shortstop and its ace, drafted in 2004 by his hometown San Diego Padres to play in the field and signed for $3.15 million. A decade later, he was in a prison bunk with $600 in the bank. His longtime girlfriend had stopped writing him letters. His agent had dropped him. His parents couldn't afford to fly from California to visit, so they called instead. Only one person had requested to see him during his four years in jail -- a cameraman filming a story about the dangers of alcohol.
There was nothing to do in his cell but reread James Patterson books and count off 500 daily pushups while rehashing his mistakes -- so many mistakes. He had been drinking his way into trouble ever since junior high, downing his first beer at age 11 in a family in which alcoholism ran strong on both sides and fame had only exacerbated his disease. He was the son of an electrician and a janitor: "Nobody I knew had ever once imagined having a million dollars," he says. So when he received his first payment, it felt less like the beginning of a career than the culmination of a childhood dream. He moved in with his older brother, who already had two DUIs, and they spent their days drinking at a swimming pool. "It was nonstop craziness, thinking I was big-time, just not caring about anything," he says.
"Those were my devils: money, fame and expectations."Matt Bush
His first arrest came just two weeks after the draft, for getting drunk and biting a bouncer at a nightclub. In the years that followed, he got into trouble three times for driving drunk, a second time for fighting in a bar and, three times within a four-month span in 2009: once for assaulting high school students and screaming "I'm Matt f---ing Bush!"; once for throwing a baseball at a woman who had allegedly drawn on his face when he was passed out at a party; and once for swinging his belt at a moving car.
He had blown his chances on the field -- too hung-over to hit, and after the Padres made him a pitcher in 2007, too often injured to throw. He was dealt to the Blue Jays in 2009, released after a month and picked up by the Rays nine months later.
By then he had wasted most of his money. He had bought a Range Rover for $75,000, then a BMW, then an Escalade, then an Audi, a Bentley and four or five different Mercedeses. When he crashed the Escalade while drunk in a parking lot in 2009, it took at least six police officers to subdue him. "I don't care!" he screamed at them, in an arrest that was videotaped, but he was in pieces and sobbing as they carried him from the scene.
"I was so depressed. I was going to kill myself or die or do something," he says. "When I was the first pick and I wasn't performing the way a first pick should have, I couldn't handle it. I felt like a failure. I hated myself at practice or during the game until the end of the day, when I could grab my keys and hop into my nice expensive car and feel like somebody. Those were my devils: money, fame and expectations. I was hollow inside."
It bottomed out with one more joyride in 2012, one in which Bush crashed three times in just hours: He backed into a car on an illegal U-turn, then hit a light pole and fled the scene. The third, and by far the most devastating, knocked 72-year-old Anthony Tufano from his motorcycle and left him unconscious on the asphalt, his brain hemorrhaging, his lung collapsed, his face fractured, his ribs cracked and eight vertebrae broken.
"I try not to even think about it," Tufano says now.
"I forced myself to think about it every day in prison because I deserved to suffer," Bush says, and so he repeatedly went over the facts he had learned in court about Tufano's life: a doting grandfather, a recent widower, an avid runner who then had to rely on a walker and pain pills just to tie his shoes. Eventually, he summoned the will to call Tufano and write him from prison to apologize. Tufano didn't want to talk but said he had forgiven Bush. "That gave me a tiny bit of peace," Bush says.
He didn't touch a baseball for his first two years in prison. He avoided magazine stories about the sport and stayed clear of the Saturday games on TV in the prison lounge. It felt good to be free from some parts of the game, from its expectations and failures. He didn't talk much about baseball until a few inmates asked him to play on the prison softball team, sticking him in right field. The inmates played a visiting church group in Bush's first game, and one of the opposing players smacked a line drive off the right-field wall. The batter was trotting casually from second to third, and nobody was paying much attention until Bush threw a laser that traveled 250 feet in the air and hit the third baseman in the chest.
"I've never seen somebody do anything like that," says Lee Carrante, a fellow inmate. "Everybody figured out who he was real fast."
The softball games became Bush's escape from the drudgery of prison, and they kept his arm loose and strong. But it wasn't until a month before his release into a halfway house that Bush finally got his hands on an actual baseball. He was out with a prison cleanup crew, picking trash off the side of a Jacksonville highway, when he found a ripped baseball lying in the weeds. He picked it up and gripped the seams. The other inmates selected targets for him -- a tree, a distant road sign -- and he hit each one. His accuracy made them laugh. He felt like a kid. Maybe he could play again. Maybe some team would still want him.
"I started thinking that all these organizations would contact me," he says. "Like, oh, he's out, Matt Bush, the prospect."
Instead, when he was released to a Jacksonville halfway house in February of last year, there were no scouts, no phone calls, no sign of acknowledgment whatsoever from the world of professional baseball. There was only one interested employer, so Bush went for the interview. He won the job, signed the paperwork, changed into his uniform and started working as a baker at Golden Corral.
HE HAD NINE months in the halfway house to re-establish comfort and routine in the free world, and nothing was more normal to him than playing catch. He had thrown a baseball every day during his childhood in San Diego with his brothers and his dad. "That's when I've always felt most relaxed," he says. So his father mailed two baseball gloves and three balls to Jacksonville, and Bush recruited a friend and fellow inmate named Travis to catch for him. Travis couldn't handle curveballs, or changeups, or fastballs thrown with much heat. His return throws often went over Bush's head and into a drainage pond.
"It was pretty obvious that wasn't the straight path back into the major leagues," Bush says.
His first visitor at the halfway house was an old baseball friend, a former minor league manager named Roy Silver. Bush had lived at Silver's baseball academy in Florida for a few months in 2010, and Silver had become a mentor in matters of religion and sobriety. Silver, a player adviser for the Rangers, had once helped another former No. 1 pick, Josh Hamilton, manage his addiction, return to baseball after a four-year layoff and become the American League MVP. But Silver never believed that the same was possible for Bush. "I thought he was done," Silver says. "I thought he had run out of time and run out of chances and probably baseball wasn't a good thing for him."
They reunited at the halfway house last May for a few hours and played catch. The familiarity of the game made both men more comfortable, and the conversations came easily. Bush eventually said he wanted to play baseball again. Silver told him to slow down.
"That's not why I'm here," Silver explained. "I'm not even ready to go there yet. What makes you think you can handle that lifestyle?"
"It's just one good decision at a time," Bush said. He had been attending 12-step meetings and was mastering the language of addiction. "The problem is alcohol," he said. "Once I got started, I could never stop."
Silver kept returning to play catch with Bush every few weeks, compelled not so much by his arm but by his attitude. Bush made eye contact. He spoke openly about his alcoholism and the people he had hurt. His answers were thoughtful and consistent. "Each time it was a grilling session," Silver says. "'What have you learned? How are you going to keep yourself safe?'"
Their games of catch stretched out along with their conversations, and soon Bush's strengthening arm needed more room to throw. He wanted to throw harder, longer, but the trouble was finding space. He was allowed to travel only between his dorm and work -- a timed 3-mile route with each step monitored by his ankle-tracking device. That left only the Golden Corral, with its sprawling 300-foot parking lot. Bush asked for permission from the owner of the restaurant, Janet Murphy.
"He was a nervous Nellie -- very quiet, eager to please," Murphy says. "We figured if he was really that good, he could avoid hitting any cars."
And so began Bush's new routine: Ride 3 miles from the halfway house to Golden Corral on a donated bicycle, work the morning shift in the bakery, eat at the buffet, play catch with Silver. He threw consistent strikes. He rediscovered his curveball. Eventually Silver felt confident enough to call his bosses at the Rangers, who sent over a local scout with a radar gun. Bush's first two pitches hit 93 and 95. "Everything kind of changed after that," Silver says.
The Rangers dispatched a succession of scouts to the Golden Corral, and a few weeks before Bush's release from the halfway house, the team flew in two of its top executives -- Mike Daly, senior director of player development, and Josh Boyd, senior director of pro scouting. They designated a yellow parking stopper to act as a pitcher's rubber and then measured 60 feet, 6 inches to an imaginary home plate. Bush wore sweatpants and sneakers. The tracking device bulged on his ankle, and his Golden Corral beeper flew out of his pants pocket when he kicked his leg to throw.
"There's still that rare, unmistakable gift," Daly concluded.
They ate with Bush at the Golden Corral buffet. Bush thanked them and got back onto his donated bicycle to ride to the halfway house. Daly and Boyd flew back to Texas, believing they had made one of the unlikeliest discoveries of their careers.
THEY TOOK THEIR scouting reports to Jon Daniels, the team's president and general manager, who was in charge of all baseball decisions. His response was immediate. "Matt Bush?" he said. "That Matt Bush? No. No way."
He remembered Bush's name from his scouting reports before the 2004 draft -- "drinking problems even back then," he says -- and he remembered many of the lowlights that followed. "This wasn't just somebody who had a few too many beers and accidentally rolled through a stop sign," Daniels says, and to remind himself he went online and reread stories about all of Bush's arrests.
Daniels had a reputation for giving second chances when the circumstances felt right, including acquiring a re-established Hamilton from the Reds in December 2007, but this didn't feel like a second chance.
"It was a third or a fourth or maybe a fifth chance," Daniels says. "Any time we take a chance on somebody or it's a little bit of a gray area, the question is: Where is that line? I'd like to think we have some things we stand for that aren't flexible, and this was out there."
But six of Daniels' best scouts were trying to convince him otherwise, and Bush was still weighing on his mind when he left for a Thanksgiving vacation. Daniels told his parents, his brother and his sister-in-law about Bush at their holiday. "Everyone was for it," Daniels recalls. He thought maybe they didn't understand the gravity of Bush's mistakes, so he made them watch a video of Tufano, discussing his near-fatal injuries. "Even then they felt like he'd gone to prison, done his time and in some ways paid his debts," Daniels says. "He wasn't running from his problems. He was owning them."
Bush was released from the halfway house last October, and he moved home to San Diego with his parents. In December, Daniels decided to fly Bush and his father to Texas for a tryout. Bush threw well in the bullpen, then interviewed with Daniels and five team executives. Daniels had expected to discuss a long list of restrictions the Rangers required before they would sign Bush, but instead the player spoke first. "I need to make sure I'm safe and I'm being held accountable," he said, explaining that he wanted to be contractually restricted from drinking, driving or living by himself. He wanted a zero tolerance policy written into his contract that guaranteed his release if he broke certain rules.
The Rangers, in turn, wanted Bush to report to spring training a few weeks early this February. They believed he needed to attend 12-step meetings and complete community service as part of his contract. They also wanted his father to travel with him at the family's expense throughout the season and stay with Bush in his hotel rooms.
The team had tried some of the same strategies to support Hamilton, a longtime cocaine and alcohol addict who twice helped the Rangers get to the World Series. But even Hamilton had relapsed twice, signed with another team and then relapsed again before returning to play for the Rangers last year.
"In the back of your mind with these issues, there's always the thought that something could happen," Daniels says. "That's not a comfortable feeling."
It was also the one issue on which Bush could not reassure him: He is still an alcoholic. He has been sober since 2012, but his stability is still measured day by day.
"There are no guarantees," Silver says. "We are not naive. Something could happen. This is life. But you hope and you pray and you pray and you hope, and you choose to have faith and believe."
Three days after their interview in December, Daniels called Bush at his parents' house in San Diego. Bush was back in his childhood home, where 11 years earlier he had gotten his first chance at the major leagues. This time there was no bonus of $3.15 million, no agent to help negotiate the deal, no limousine ready to drive him to a news conference. It was only a quick phone call and a modest minor league offer.
"We're willing to give you a chance," Daniels told him.
"That's everything I was hoping for," Bush said.
AND NOW THAT chance has brought him here: Auxiliary Field Six, with a new team, a new town and plenty of changes still to come. On this day in camp, at least, he is sober. He is safe. His schedule is set out for him, and all he has to do is follow it.
He calls his longtime girlfriend, who has also given him another chance: "I'm done with practice and heading to shower," he says.
He finds his father as they walk off the field: "Tonight it's steak dinner in the hotel," he says.
He checks in with his sponsor: "We've got a 12-step meeting at 6:30," he says.
He grabs a Gatorade and heads toward the exit of the spring training facility, where all around him are reminders of his life at 18. Some of the big league players have returned to work out. The entrance is crowded with luxury cars and autograph seekers. Here they are, all of Bush's old devils: money, fame and expectation -- the life he had before and might have again.
This comeback could go in any number of directions, but at the moment there is only one. He puts his head down and walks unnoticed through the crowd in front of the facility. No detours. No distractions. Just one good decision at a time. His stride is purposeful, and he's light on his feet, and four minutes later he's safely back at the hotel.