SURPRISE, Ariz. (AP) — There was a feeling of normality for Matt Bush when he got on the mound for the Texas Rangers as a 30-year-old rookie last season.
“Felt like I was meant to always be there,” Bush said.
Really, he was as a former No. 1 overall draft pick.
Except Bush almost threw it all away after several alcohol-related incidents that culminated with a DUI accident during spring training in Florida five years ago that seriously injured, and nearly killed, a 72-year-old man on a motorcycle. Bush spent 3 1/2 years in prison after pleading no contest in the case.
Bush is now in major league spring training for the first time, nearly 13 years after he was drafted as a shortstop by his hometown San Diego Padres. His MLB debut as a hard-throwing reliever last season came after a mid-May call-up — and he went 7-2 with a 2.48 ERA in 58 appearances for the AL West champions.
“I would have been in the major leagues and having success before if I didn’t have the struggles off the field,” Bush said. “What I always remember, just continue to stay sober and be a positive role model off the field, and I can continue to stay here.”
The success Bush had as a rookie on one of the AL’s best teams has only generated more interest in his backstory and his comeback — both in life and in baseball.
Bush is constantly asked to retell his story, and the soft-spoken pitcher repeatedly does just that.
“You know, I understand. I try to get out of myself and think about what it’s really like for someone else looking in on my story,” Bush said. “I try not to let it bother me, and understand that I’m grateful to be here and this was going to be the process before I ever signed.”
These days, Bush tries not to make things too complicated.
Bush, who turned 31 last month, strives to stay sober each day — he says he has been since the March 2012 accident — and looks forward to coming to the ballpark to spend time with teammates and to pitch. His dad is a constant companion off the field in Arizona, and he still regularly attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
On the mound last season, Bush said he always felt like he was in control.
“I never felt overmatched, I never felt like I wasn’t going to get the job done. … Last year, I was very confident and went out there with a good mindset,” he said. “It’s not worrying about this year of got to have a good year, got to repeat it. Just remember that I still have the same stuff.”
The Padres moved Bush to the mound midway through the 2007 season after he struggled as a minor league hitter. He missed 2008 recovering from Tommy John surgery, and all of 2009 after being released from Toronto’s minor league camp after trouble there during spring training. He joined Tampa Bay’s organization the next year.
Rangers officials watched Bush throw in the mid-90s in the parking lot of a Golden Corral restaurant in Florida in 2015, where he was in a work-release program for the final nine months of his prison sentence.
Bush was signed that December, pitched in two games for Texas late last spring then made 12 appearances at Double-A Frisco before going to the big leagues nearly 12 years after being drafted No. 1.
The previous longest gap for a No. 1 overall pick to make his MLB debut had been Josh Hamilton’s nearly eight years. Hamilton overcame alcohol and drug issues before debuting with Cincinnati in 2007 and then going to Texas, where he became a five-time All-Star and the 2010 AL MVP.
Now Bush is going into his second major league season, which often can be a player’s most difficult year.
“I don’t know too much more than myself and what I’m capable of,” he said. “That’s all I’m really focused on, what I’m going to be doing on the mound. I can’t really focus on my second season, a sophomore slump, anything like that. I’m just trying to continue to repeat what got me here.”