I was following along, like maybe a lot of you, with the Matt Bush story the past few weeks. Bush likely needs no real intro to a committed baseball readership, but here’s the short version for context’s sake. Bush was drafted as a shortstop with the first overall pick in the 2003 draft by the San Diego Padres. He was bad at hitting—which led to his conversion to pitching—and bad at avoiding injury. Worse than either, though, were his problems with drugs, domestic violence, and DUI. He spent three years in prison.
Now, he’s with the Texas Rangers—the team most closely associated with another former first-overall draft pick/recovering substance abuser—and pitching in the major leagues for the first time ever. He’s throwing 98 miles an hour, he’s on a zero tolerance policy for drugs or booze, and he’s rapidly climbing the ladder in the Rangers’ bullpen. In short, Matt Bush has reinvented himself.
I’m taken in easily by stories like Bush’s, and that can be a problem. Bush’s anomalous transformation, his ability to become something different in order to succeed in what is a brutal game of failure, makes it tempting to forgive and (more problematically) forget his past sins. And while we all might have different opinions on the value of redemption or retribution, the fact is that we can’t really enjoy the rise of Matt Bush without asking ourselves some serious questions about our relationship to the actions that made him fall.
Bush’s sins aren’t of the Josh Hamilton variety, after all—there’s an easy link by way of substance abuse, and I’ll admit I’ve drawn it without thinking a few times. But Hamilton’s problems were self-destructive, limited for the most part to his own abuse of drugs and his fight to get over that. Bush hurt a lot of people on his way back to the majors, the most famous example of which was running over a man’s head while fleeing a hit-and-run DUI. (The man survived thanks to his wearing a helmet.) While this incident is what landed Bush in prison for a little over three years, he was also involved in the assault of a high school lacrosse player with a golf club (getting him released from the Padres) and he threw a baseball at a woman’s head (which got him kicked off the Blue Jays). In short, Matt Bush made his bed in a fairly dramatic and troubling way. He was awful.
But now he’s back, and it’s tempting to revel in the baseball return story. After all, the comeback is one of our most treasured genres as fans, and for good reason. These stories make us believe, however briefly, in our ability as people to beat the odds. I mentioned Hamilton above, and his story is likely one of the most inspiring in this way, as he kicked his drug habit and tasted some of the Mickey Mantle-esque appeal he had when being drafted first overall by the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays. And while Hamilton’s journey has been a little windy since then, the fact that he saw any success after flaming out for years in the minor leagues is remarkable. Baseball, as I’ve said before and I’ll say again, is powerfully unforgiving.
And so when we see most of the nameless first-round busts or snake-bitten injured phenoms go the way of our Brian Bullingtons and Mark Priors, we’re rightly amazed to see a happy ending. When Rich Hill can stick to the pursuit of baseball as long as he has, and then end up pitching beyond our wildest expectations at 36, that’s pretty cool. That’s a story we can tell our kids about all the great, warm fuzzy feelings baseball is classically supposed to give us: perseverance, self-confidence, belief. These guys beat the odds in a game that is literally already about beating long odds, and we remember and revere them for that.
But perhaps deeper than that, we also like these stories because they let us relate to these players on a more intimate, human level. We’ve all failed at certain things, and to see a player fail so completely and come back from it is a sort of positive lesson: They, like us, can fall down. And maybe we can also get up. This is the positive side of the same coin that allows us to be furious at players who make millions and can’t seem to find time to give signatures—the desire to have baseball players be just like us, despite their massive physical gifts and salaries.
This, Sigmund Freud might say, is transference or projection, our human tendency to superimpose our own experience onto others in the world. This happens often between patient and analyst, leading (at least in popular culture) to the patient falling in love with his or her analyst. More platonically, we can become more attached to a player the more we see ourselves in them. So when a player defies the odds even further than usual, tricking or outwitting fate, then we feel doubly encouraged: they (and by extension we) are very resourceful!
And maybe this is why the third level of these players’ appeal is so spellbinding. By breaking the expectations of the game, by doing what everyone said they could not, we’re doubly convinced that, indeed, anything could happen. At least in baseball. Obviously in the real world, anything cannot happen; it’s possible but not at all probably that I’ll be called up by Harvard tomorrow to take a job in their English department. It’s perhaps even less likely that I’ll be poached by Sports Illustrated. But I can entertain those hopes a little bit, self-indulgently here and there, if I can be convinced that remarkable things do indeed happen every day. And that’s one of the reasons I, in any case, watch baseball. Anything can happen when there’s no game clock and a set number of outs. Anyone can be the hero.
But not everyone is a hero, even if they’re a good baseball player. It’s tempting and dangerous to think of Matt Bush in this pantheon of comeback stories, and I’ll admit: I’ve been guilty of doing this over the past couple of weeks. For a while, even recently, I thought Bush might be something like a Kenley Jansen story. Jansen, the absolutely unreal closer for the Los Angeles Dodgers, was famously converted from catching. Nothing special as a minor league hitter—probably organizational depth with a cup of coffee here or there—Jansen switched to pitching and became one of the two or three most dominant arms currently relieving in the majors. As I said, there’s a temptation to emphasize the analogues with Bush.
Yet Jansen didn’t run over a man on his way to the majors. Jansen didn’t beat up a kid with a golf club, and Jansen didn’t throw a baseball at a woman’s head. Jansen just switched positions and started over. And while I personally don’t find it morally wrong to have a substance abuse problem, Bush’s issues bled into much more harmful arenas than alcoholism alone.
None of this is to say that you can’t root for Matt Bush – you can, of course. It’s up to you how you impose or inflect the morality of your own world into the game. But it is to say that Matt Bush is not Kenley Jansen; he’s not Josh Hamilton and he’s not Rich Hill. We can’t take anything away from Bush’s perseverance as an athlete, but we can choose to think of him differently as a person outside of the game.
If comeback stories help us feel positive about our own chances and fortunes in life, about our own abilities to stand up and be something we thought we could never be again, then perhaps in this way Bush, Hamilton, Jansen, and Hill all do fall into the same bucket. But the thing we cannot forget is that their character as people still counts, even when they are doing heroic superhuman things.
Indeed, to coopt maybe the oldest possible baseball cliché of all time and get a little sappy and predictable, Matt Bush’s story and the ambivalence and guilt we might feel over it emphasizes one thing most clearly: it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.