— -- 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."