Hitting Low in the Zone: Homer Bush's baseball career

Homer Bush fields a ground ball during his time with the Blue Jays

Everyone remembers that Roger Clemens was traded to the Yankees for David Wells. Even Australian pitcher Graeme Lloyd, another part of the deal, might be remembered as a solid relief pitcher during his time in the MLB. But another big piece of the trade who people may not remember was infielder Homer Bush, who was coming off a 1998 World Series Championship and would instantly bud into a reliable hitter during first season in Toronto.

Bush has a similar story in athletics as most kids do, growing up in East St. Louis, Illinois. He excelled in both football and baseball, including being mentioned in the Kevin Horrigan book The Right Kind of Heroes as his high school football team's go-to player. When he had to make a choice on which sport to play at the next level, the decision came easily for Bush.

"I had played baseball a lot longer than football," Bush said. "When it came down to deciding to continue playing football or baseball, picking baseball was easy. I was never one for the physical contact [of football]."

Despite being recruited to play football at the University of Missouri, Bush still chose to stick with baseball, being rewarded as a seventh-round selection of the San Diego Padres in the 1991 MLB Draft. He recalls the increase in competition each season as the Padres drafted more second basemen to battle for a job.

"When I was drafted, I thought the Padres were grooming me to be their next second baseman," Bush said. "It became a logjam [at second base] after each draft. I knew I could [stick in the league] when I put my competitive hat on and played some good baseball."

Bush had a great run during his time in the Padres organization, batting .295 over seven seasons in the San Diego system.

The organizational second-base logjam showed out in full force when the Padres traded Bush alongside pitcher Hideki Irabu to the New York Yankees for Rubén Rivera and Rafael Medina. Bush was a little disheartened by the trade, but still took it in stride.

"I thought I was so close [to making the majors] with the Padres in 1997, and in 1996 despite being hurt I had a good year and started the season hot in 1997," he said. "Going into a new situation, I didn't think there would be a lot of playing time available with the defending World Series Champions. I was out of options too. My agent told me to not do anything crazy as a Yankee and that if I kept at it I would be in the big leagues at some point next season. There were a lot of moving parts... but I wanted to get some time in with the Padres after spending so much time in the organization."

Bush's dream of making the majors would come true in 1997, appearing as a pinch-runner in the ninth inning for Darryl Strawberry and remaining at second base in an 8-5 extra-inning loss to the Texas Rangers on August 16. He would collect his first hit and RBI on the same play on August 26, hitting a run-scoring single off Don Wengert as part of a 2-for-2 day off the bench in an 18-1 rout of the Oakland Athletics. Having a season full of firsts was another dream come true for Bush.

"Getting to the major leagues is difficult, but it's also the easy part," he said. "Getting the first hit proves you belong and fills you with confidence, and to get those [firsts] was huge for my confidence going forward."

Coming up in the era of some of the best Yankees teams, Bush got to learn of some of the greats like Strawberry, Tim Raines and Chili Davis. Playing with them was something special, and also playing with Derek Jeter as he was beginning to cement himself as a star in the major leagues stood out to Bush as a special part of his time in the MLB.

Bush batted 4-for-11 with 3 RBI in his short stint in the majors in 1997 but would become a regular piece for the Yankees in 1998, spending the entire season on the roster. A year after his first hit and RBI, Bush cranked his first major league home run on 8/26/98 in the second part of a doubleheader against the Angels, hooking a shot down the left-field line off knuckleballer Steve Sparks. Despite playing it cool rounding the bases, Bush was elated on the inside, especially helping the Yankees come out of some offensive struggles.

"When I was rounding first base, I remember saying to myself, 'young man, you just hit your first major league home run'," Bush said. "I was pumped. We hadn't led for 21-plus innings, which was rare for [the 1998 Yankees], and it was the second half of a doubleheader. Joe [Torre] told me I was getting the start at second base, and to get in for the first time in five games and help the team was special."

Bush would bat .380 in 45 games that season, swiping six bases in addition to that home run as the Yankees stampeded to a 114-48 record that season, the most wins in franchise history. The Yankees won the division by 22 games as they marched to a World Series sweep of Bush's old organization, the San Diego Padres. Bush was included on the postseason roster, appearing in a few games as a pinch runner and even stealing two bases in the first two postseason series en route to a ring. This experience for Bush was like no other.

Bush in the 1998 World Series

"Each step of the way, I didn't know if I would be on the postseason roster," Bush said. "Starting in the season opener and lasting on the roster throughout the regular season and postseason was difficult to do... it was a huge accomplishment. Especially on the Yankees where you are expected to win. [Playing the full season] was an amazing accomplishment for me."

After 1998, Bush was packaged in the trade that sent Roger Clemens to New York, joining Graeme Lloyd and David Wells in heading to the Toronto Blue Jays. While Wells has come out in the past and said he was not a fan of the trade, Bush viewed it as a positive, getting the chance to play every day as a part of the 'youth movement' in Toronto during that era, right before the fans started to show out in droves.

"Everybody was trying to learn, get better, and keep at it again for the next season," Bush said. "I always felt that [the Blue Jays] were chasing the fanbase's attendance from the early 1990s, how they would get almost 50,000 people at every game. I was hoping we could get back to those winning ways... I had big shoes to fill replacing Roberto Alomar. I wanted to help increase the fan attendance."

The change of scenery proved to be important for Bush, stringing together his first full season in the MLB which would be his best season in the majors. He batted .320, recording 155 hits, 26 doubles, 4 triples, 5 home runs and knocked in 55 runs. He credits this season as the first season he figured out how to hit breaking balls and off-speed pitches.

"Pitchers had taken notice that I was good at hitting fastballs, so I had to learn to hit sliders and curveballs to continue that success," Bush said. "Having great coaches helped as well, especially Gary Matthews. He was instrumental in keeping my confidence up when things wouldn't go well. There were a lot of people [in addition to Gary] that helped me have success that season."

He swiped 32 bags that season, good for tenth in the American League. While the art of the stolen base is dying, Bush recalls that he did not put any strategy into when he would steal bases.

"I always had the biggest lead possible and would try to steal on the first or second pitch," Bush said. "I felt invincible. I was young and out of control. [Stealing] was my way to get the crowd going... pitchers are a lot more athletic now than then, and it was a lot easier to steal bases than nowadays because of all the pitch data."

Bush battled a hip injury in 2000 and only batted .215 in 76 games, but rebounded from the tough season to have an even better one in 2001, bringing his average back up to .306. 2002 was a different story, starting the season in Toronto and batting just .231 before he was released. Luckily for Bush, he was signed by the Florida Marlins, which made heading to a new team a lot easier having nice weather and a similarly young team to Toronto, but it was still tough to get released nonetheless.

"Sabermetrics was beginning to come around, and with me being a player who didn't walk a lot, Toronto decided to head in a different direction," he said. "I could hit my way on-base, but my on-base percentage was in the .340 range when I would bat .300. In Moneyball terms, they could pay a player who walked a lot $1 as opposed to paying me $2 because I would hit my way on. I understood that side of the business, but going to Miami was fun because it was another youth movement."

After spending the rest of the season in Florida, Bush had to sit out the entire 2003 season due to his recurring hip injury. Initially thought to be arthritis, which Bush said didn't bode well for base-stealing, he worked much harder to overcome that injury and got healthy enough to play in 2004. Returning to the Yankees, now healthy enough to play, he only saw action in nine games that season, playing his last game on June 8, 2004 against Colorado, heading to spring training with New York in 2005 before the injuries took their toll and forced him to hang up the cleats for good. The decision to retire wore on Bush.

"A kid by the name of Robinson Cano was coming up in the organization, so there was not a lot of at-bats to be had at that time," he said. "I had done the Triple-A thing before my career, and didn't want to go back, so I felt that it was time to head home and take care of my family."

Despite retiring, Bush would stay active in baseball, in both coaching and staying involved with Old-Timer's Day for the New York Yankees. The experience of Old-Timer's Day was a lot of fun for Bush.

Bush at Old-Timer's Day in 2010

"[Old-Timer's Day] was definitely one of the highlights of my year every year after I retired, especially hearing the stories from the Yankees greats, it was awesome. I am glad I got into it at a young age because of all the friends I have made from those events.

Bush also became a hitting coach after his career, and his son is in the college-level of baseball, so he has been helping him out along the way.

One thing that stood out to Bush about the game nowadays is how baseball players should learn to hit the low and inside pitch, which some of the best baseball players have found success with. This inspired Bush to write a book, Hitting Low and Inside the Zone: A New Baseball Paradigm, which goes in-detail about swing mechanics and how hitters can take control of an at-bat. You can purchase his book for $16.99 at hittinglowinthezone.com.

You can follow Homer on Twitter (@BushHomer) and find this full interview and all other Stranded interviews at this link.