Blue Jays interview: Trade to Toronto was huge for Homer Bush’s career

Toronto Blue Jays second baseman Homer Bush dives for a ground ball hit by Seattle Mariner Mark McLemore during third inning play of their game in Seattle, WA, 27 July, 2000. Bush tossed to second to out Mariner Dan Wilson, but McLemore was safe at first. AFP PHOTO Dan LEVINE (Photo by DAN LEVINE / AFP) (Photo by DAN LEVINE/AFP via Getty Images)
Toronto Blue Jays second baseman Homer Bush dives for a ground ball hit by Seattle Mariner Mark McLemore during third inning play of their game in Seattle, WA, 27 July, 2000. Bush tossed to second to out Mariner Dan Wilson, but McLemore was safe at first. AFP PHOTO Dan LEVINE (Photo by DAN LEVINE / AFP) (Photo by DAN LEVINE/AFP via Getty Images) /

We had the opportunity to catch up with former Blue Jay Homer Bush and talk about the career-changing trade that brought him to Toronto in 1999.

Earlier this week, I had to chuckle as I saw David Wells talking about the trade that brought him back to Toronto from the New York Yankees in 1999. Wells wasn’t shy about sharing with fans on Twitter that he wasn’t happy about the move at the time, but what about the rest of the players in the deal?

Thankfully I had the opportunity to ask Homer Bush all about it, as he arrived in Toronto along with Wells and Graeme Lloyd in exchange for Rogers Clemens in that blockbuster swap. And while it might not have been Wells’ favourite day of his career, it was a totally different experience for Bush, and an opportunity to show the MLB world what he could do with an everyday opportunity.

Thankfully for us here at Jays Journal, the man my father once exclaimed, “that guy has one of the best baseball names I’ve ever heard!” was very gracious with his time, and was a true pleasure to speak with. Below is a transcript of the interview on April 15, 2020.

Chris: As I mentioned on Twitter, I had the idea to reach out to you after seeing David Wells talking about being traded to Toronto in 1999, and of course you were one of the players that came with him to the Blue Jays in that deal. He hasn’t been shy in discussing the trade lately, sharing that he wasn’t happy about it at the time, but obviously you were in a different situation in your career. How did you feel about the news when you first heard it?

Homer Bush: Correct, totally different situation. I’ve spoken with David in the past about the trade and, for me it was an opportunity to get my career going. It was the perfect opportunity to be with a bunch of young, really good talent, and man, if there was ever a time when the “youth movement” was a youth movement before it had a name, that Blue Jays team that I was on was definitely it.

Especially now that I’ve been looking back at the rosters for the teams you played for in Toronto, I’d have to agree that there was more talent than some folks remember. I always thought that team had potential to do more than how it ultimately played out.

Yeah the whole AL East killed us at that time. I joke with my son, I was like man, we had good talent, but those guys had good teams. The Yankees, Orioles, Red Sox, it was just too much to handle at that time.

Going back to that trade, these days a player might hear about being traded by seeing it on Twitter or social media. Back in ’99, how did you hear about the deal when it went down?

I had reported to spring training early, so ESPN had aired it, and my wife called me and said, “babe you’ve just been traded” as I was heading to the field to go work out in Tampa. It was like almost perfect timing to go, get there, say my goodbyes, and head across the causeway to Dunedin.

Looking back at the start of your career, how big of an influence was it for you to get to play with veteran infielders like playing behind Chuck Knoblauch, Deter Jeter, and even Luis Sojo in New York? How important was that for the beginning of your career?

I always say it’s like a quarterback with the opportunity to sit behind a Hall of Fame quarterback for a couple of years before they throw them in the fire. Not only did I learn about hitting, mechanics, and fielding positions, but what was important was talking about situations, the tempo of the game, allowing the game to come to you. Because I was very aggressive, people could tell, because my at-bats, man I would swing at everything. Tim Raines, Chili Davis, those guys walked 80-100 times, and they were teaching me about plate presence, and how to use the strike zone to my advantage.

So Chili Davis was being a hitting instructor even back then?

Yeah yeah, he was preparing himself for his next career haha.

I can’t imagine the wealth of knowledge you had around you to start your career. That must have been overwhelming at times?

People ask me all the time, out of all of my hitting instructors, who do I think would be a good hitting instructor today, and I always say Tim Raines. He wasn’t my hitting instructor, but he was when we would be sitting on the bench. I also talk highly of Cito. If you could put Cito Gaston and Tim Raines and make one person, you’d probably have the perfect hitting coach.

Cito pumped so much confidence and love into you, that when you took the field you almost felt like, man, you could take on the world. I loved that about him.

After arriving in Toronto, right away you put up career-best numbers in that first season. Other than just having that everyday opportunity, was there anything else that clicked for you in Toronto? Was it the confidence from the coaching staff, or what do you think it was that allowed you to be successful so quickly?

You know, just to get 500 at-bats, or 500 plate appearances under my belt was huge. I’ll tell you what, I look at my highlights all the time as I try to articulate some things that I did to my son, and man, just being simple was so important to my success, which I didn’t know at that time because it’s such a fast paced game.

But when I look at my highlights, very subtle movements, my swing was very short and direct to the ball, and I think the understanding that I was not going to just bully my way through 500 plate appearances, and then things I had learned from being on the bench with the Yankees. Slow the tempo down, see the ball, get the barrel to the ball. So those things clicked immediately.

You already talked about this a little bit, but back in that era, did it ever feel like the Blue Jays had a realistic chance in that stacked AL East, or did it feel like it was a few years away?

I can’t remember whether it was ’99 or 2001, but in like July, we were in first or second place (the Blue Jays were in 2nd place as late as Aug 12th that season), but that was the year that I thought, ‘uh oh, this thing may just come together’.

The thing I learned from the ’98 season with the Yankees when we won all those games, nothing that was taking place around us meant anything. We literally were playing day by day. Most of the wins, we’d be down for the first half of the game, and just end up having a huge second half. So it really had become a, man we could do this, we just need to take it day by day. Then eventually, a couple teams got hot and that ended that.

What was the biggest difference about moving from the environment in New York to being in Toronto? Some MLB players have talked about the pressures of playing in New York, and even the benefits of getting out of that market. Did you feel that way, or did you feel there were other factors to your success in Toronto?

No, but one thing I was adamant about as a coach, and I watched for when my son was playing, is the people that coach you, manage you, do they believe in you? And that’s the one thing that I always had with the Blue Jays. For whatever the reason, Gord Ash made the trade, so whatever reason it was, he believed in me and wanted me to be successful and that was huge.

I had Sarg in ’99, and it just dawned on me. Sarg was so important in my success as a hitting coach. Now when I’m past my career, I now remember he would always check up on me with a ‘you alright? You okay? Okay now, just checking on you.’ You know, if I would go into a week slump, or if I was going great, you know, just saying, ‘hey, keep getting your work in’. Because he could tell that man, this thing could go the other way really fast if you don’t stay on top of it. Having that type of environment in Toronto was just huge for me.

But what I can say, is that in New York I only just had to do a little bit to show value to the team. But when I got to Toronto I had to show the total package. Now I’m an everyday player, not just a guy coming in, so my role was different, my responsibility was different, being accountable. I didn’t have much to be accountable for other than a small role, which, hey, that’s all the team required of me. But when I got to Toronto, it was a totally different day to day process.

Did you ever have anyone with the Yankees reach out after and jokingly give you a hard time about how well you were performing in Toronto? I’m sure they had second thoughts about the trade after seeing how well you played with an everyday opportunity with the Blue Jays.

This is one of my favourite heart to hearts. In 2000 I believe, when I was hurt a lot, the Yankees came to town and I was in the weight room by myself early, before others had gotten there, and Joe (Torre) had come early as well. I was walking out and I was a little ahead of him and he calls me back and says, ‘hey Bushy, come here’.

I came back and he sat me down and he was like, “hey, I just want you to know I’m pulling for you. I don’t know what you need to do, but you’ve gotta get healthy. You’re too good of a player. You’re fun to watch.” That was just so cool that he was pulling for me like that. For the longest time, I always felt like he was just into the players that really determined the outcome in ’98. So in 2000 he was really cool to me, I’m talking like, at least a handful of times he would call me over and ask, “hey how’s the family? Everybody good? Still chasing that slider huh?”, just little hints like, when are you gonna learn? But to your point, they were definitely pulling for me.

Speaking of injuries, I’m always bummed out when an exciting young player gets limited by injury, which you’ve alluded to. Can you tell our readers a bit about the injuries that held you back a bit during your MLB career?

It was a torn labrum in my hip, just wear and tear over the years. They went in and tried to repair it at a time when going into a hip joint and trying to repair it wasn’t even cool, but, I was desperate. When they recommended it I was like, “man, let’s do it. I’ll rehab”, because I was very confident in my rehab.

That injury led to a hamstring injury due to my run pattern being off, and now for years I’m dealing with a hip that had three tears in it, and a hamstring that was hot every day, so I played with a lot of pain for a guy that was a speedster.

To that end I read that you voluntarily left training camp when you were back with the Yankees in 2005. Was that just because you felt like your body wasn’t going to let you continue, or why did you make that decision?

You know what’s amazing, I was feeling my best in 2005. But, I could feel the youth movement coming. Because in 2003 I had taken that time off, went back in ’04, and I didn’t play every day in ’04, so I had a lot of time to heal and rest, and then the off-season leading up to 2005.

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But when I got into spring training I could just tell that the whole Triple-A/Big League shuttle was coming back around. I was huge on being in my kid’s lives, and they were about to start school. I still wanted to be there and not be going back and forth, you know, trying to home school, me flying back and forth to see them, so it had just become one of those… I had a deferred comp that was going to give me 10 years to get another career in place, or business, so it was literally a decision made to just go create a sturdy environment for my family and for myself, and just move on to the second phase of my life, so it really had nothing to do with health.

Did you ever feel like the turf at the Rogers Centre contributed to your injury issues at all? How did you feel about playing there at the time?

Honestly, it never bothered me one bit. As a matter of fact, I used to use it to my advantage offensively, just by hitting the ball with hard contact. For fielding, just stay down. I definitely tried to use playing on that turf to my advantage. But as far as the injuries, I know a lot of people would ask me in the past if that turf had caused injuries or maybe made it worse, but I have no clue. I was so excited about the opportunity to play in the big leagues every day, the soreness, the general soreness, I figured I was going to get that on the hard dirt and grass as well, so I never really tried to put two and two because I was just so excited about playing.

You already mentioned it briefly earlier on, but I wanted to ask you about your son and his baseball career. I read that he had committed to Grand Canyon University last year. Is he still pursing a career in baseball? What is he up to these days?

Yeah, he’s very passionate about the game. He’s been approached by most of the MLB clubs about the draft. So, with this whole five-round thing (*changes to this year’s MLB draft*), that’s a game-changer. We don’t know where we’re at in that process, but GCU, we have a lot of respect for the coach, and he’s looking forward to attending.

I’ll tell ya, I just feel like he’s a young man who is coachable, he’s a leader, just always doing the right things, so I think he’s going to be a perfect fit for Coach (Andy) Stankiewicz and their program, and the trajectory that they’re on. He could not have found himself in a better situation to bring value to a program, and to have that program bring twice the value to him. We’re just excited about that decision, but the draft is still a possibility depending on how all of that shakes out.

I always like to ask any professional baseball player this question. Who was the toughest pitcher that you ever faced in the big leagues?

I always say Jason Grimsley because he had that heavy sinker, and those heavy sinkers used to get me all the time. But as you can imagine, Pedro (Martinez) was tough, but the reason why I don’t really say a lot of the big name pitchers is because (then) I’m playing with house money. If I even put it in play, I’m doing okay, right? But as you can imagine, (Mike) Mussina was tough, and I always tell my son, facing Marino Rivera was like a man facing a child. I just had no chance. That ball would be up on me so fast as a righty.

There are tons of other pitchers that got me out, but I felt like I still had a chance. But with Grimsley, I could swing at the ball twice before I made contact.

A random question for you, what was it like playing for Buck Martinez as the manager of the Blue Jays? (Martinez took over in 2001)

Oh, it was cool! The thing that was cool about Buck, in 2000 I had struggled, and Buck used to come down and whenever he would see me he would always try to be positive because he wanted to see me going. He had played before and he could feel my pressure as I was struggling, so he used to always talk to me, so when he became a manager of mine it was cool. I knew he was in my corner and that it was going to be a good experience. My struggles led to a great relationship with the manager the next year, can you believe it?

You had quite the experience with different managers over your career between your experience in New York, and then some changes in Toronto.

Yeah, when I came in Tim Johnson was there, and then that led to (Jim) Fregosi. I was looking forward to being managed by Tim Johnson, I promise you. Tim was always like, “That Bush kid, I like that Bush kid, he can play for me any day”, so as you can imagine, I’m looking forward to playing for a guy like that. When that didn’t work out, as you can imagine, I was a little bummed out.

Who you play for plays a huge role in how your career turns out a lot of the time. For some guys it just doesn’t matter, some guys are just going to be superstars, but a guy like myself, my manager was important in how long I played the game.

Last but not least, tell us what you’re up to these days. Where can we keep up with you?

I authored a book called, “Hitting Low in the Zone: A New Baseball Paradigm”, and the book is going to be a game-changer. For many years, there’s this floating strike zone that everyone has been chasing, and think of this perspective, the pitcher’s throwing his pitch in there and he’ll throw one outside the zone. So your job as a hitter is to focus on being ready when it’s thrown inside that little floating box and you’ve gotta know the height, the width, and all this good stuff.

Well what I’m learning is that, the elite hitters of today, they feast on those pitches that they throw slightly outside of the zone because there are more of those than there are pitches that are at least hittable, or that you’re able to be ready for, inside this perceived strike zone.

I guess another way of thinking is, there are only two types of hitting. There are thousands of hitting philosophies, at the end of the day, your production is going to be heavy up top, or heavy down below, that’s it, that’s non-negotiable. Well, my philosophy basically says that you’ve gotta position your body and create your swing path to handle those pitches slightly down first, accommodate the pitches thrown in the strike zone and decrease your swing rate up top. That right there will determine your amount of success over the course of a season, and also it impacts your ability to walk as well.

So I’ve been spending a lot of time doing that, working with my son, and also I got a cool opportunity to do a lot of camps with the Toronto Blue Jays throughout the summer with the Blue Jays academy. I’m up north June, July, August, every year, probably seven out of the last eight years, something like that.

Next. Steve Pearce officially calls it a career. dark

Once again I want to thank the former Blue Jay for taking the time out of his schedule to tell us more about his perspective on the trade that brought him Toronto, some of his experiences in the big leagues, and for catching us up on what he’s doing these days. I will say that sometimes I’m reluctant to meet or chat with a public figure that I’ve looked up to at any point in my life, for fear that I’ll be let down in some way. That most certainly was not the case with Homer Bush, and I look forward to catching up with the kind-hearted former big leaguer again someday soon.