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Bryce is no Bush leaguer

Madly driven to excel in his chosen sport of baseball, Bryce (with guidance from father Elwood) will stop at nothing to arrive in Chicago as the contention window opens

Full toolbag: Speed, power and a massive throwing arm are among Bush’s standout skills.
Kim Contreras/South Side Sox

At a very young age, Elwood Bush recognized that his son Bryce was athletically gifted.

“At three years old, I knew he was special,” Elwood says. “I used to throw him Wiffle balls and he would barrel them up.” The elder Bush jokes that the neighbors would see young Bryce hitting these Wiffle balls and they would stop and remark, “Who is that little guy? We better get his autograph now.”

When he was seven years old, Bryce had to be taken out of coach-pitch little league and moved up to play against the 10-year olds. Why? “Because he hit the ball so hard, they were worried he was going to hurt somebody,” Elwood explains.

At nine, Bryce caught the eye of former Detroit Tigers hitting coordinator Bruce Fields. Elwood says that Fields told him, “He’s got it! If he continues to love the game, they will find a place for him to play.” And when Bryce was 10 his team traveled to Cooperstown to play in a tournament; after Bush hit seven home runs in the first three games, the other teams stopped pitching to him.

Derrick Ross, a former Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians scout and baseball analyst who now serves as Bush’s agent, recalls the day that the two of them crossed paths. Ross tells South Side Sox, “I met him when I was running a baseball camp for ninth through 12th graders. He was in eighth grade, but Bryce always played up.”

Fast forward three years and Ross recalls sitting in the office at his Auburn Hills, Mich. training facility when he heard an extremely pronounced wood bat sound registering through the building. Ross states, “That sound was loud. It perked up my scout antenna. I thought it might be a pro guy taking some batting practice.”

But it was no pro at all — just Bush, who was now a high school junior.

The 2018 MLB draft might one day seem like an act of divine intervention to White Sox fans. Although many within the professional scouting community considered Bush to be a fourth to sixth round talent, Bryce’s name was not called on Day 1 or 2, and it still lingered deep into Day 3.

Finally, in the 33rd round, the White Sox pulled the trigger. Ross explained there were perceived questions about his client’s signability because Bush had been verbally offered a 95% scholarship to Mississippi State as a 10th grader, which in Ross’s estimation was “pretty unheard of.” (Each year, Division I college baseball programs can award 11.7 scholarships to fill their 35 roster spots. It is extremely uncommon for an elite baseball program like Mississippi State to commit a 95% scholarship to a high school sophomore.)

When discussing his son’s draft position, Elwood states “People say it was because he’s from the north and the competition isn’t as good. Fact is, Bryce always faced the top competition, because he never stayed in Michigan. Since he was 10 years old, he has always traveled to play with elite teams against the best players in the country.”

Elwood recalls that as an 11-year-old, Bryce played 104 games for the Dave Gallagher Select team, based in New Jersey. “They went 96-8. The season started at a tournament in Georgia in March and finished in September. They kept winning, so they kept playing.”

According to his father, Bryce nearly chose a different route based on his draft position. Elwood says that Bryce considered offers to play for junior college baseball powerhouses Chipola and Miami-Dade after the draft, but in the end, “Bryce wouldn’t have been happy if he went to school, because baseball is what he wants to do. It’s what he’s always wanted to do.”

As Elwood Bush shares memories of his son’s athletic prowess, they start to sound almost mythical.

“He never had any fear,” he says. “I didn’t have to let up at all when I threw him the ball. When he was six years old, I could play catch with him like he was a grownup.”

Bryce’s prowess wasn’t limited only to baseball, either.

“At both baseball and basketball, he was always the best player on his team.” Elwood says. “He used to play basketball with kids four or five years older than him. He could palm a ball by the time he was 10 and at the same time, he hit baseballs further than high school juniors and seniors. He could dunk a basketball by the time he was in the eighth grade.”

Bryce played varsity basketball during his freshman year, and won the team MVP award before quitting to devote 100% of his attention to baseball. “I quit because I didn’t want to get an injury that could get in the way of baseball,” Bryce says.

There seems to be a strong link to athleticism in the family genetics. One of Bryce’s uncles is Georgetown basketball legend and 15-year NBA veteran David Wingate. Older brother Ryan was also a college basketball player. Another uncle, Ricky Bush, played catcher in the Phillies minor league system. Bryce’s father played college baseball for Hinds Community College, who made it to the National JUCO championship while he played there.

Bush’s plate approach can be summed up using two contradicting words: aggressive yet patient. The description begins to make sense when you understand the background of his high school baseball career. The Catholic League in which Bush’s team (De La Salle Collegiate) played, had an unusual rule; in an effort to preserve young pitchers’ arms, all hitters started their at-bats with a 1-1 count.

In spite of this, Bryce hit .541 with 16 home runs while striking out only seven times en route to winning the Rawlings Perfect Game Player of the Year award in Michigan during his junior year. Bryce described how this experience affected his hitting approach: “It taught me to be very aggressive in the beginning of the at-bat, and to always be ready to smash balls when I’m behind in the count.”

Bryce Bush isn’t just a kid with a God-given talent for baseball. His drive to succeed and his work ethic are what scouts would describe as “off the charts.” Others might suggest they border on insanity. “Bryce never took a break, always watched what he ate, always did his running,” Elwood says, noting that his son would run hills while wearing a weighted vest, do suicides on snow-covered football fields during the offseason, and take batting practice with Wiffle balls at Lifetime Fitness when it was too cold to hit outdoors.

Unlike the tragic stories that are commonplace in sports about fathers relentlessly pushing their sons toward perfection in an effort to vicariously relive their athletic glory days, Elwood sidesteps that comparison: “I never had to make him do anything. He’s very motivated and disciplined. The work ethic has always been there. He never missed practice to go to birthday parties or other things that kids normally do. Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, it didn’t matter to Bryce. He always wanted to practice. He’s never lost any of his passion or love for the game.”

Ross laughingly shares a story about receiving a text message from Elwood at 11:00 pm on Christmas Eve; the message was a video featuring Bryce and Elwood finishing up a late-night batting practice.

Ross also explains that the White Sox gave Bryce an app for his phone to guide him through workouts during the offseason. Turns out, Bush missed one day of work between his two minor league seasons. The agent explains: “He did a double session one day — because he was getting his wisdom teeth pulled the next day.”

It’s easy to recognize a similarity between Bryce and Elwood that mirrors Tiger and Earl Woods or Michael and James Jordan. Elwood recalls a story of how he once had carpal tunnel surgery, but returned to the baseball field the next day to pitch batting practice for his son. “I never wanted to be the reason for Bryce not being able to do what he wanted to do,” he says, proudly. “We were like twins for 10 years. We were inseparable, did everything together. When he left for Arizona after being drafted by the Sox, I think I cried for three weeks. I couldn’t eat. I didn’t want to touch a baseball. But I knew he was doing what he loved and what he wanted to do.”

Elwood says that in spite of the three-hour time difference between Arizona and Michigan, his son called him every night when the games were over, and he would happily wake up to talk to him at 1 or 2 a.m. Elwood’s pride and emotion are obvious: “I am so proud of him, whether he gets to the major leagues or not. I’m proud of the young man he is, the good heart he has.”

In spite of his accomplishments, the teenaged slugger has always managed to stay grounded. The grandson of a Detroit police officer, Bryce maintained a 3.7 grade point average in high school and graduated with honors. His father recalls the time Bryce went to a party as a high school freshman. “He called me about an hour into it and said, ‘Can you come get me? They’re drinking and smoking here.’”

That’s just the kind of kid Bush is. He doesn’t want anything to get in the way of his goals. During the offseason, father and son return to being inseparable. Elwood spends five to six hours a day assisting his son with his workouts, and puts him through what Ross refers to as “the Elwood experience,” which includes taking batting practice with a 40-oz. bat.

“At home, they call me the hit doctor.” Elwood laughs. “We do a lot of one-handed drills, tee work, heavy bat, and soft toss.”

When I mention that I saw a video of Bryce hitting left-handed on Twitter, his father explains, “He practices that. too. When I was his coach, I would make the kids practice bunting or switch-hitting if the score was getting out of hand. The first time Bryce hit left-handed in a game, he hit the ball off the wall.”

Bryce Bush still plays up; the 6´0´´, 205-pounder started this season in the Single-A South Atlantic League, where the average player is 21 years and 6 months old; Bush started this season less than four months removed from his 19th birthday.

As a member of the Kannapolis Intimidators, Bush was immediately installed as the team’s clean-up hitter. The season started with a fizzle, as Bush was adversely affected by vision issues that hindered his performance. He explains, “About two-and-a-half weeks before spring training ended, things started looking blurry unless they were close. It was worse at night.” After the third game of the regular season, Bush asked the trainers if they would schedule an eye exam. He continued to play through these issues for another two weeks while waiting to see the doctor, and his performance faltered. Naysayers may have questioned the aggressiveness of the White Sox assignment, as Bush began the season 5-of-52 for a .096 batting average, with 22 strikeouts (40% K rate) and three walks (5% BB rate).

On April 21, Bush’s optometrist prescribed glasses and contact lenses, and the lights literally went on for the young star. Bush immediately responded with a nine-game hitting streak, and he hasn’t looked back. Since getting his glasses, Bush has been locked in at the plate, going 24-of-71 for a .338 average with 19 strikeouts (22%) and 11 walks (13%). Additionally, 15 of his 16 extra-base hits have occurred during this time frame (eight doubles, three triples, two home runs). His strike zone judgment and plate discipline are exemplary for a young player.

Justin Wechsler, the White Sox scout responsible for signing Bush says, “When I watched him in high school, even in the Catholic League, he would not chase pitches out of the zone.” This trait followed Bush to the short-season leagues in 2018 where he exhibited a keen eye, walking in 11% of his plate appearances and limiting his strikeout rate to a very palatable 15%.

Bryce has a simple philosophy at the plate: “If the first pitch is good, I’m going to be very aggressive. Teams do a lot of research on how to throw to me. I know I will get a lot of pitches low or on the outside corner of the zone. I try not to miss the first good pitch they give to me, and put a hard swing on it.”

Defensively, Bush has been a work in progress at third base. He’s made nine errors in only 10 games, eight of which were on throws. Although he features a strong arm, his footwork lags behind, and has been the root cause for overthrows. Recently, the Intimidators relocated Bush to the outfield, where he looks very comfortable and has expressed enthusiasm about the new role.

“The outfield fits me best,” he says. “I have a good feel, make good routes to the ball, and can definitely throw some guys out. Aaron Rowand has been helping me with the switch, and he says I’m already looking good out there.”

Although Bush has a large frame, he looks extremely fast on the basepaths and in the field. He said he has been frequently timed in the 6.5 to 6.7 range while running the 60-yard dash. These times put him solidly at a 65 grade on the 20-80 scouting scale.

Although Bush has several plus tools, his bat will be the one that punches his ticket to the major leagues. White Sox fans should to be excited about Bush and his potential to contribute to the rebuild.

“He has a drive and confidence about himself,” Wechsler says. “He’s got plus power and great bat speed, but his mental makeup is his best asset.”

When asked the best advice he’s ever received as a professional. Bryce points to what Cole Armstrong told him: “There are going to be good and bad days. The way you handle it determines if you will make it to the big leagues or not.”