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Matt Buschmann’s Yellow Brick Road: Will the Minor League Strikeout King Ever Reach the Majors?

Matt Buschmann won more games at Vanderbilt than David Price. He’s hardworking, fit, and professional. He’s been a minor league strikeout king. But he’s never earned a call to The Show, and as his 10th minor league season unfolds, he’s really starting to wonder why.

Matt Buschmann is intelligent and funny, hardworking and fit, and a professional baseball pitcher, but he’s been known to joke that he’s a trophy husband. That’s because his wife, Sara Walsh, is more famous than he is: She’s an ESPN SportsCenter anchor.1 Buschmann, meanwhile, has spent his entire 10-year career in the minor leagues. He’s 31.


1.

How Buschmann and Walsh, a former college soccer standout at North Florida, came to be married is quite a good story that involves being set up by Buschmann’s college roommate, David Price.

Among active pitchers who’ve never been to the majors, Buschmann is the reigning strikeout leader, but his is no Crash Davis (or Mike Hessman) story, even though much of it has happened in Durham. Those guys made it to The Show. “I have a story that is uniquely mine,” Buschmann says.

He calls himself a late bloomer. Buschmann was drafted by San Diego in the 15th round in 2006 out of Vanderbilt, where he roomed with David Price (and won more games than Price). He enjoyed early success in the lower minors, as four-year college pitchers often do, but struggled upon reaching Triple-A in 2009. He labored for three years to develop fastball command and a third pitch (he now throws a split-change). He finally had a breakout season in 2013 in the Tampa Bay Rays’ organization, excelling in Double-A and earning a promotion to the Triple-A Durham Bulls. But still, he wasn’t called up to the majors. He signed as a minor league free agent with Oakland in 2014, and then again for 2015, but just before this season started, the pitching-prospect-rich A’s dealt him back to the suddenly depleted Rays, who “had every injury under the sun at the big league level,” Buschmann says.

He was excited. The Rays already knew and liked him. When he pitched well in Durham early in the season, he figured he’d finally get to make his major league debut. Instead, Tampa Bay called up every pitcher under the sun except him: an unknown barely out of Double-A; a waiver claim; guys who have gas but no aim; even a big league washout Buschmann’s age, just back from Korea Baseball Organization exile and sporting a Triple-A ERA near 6.00. They let a short reliever start two games instead of promoting Buschmann, who had a 2.77 ERA and 1.07 WHIP on June 1. He wasn’t excited anymore.

“You start to get the feeling that you literally have to be perfect to get called up,” Buschmann says. “If I give up a hit, does that ruin my chance? You start having unrealistic expectations of yourself. I got into this really bad place mentally. You look around and you see guys getting called up and you’re like, I’m doing better than them. I have better stuff. I’m a better pitcher. What am I missing? What’s the secret?”

Buschmann had a June 15 opt-out clause in his contract with Oakland, a courtesy sometimes extended to Triple-A veterans. The opt-out transferred to Tampa Bay with the trade, and he exercised it. The timing was perfect: The Rays needed another healthy arm; they had an open roster spot, and if they gave it to Buschmann within 48 hours, they wouldn’t lose him. Instead, they called up an old big league veteran who used to be good — the safe decision. He put up a 7.88 ERA in six games and was promptly let go. “I wish they would admit they were wrong and have at least that satisfaction, but in the end it doesn’t matter: They’ve lost us both.”

Buschmann received offers from four clubs. Ben Cherington, the Red Sox GM at the time, called him personally — a rarity. “With every other organization,” Buschmann says, “I talked to their minor league coordinator.” Cherington “was so refreshing and honest. He understood my place: ‘You’re trying to get to the big leagues; you haven’t been there.’”

In his heart, Buschmann wanted to sign with Boston. But his head heard Cherington say that he’d be behind some prospects in Triple-A, and it told him that there might be a big league opening in Cincinnati, with the Reds poised to trade Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake. He signed with Cincy, taking less money than he could have gotten elsewhere, and went to the Triple-A team in Louisville. He was right about the trades, wrong about the opening they might create for him: “They called up two younger guys, their numbers weren’t great, but they were guys they traded for, and they had to figure out if they would sink or swim. And because they were in a losing season it didn’t matter.” Finally, the Reds called up a veteran, but it was Dylan Axelrod. Buschmann’s numbers were better, but Axelrod had something Buschmann didn’t.

“‘We called up a guy with big league experience.’ Well, how do I get that?” Buschmann says. “Is there a pill I can take? What store can I go to? He’s proven to you that he can’t stick. I haven’t proven what I can do. Let me go shit myself up there.

“It gets to the point where you wonder if there’s a Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, pulling levers to make sure I never get called up.”

matt-buschmann-oakland-triGregory Bull/AP Photo

Louisville recently came to Durham for a weekend series, but Buschmann didn’t face his old team: He’d pitched at Norfolk the day before. So in Durham, he coached first base instead. The day after Louisville left town, the Reds’ minor league coordinator told Buschmann he’d been traded to Baltimore, whose Triple-A affiliate is the Norfolk Tides. Norfolk’s next series was in — you guessed it — Durham. The Wizard keeps sending him back. Is the Wicked Witch here with her broomstick? Buschmann wonders if he’s already unknowingly killed a witch — and a good one at that. “I’ve thought to myself, ‘Who did I piss off early in my life to get the karma going against me?’” He’s not complaining — “The game doesn’t owe me anything” — he just wants to know.

“If someone from baseball says, ‘I know for a fact you’ll never get to the big leagues,’ I’ll walk away,” he says. “But no one’s been able to tell me that or give me a reason why it’ll never happen. Baseball as a profession is really bad at communication.”

Last Wednesday afternoon, he came out of the visitors dugout and chatted with his teammates — not the Tides but the Bulls, who came over to say hello. He was scheduled to pitch against them on Thursday. After he chatted with them, he chatted with me. He was astute, forthcoming, and equable, as always, and committed to pursuing his big league dream “as long as I’m healthy enough and good enough.” But he used the word “frustrated” six times.

He went to stretch with the Norfolk pitchers, then threw a light bullpen session, which he often does the day before he starts. Meanwhile, I talked with outfielder Julio Borbon, his new Norfolk teammate. Informed of Buschmann’s peripatetic particulars, Borbon asked when he’d last been in the majors. Never. Never? Buschmann hears that disbelief a lot from new teammates. He isn’t forgotten here; he’s assumed to have gotten there. Everything about him is big league except his transaction history. “I’m an adult,” Buschmann says, “I’m a professional. Tell me why. Tell me exactly why.”

He mentioned the Wizard again. In baseball, the Wizard takes the form of so many plain-looking men, Oz’s many functionaries. I asked one: a scout. “He doesn’t have a plus pitch,” the scout said. Neither does Axelrod. “And he’s too old.” Buschmann’s the same age as the washout lefty — who also doesn’t have a plus pitch. But they have one thing you haven’t got. “Is there a pill I can take?”

Buschmann’s first start with Norfolk came on the day he turned exactly 31 and a half. The annual divide — where am I going, where have I been? He hit the first batter he faced. The second one lined out hard to shortstop, and the third hit an RBI double. Buschmann’s fastball, usually in the low 90s, was 86 mph.

matt-buschmann-norfolk-tidesTegan Johnston

“He’s hurt,” the scout said. I objected. He was just rusty. He hadn’t pitched in a week. Buschmann retired the next two hitters, his fastball up to 88.

Before the second inning, Buschmann briefly rubbed his right shoulder the way you rub a trusty pet. His fastball velocity dropped down to 82 mph. He gave up a homer on a hanging breaking ball. He got out of the inning, somehow, and walked back to the dugout with his arm hanging.

“He’s hurt,” the scout insisted, and left to get some food before Buschmann came out for the third inning. He didn’t see Buschmann throw an 80 mph fastball. Buschmann’s catcher, whom he’d just met, came to the mound to talk to him. Up in the broadcast booth, the Bulls’ play-by-play man was worrying aloud. “This is highly irregular.”

Buschmann retired the side in order on veteran wiles and a bit of luck. One of the outs was a screaming drive that Borbon ran down on the warning track. On his way down the dugout steps, Buschmann was intercepted by his new manager and pitching coach, who asked if he was all right. He went into the clubhouse with Norfolk’s trainer and didn’t come back.

The next day, Buschmann said it wasn’t at all serious, just mild soreness. Probably the trade-prolonged layoff was to blame, he says, for taking him out of his routine. He’ll skip a turn and take the next one. “Sweet timing for it!” he jokes: first impression with a new team and organization, the September 1 expansion of Emerald City looming … and he looked hurt. Buschmann is hardly ever hurt. He’s thrown at least 140 innings in six of his eight full professional seasons.

“You hope your reputation precedes you,” he says. “Sometimes it doesn’t, so you have to redo it. What’s the parable? The myth? The guy that has to push the rock up the hill? And then it falls back down and you’ve got to push it up again.”

I’ve thought of Sisyphus before in relation to Triple-A ballplayers, but I hadn’t thought of him pushing his rock up the yellow brick road. If you overlay the myths, Sisyphus as Dorothy, you might have something like Buschmann’s story. It might have to do with trophies, and how they aren’t always what they seem. The trophy might be the rock itself, or the will to climb the hill. The real prize for Dorothy, after all, is getting home; Emerald City is just a station on the way, and she doesn’t really need the Wizard. “This’ll be relevant to some other part of my life down the road,” Buschmann says. His “story that is uniquely mine” is no parable and no myth. Every time he pitches, he brings the rock back up the hill.

Adam Sobsey (@sobsey) lives in Durham, North Carolina, where he covered the Durham Bulls for five years. His baseball writing has appeared in The Paris Review and Baseball Prospectus, and he is the lead author of Bull City Summer, a documentary book project about the Bulls. His biography of the rock musician Chrissie Hynde is forthcoming from University of Texas Press in 2016-17.