Advertisement
Share

This Time, Mike Busch Is Just a Guy Trying to Make the Team

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is no traffic light. No movie theater. No church. There is a filling station. A bar. A grocery store.

And that’s about it in Donahue, Iowa, population 600.

So you can imagine the reaction when a local boy becomes a professional baseball player and makes it to the major leagues.

It was the biggest news in Donahue since the filling station burned down.

Advertisement

So on the night of Aug. 30, 1995, folks who didn’t mind staying up late, and had cable service, pulled up to their TV sets.

Mike Busch, the town hero, was making his debut with the Dodgers.

Donald and Arlene Busch, Mike’s parents, watched on a neighbor’s TV set, proud as they could be.

It took only minutes for their pride to turn to numbness. They saw their son sitting on the bench alone, ostracized by his teammates.

Arlene Busch could hardly believe it. How could his teammates treat her son so cruelly, she wondered.

“We tried to brace ourselves for what could happen,” she said. “But you couldn’t prepare yourself for something like that. . . . I just sat there with tears in my eyes.”

The Buschs sat through the game in near silence. Then, in the ninth inning, Mike was called to pinch-hit.

The crowd of 40,394 rose and gave him a standing ovation. Busch, wondering whether his knees would hold up all the way to the plate, struck out on three pitches. The crowd gave him another standing ovation, this time even louder.

“That was the greatest feeling of my life right there,” Mike said.

Busch walked back to the bench, went to the clubhouse, and again sat alone.

For Busch had been a spring-training replacement player during the longest strike in baseball history. And his Dodger teammates remembered that.

It didn’t matter that he had needed the $10,000 bonus for his newborn baby. It didn’t matter that he was having financial difficulties on his 300-acre ranch in Missouri. It didn’t even matter that he had been taken off the 40-man roster and that was his only way to grab the Dodgers’ attention.

To his teammates, Busch was a scab.

“It was something I felt I had to do for my family,” Busch said here the other day, where he is back for spring training, this time as a full-fledged Dodger. “I had no regrets at the time, and I have no regrets today.”

The Dodgers’ perverse reaction to Busch made him a household name. His mailbox was stuffed each day with sympathetic letters.

His teammates, meanwhile, were being tagged as immature million-dollar crybabies. Fans booed center fielder Brett Butler for simply being the team spokesman. They were upset with the players for asking Executive Vice President Fred Claire to send Busch back to Albuquerque, the club’s triple-A farm team.

“It got very ugly,” first baseman Eric Karros said. “Let’s face it, people viewed replacement players as underdogs. I could understand how the fans felt that way, but by the same token, you have to look at the facts. . . .

“When you look at teachers and other people that go out on strike, I don’t see people jumping on them. It’s like the rules change, depending on the amount of money you make. I don’t think that’s right.

“It was nothing personal against Mike, it was just the concept.”

Butler said, “I regret the way I handled it. I think I could have been more clear on the fact that some of the statements I made were on behalf of the union, that this is a union statement, not a Brett Butler statement.”

The Dodgers, seeing their public relations mess, called a news conference. Before it began, several players asked Busch to apologize and say he had made a mistake. Busch refused, saying he couldn’t lie. The news conference went on anyway with Butler, Karros, Mike Piazza and Busch each saying he wouldn’t let the situation interfere with the team’s drive for the division title.

“Naturally, it bothered me,” Busch said of the rejection. “It hurt a lot. There were guys who had been my friends, who weren’t my friends anymore. . . .

“But as much as it hurt, it still was a dream come true for me. I wasn’t going to let what happened ruin that. And the fans, wow, I just wish I could have formally thanked them for their support. They helped me get through it.”

Busch got another reminder of his second-class status when his teammates voted on the distribution of playoff shares.

Butler, who had rejoined the team 11 days before Busch, having spent most of the season with the New York Mets, was awarded two-thirds of a full share. It was worth $9,274.

Busch was awarded nothing.

“I was surprised, a little disappointed, actually,” Busch said. “Guys said the reason I didn’t get anything was that my playoff bonus came when I agreed to play in spring training games. What can you do? I’m not going to be anybody’s puppet. It’s done now.”

Busch came to camp this spring wondering if there would be lingering hostilities. His anxiety subsided when he was treated like everyone else.

He is competing with Rick Parker, Reggie Williams and Garey Ingram for the final spot on the bench. The players privately are rooting for Parker, who has been in and out of the major leagues the last six years, but refused to become a replacement player.

That doesn’t matter to Busch. The way he figures it, he made a decision his teammates will never understand. He may never again be allowed into the Major League Players Assn. But he’s convinced that if he had not become a replacement player, he would not be in Dodger camp today.

“That was my last chance,” he said. “Playing in those games gave me the chance to show I could play in the major leagues. I got to open some eyes. I got to realize a dream.”

Busch, 28, may never be a star. Who knows, maybe he won’t play in another major league game for the Dodgers. Doesn’t matter in Iowa. He is still a hero back home.

“I love it back home because everyone treats everyone the same,” Busch said. “There are no phonies. They are real people. . . .

“I just hope I can keep making them proud. I believe I can play in the big leagues. And I believe I can play a long time.

“The scars are healed up now. I’m callused. I’m mentally stronger.

“The way I figure it, if I can get through the last month of [last] season in L.A., I can get through anything.”


Advertisement