WARREN – Baseball, at its core, is a simple game. Throw a baseball, try to hit it and then catch it.
And that was more than enough to hook Bryce Bush.
“Baseball was first,” Bush said when asked which sport initially grabbed his attention. “My dad got me started. I was 3 years old. We’d always hit, play catch. Everyday. I just liked it.”
Bush has been all in ever since. One of four underclassmen selected to the 2017 all-state Dream Team by the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association, Bush is a 6-foot, 205-pound infielder at Warren DeLaSalle. He started at first and third base his sophomore season and played those two positions plus outfield last year before moving to shortstop this spring.
“I’m the best athlete on the team,” he said. “I’m used to it. It used to be my primary position. At shortstop, you’re in control of the whole infield. (Playing) third base was harder. You have to come in on balls, and that throw (down the line) is one of the hardest to make.”
For some, the transition would be a difficult challenge. But Bush, 18, isn’t your typical high school player. He has all the tools. He can run, hit for power and field his position. Pencil him in anywhere, and he’ll succeed.
Bush said he’ll likely play third base or right field at the next level. Just where at the next level has yet to be determined. He signed with Mississippi State University, and it’s likely he’ll be selected in the Major League Amateur Draft in June.
Where he’s headed next will be decided at a later date, and Bush said he doesn’t think about it that much. He said there were 10 major league scouts at his last game.
“I have no clue at all," he said of which round he'll be selected. “(The scouts) try to make it as hard as possible trying to figure it out. It’s really no big deal. I have a good backup plan.”
Until then, Bush’s focus is on this season and what he can do to make himself a better player while helping his team any way he can. Last season the Pilots reached a Regional Semifinal before losing to Sterling Heights Stevenson, 5-4. In 2016, DeLaSalle won the school’s fourth baseball Finals championship as the Pilots defeated Saline, 7-6, in the Division 1 championship game.
Bush and the other 15 returning players from last season have a new coach. Dave Zelmanski, a 1974 DeLaSalle grad, was hired after Matt Cook left the program to take over at Grandville.
Zelmanski had never met Bush before last fall. The new coach was a pretty good player in his day, having played four seasons at Wayne State University – but he said Bush is special. Zelmanski compares his introduction to Bush to when he was invited to a Detroit Red Wings practice about 15 years ago before he became a sales representative.
“I was working at Chrysler at the time,” Zelmanski said. “And I’m meeting guys like (Joey) Kocur, (Brendan) Shanahan and others. Then I saw (Steve) Yzerman. He was it. Just the way he carried himself. When I went to meet the (DeLaSalle) team, I saw Bryce, and he was it.
“I was talking with Jake Badalamenti, he’s one of our better players and he was part of the state championship team for football. He was in the (batting) cage, and I asked him where Bryce was. Jake takes me aside and he put his hands at his chest and said, ‘Coach we’re all here, the rest of us.’ Then he raised his hands over his head and said, ‘That’s where Bryce is.’
“(Bryce) is as quiet as a church mouse. He’s the nicest kid. And there isn’t anything he does that the other guys can do.”
Bush has what some call “God-given” talent. And it’s easy to see why.
His father, Elwood Bush III, grew up on Detroit’s west side and played baseball at Detroit Cooley. He went on to play at Hinds Community College in Mississippi and on the National JUCO championship team in 1989. Bush’s uncle, Ricky Bush, played at Jackson State, and his grandfather also played baseball.
Bush also has a brother, Ryan, 25, who chose basketball and was a good player at Berkley High.
Bryce Bush played basketball too but stopped after his freshman year to concentrate on the diamond.
In addition to his natural abilities, Bush is determined to out-work the competition. He works at his trade six days a week, taking Sundays off. He’ll run a half mile or so to begin his workouts before going into light stretching and then a more strenuous stretching exercise called dynamic warm-up. Many of these stretching exercises focus on his legs and arms.
He’ll then work on his footwork and field ground balls for 20 minutes or so.
He ends his training hitting with his teammates or, if he’s alone, in a batting cage. He’ll use a 35-ounce bat at the start to get loose, then go to his favorite wooden bat. Hitting alone takes an hour.
“I remember when I was 3, maybe 4 years old,” Bush said. “And I’d use a toy golf club and just start swinging it. I hit a wall with it sometimes.
“Honestly, I like everything about baseball. The best feeling is, of course, hitting a home run.”
Last season Bush hit 16 home runs to go with a .541 batting average. Through five games this season, he’s hit just one home run – but it was a memorable one against Birmingham Brother Rice.
“The wind was blowing in hard,” Zelmanski said. “Nobody was going to hit one out that day, and (Bush) just crushed one. I mean, it’s hard to say how far it went over the fence, but it had to go 20 or 30 feet beyond. Nobody could believe he hit it that far.”
Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Warren DeLaSalle’s Bryce Bush applies a tag against Lake Orion. (Middle) Bush, after playing a variety of positions over the last two seasons, will line up primarily at shortstop this spring. (Photos courtesy of the Warren DeLaSalle baseball program.)
If there is anything that Brent Gates knows for sure, it's that there is no single explanation for three MHSAA Finals baseball championships.
For starters, the Grand Rapids Christian coach credits the superior coaching he had as a youngster, especially for helping him make the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association Dream Team in 1988.
From there, Gates points to the experience gained as a former Big 10 Baseball Player of the Year, a seven-year major league playing career that saw him rubbing shoulders with such notables as Hall-of-Famer Tony LaRussa and Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly, and then landing at a high school where the critical support he received from players, community and administration was priceless.
Put it all together and that, at least in part, explains Gates becoming the first Grand Rapids-area baseball coach with three state titles on his resume.
The Eagles' 2-1 win over Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett in the June 17 Division 2 Final marked Gates' third title as a coach. His Grand Rapids Christian clubs had previously won back-to-back titles in 2012-13.
Gates passed former Grandville Calvin Christian coach Jay Milkamp as the Grand Rapids-area coach with the most state titles. Milkamp won in 1994 (Class C) and 1996 (Class B).
Gates, a member of three Halls of Fame, is quick to deflect the credit for three championships and two other championship game appearances. What he treasures most is being mentioned in the same breath as other legendary west-side coaches such as Jenison's Gary Cook, Ron Engels of Wyoming Park, Hudsonville's Dave Van Nord, East Grand Rapids' Chris LaMange, formerly Rockford and now Ada Forest Hills Eastern's Ian Hearn and Milkamp, most of whom Gates either played against while an all-stater at Grandville or through coaching at Grand Rapids Christian.
"I'm just a small piece of what has transpired in 11 years," he said. "Just to be mentioned with them and their success is an honor. (Three titles) is not an individual thing, but because of many people and what they can do working day in and day out together.
"I've always said the west side doesn't get the recognition it should in baseball. There are some great coaches here with great baseball talent, and I think you see that in the postseason."
If basketball can spawn what is affectionately known as "gym rats," then Gates is surely a classic example of the diamond's version of someone who has lived and breathed baseball his entire life. He was a two-time all-stater at Grandville who went on to a standout career at the University of Minnesota that included a lifetime .387 batting average. He was named the Big Ten Player of the Year in 1991 and consensus All-American. Gates played internationally with USA Baseball on the 18U team in 1988 and then the collegiate national team in 1989 and 1990. Over those two seasons on the collegiate team he appeared in 68 games, hitting a combined .363 with 49 runs scored and 54 RBIs.
He was drafted by the Oakland A's in the first round (26th overall) of the 1991 draft and went on to hit .264 in 685 major league games over seven seasons.
Upon his retirement, Gates founded the Frozen Ropes training facility in Grand Rapids, worked as a scout for the Tampa Bay Rays, became the West Michigan Whitecaps' second-ever manager in 2001, coached Byron Center for two years and has compiled a remarkable 298-89 record in two coaching stints at Grand Rapids Christian.
After virtually a lifetime in baseball, Gates said his coaching success can be spread in many directions. He said it began at Grandville, was influenced by such managers as John Anderson at Minnesota and LaRussa and Kelly at the major league level, and with brushing shoulders with many of Grand Rapids' most successful coaches.
The experience led him to a coaching philosophy that includes a priority on building relationships with players, providing a full explanation of his thinking to the players, a quiet but firm coaching of fundamentals, and, above all, communication. If there is anything that Gates does not do, it's relying on the "old-school" coaching method where coaches demand excellence in no uncertain terms.
"I've taken little bits and pieces from a lot of people," said Gates, a member of the Grandville, University of Minnesota and Grand Rapids Halls of Fame. "I want players to figure out who they can be. Whether it's Ken Griffey Jr. as a hitter, Randy Johnson as a pitcher or Terry Steinbach in catching, you don't just take one person and say who can I be? If you want to compete at a high level, you need to be better than anyone you go up against.
"Part of being a good coach, and it doesn't matter if it's a 9U program or high school, is about making players understand and be able to apply what they learn. Baseball is a hard game, one of failure where if you succeed three times out of 10, you're a star. You have to get players to understand failure."
Gates said all three Grand Rapids Christian champions were marked by different strong suits. The 2012 club, for example, breezed its way to a 36-5 record, while the 2013 club finished the regular season just 12-15 but put together a torrid seven-game winning streak during the tournament. This year's team was marked by a deep pitching staff and what Gates describes as a "group of gamers."
"All of them were different, but I firmly believe that pitching and defense win championships," Gates said. "But you also have to get hot at the right time."
It's not unusual for major leaguers to completely hang up the spikes once their playing days are over. They're tired of the pressure, the frustration of fading talent and losing the battle with Father Time, and the constant travel away from family. Gates faced all that and still found himself enthralled with the idea of coaching.
"I've loved the game since I was like 4 years old. There's nothing better than smelling pine tar or the look of manicured grass. The smells and sounds of baseball, that's what I love," he said.
One of his coaching goals is to impart the love of the game to his players. And it seems the message is getting across.
"It's awesome playing for him," said first baseman/pitcher Ty Uchman, who graduated this spring. "He gets us to focus on the little things. If there is something on our minds, we know we can go to him. He's an open book. I know he'll always talk to us, and that builds trust and a bond."
Another recent grad, infielder Kyle Remington, will follow Gates' footsteps to the University of Minnesota and said one particular trait sticks out to him about his coach.
"He's very patient," Remington said. "There are all levels of players in high school, and he treats them all the same. Doesn't matter if they're struggling; he never raises his voice. He's a very comfortable and relatable coach to play for.
"He knows baseball is a game of failure so if you don't understand a drill or an adjustment to have to make, he'll talk to you in a patient way."
Gates said he suspected even when he was a major leaguer that coaching was likely in his future.
"I did, and it was an easy decision. God has a plan, and I had a feeling I would stay in the game," he said. "Baseball has given me everything. I love the game, and I know I've been blessed. I want to take what I've learned and pass it along. That's always been a part of me."
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PHOTOS (Top) Brent Gates appears on the USA Baseball collegiate national team in 1989 and makes a pitching change during this spring’s Division 2 Final. (Middle) Gates makes a tag at second base while playing for the national team. (Below) Gates presents the championship trophy this season to his Grand Rapids Christian players. (National team photos courtesy of USA Baseball.)