In 2001, Matt Bruback’s dream of playing in the Majors was in jeopardy. It was his second start with Double-A West Tennessee (second batter, first pitch) that a 91 MPH fastball was fired back at him (at 103 MPH), hitting him squarely in the right knee. Instead of relieving him, the team left him on the mound. It was a decision that even the radio broadcasters covering the game openly questioned.
Matt’s father, Rudy, was listening to the game on the radio. The aforementioned Oneri Flieta, who was the minor-league director for the Cubs at the time, was at the game.
“No medical treatment or even simple x-rays were taken to see if there was serious damage to my knee”, Matt recalled.
Bruback was asked to make his next start, as well, and at this point he had altered his mechanics to compensate for the untreated injury to his right knee. Anyone who’s ever played the game knows where this can lead: elbow and shoulder strain, control problems and, often, a premature end to one’s career.
After weeks of leg and shoulder pain, Bruback was demoted to High-A Daytona. This was the year and location of Flieta’s infamous ‘think about the future’ comment. Mixed results on the mound ensued as Bruback did his best to cope with his now-multiple injuries on his own. Team coaches either shamed him into pitching or went so far as to claim that he was faking it, altogether. Once again, team staff seemed to be doing their best to do their worst. To be sure, Matt had little more than negative experiences in the way he was handled by Cubs coaches and staff.
The 2002 season found him back in Double-A, where he put up an All-Star performance: his 3.16 ERA was third in the league, his 174 innings pitched was good for second and he sent 158 batters down on strikes. He went six innings or more in 22 of his starts (14 of those in a row). While he was selected for the All-Star Game, pitching coordinator Lester Strode (him, again) called Bruback and told him that the Cubs wouldn’t let him pitch in the Double-A All-Star Game. Supposedly, there was concern about the wear on his arm. The problem with this ‘concern’ is:
- Bruback would likely have pitched only an inning during the game, throwing 15-20 pitches (give or take).
- Bruback asked if he could go without making an appearance in the game. This was allowed by the Cubs, finally.
- When he returned to West Tennessee, Strode was waiting. He had Bruback throw two ‘sides’ (basically practice sessions for pitchers) over two days, approximating 90 pitches. If there was concern over Bruback’s arm, why would the team even suggest this?
In July 2006, Bruback was sent to the Pittsburgh Pirates with IF Jose Hernandez and Bobby Hill for 3B Aramis Ramirez and OF Kenny Lofton. The Cubs sent him a short form letter with a check for exactly zero dollars. Yes, a check for zero dollars.
“Not sure if this is a standard practice”, said Bruback, “but it was funny getting a check for zero dollars along with a very impersonal form letter from the man who originally signed me.”
Bruback would spend time in the San Diego Padres and Baltimore Orioles organizations over the next few years until his retirement in 2006. It was an idea he came up with in his last year as a pro ball player that became his new focus: a simple, weight belt. Matt could remember all the times he heard coaches tell him to be aware of his positioning, mechanics and weight transfer, and felt that this weight belt would cause him to be more mindful of each intricate motion involved in pitching.
He called it the Balance Pro Sportbelt, and it was initially marketed to golfers to help them with body awareness and weight shift. One of the product’s users was a San Diego therapist named Catherine Behan. It was when she tested the weight belt on some of her autistic patients that she noticed its true potential: her patients seemed calmer, more focused and more steady on their feet.
Bruback then worked with Community Haven, a non-profit organization based in Florida that helps children and adults with disabilities, to redesign the belt especially for children. It was then that he realized he could fulfill two dreams at once: to be a great help to others, and to start his own business.
This was only the beginning of the newly-renamed Miracle Belt, which is now being used in 30 countries and in therapy for more than 10,000 children. The reason for the name change is simple: children who had never been able to focus, control their emotions, or walk unassisted were now able to do so.
Now entering its ninth year of use, The Belt has helped Matt Bruback to realize a new dream, one that he shares with thousands of children worldwide. Nevertheless, he remains even-keeled about the legacy he is building in the process. It seems strange to consider that, in a way, the mishandling he endured by Cubs staffers has led him to where he is today.
“It’s remarkable to me that a line drive off my kneecap twelve years ago has resulted in improving the lives of thousands of children”, said Bruback.
It continues to seem even more remarkable with every child that overcomes a disability, thanks in no small part to a little-known former professional pitcher.
(To read the whole story, pick up Playing Catch With Destiny by Michael Williamsen, available on Amazon.com as an eBook or paperback. Also, check out Matt’s blog for details and links related to his book. See Michael’s author page for his other works. )