Thursday, March 29, 2012

THE JOY AND THE SADNESS


On June 28, 2009 Matt Bush was viciously drunk. He removed his belt, swung it at a passing car, and crashed when trying to flee the scene. A fleet of police arrived to arrest him. Hog-tied on the ground, Bush kicked, screamed, and carried on as a toddler denied a toy. “I don’t care,” he yelled. Then he started to cry.


Fox News anchor Rick Folbaum took particular malicious glee in recounting Bush’s fall from No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 Major League Baseball draft to wailing face down in a San Diego parking lot.
“Apparently,” Folbaum said, “there is crying in baseball.”
On a gorgeous day in Port Charlotte, Fla., Bush leaned back on a bench outside the Tampa Bay Rays’ complex and talked about that day. He called himself an alcoholic and said he hoped to God that was his nadir. He looked lean, healthy, and handsome. At 5-foot-9, his size belied the magic in his right arm. Bush could throw a baseball 97, 98, sometimes 99 mph. The Rays, like so many before them, forgave Bush for what he did because of what he could do.
The worst of the worst was in the past, Bush said. He was clean, sober, and ready to play baseball. He was sure of that. The only thing left from that day was the sickening aftertaste of sitting in a locked cell, wondering how he got there and how he could get out, a moment that refused to stop haunting him.
“I have dreams still that I’m in jail, that I don’t even realize it, but I’m going to be there for a long time,” Bush said. “It’s scary what I got away with.”


Today, Matt Bush is in back in jail. He may well be there for a very long time. A Florida judge Monday set his bail at more than $1 million after Bush allegedly stole his spring roommate’s SUV Thursday night, got drunk, climbed on stage at a strip club before bouncers booted him, headed back on the road, and hit a 72-year-old motorcyclist. He drove from the carnage with a .18 blood alcohol level and a septuagenarian lying in the street in critical condition.
In the four days since Bush’s ill-fated joyride that led to seven charges, including three felonies, the Rays have tried to figure out why this happened, how it happened. Nobody knows. Not Bush’s teammates, not his coaches, not the employee-assistance program staff. All truly believed Bush, 26, had stayed away from alcohol since the 2009 DUI. Not even Bush’s roommate this spring, suspected anything.

The two had bonded since Rays camp started in mid-February. They went fishing almost every day. He cooked dinner for Bush almost every night. On Thursday, Bush offered to drop him off and take his Dodge Durango back to their apartment. He didn’t realize Bush’s license was still suspended. He never had let Bush drive before and figured it was harmless.
Immediately, Bush headed an hour northwest to Sarasota, Fla. What took him there remains unclear. Increasingly clear is the damage left in his wake. Tufano remains hospitalized with a brain hemorrhage, a collapsed lung, a broken back, broken ribs, and a broken wrist. Strife continues to ripple through a betrayed organization and a family grieving for a patriarch breathing through a respirator.
“We’re still a little numb to it,” Rays general manager Andrew Friedman told reporters Sunday.
Friedman said the Rays will cut Bush, a move that should happen sometime this week. It will come days after Bush met with Friedman and manager Joe Maddon to discuss his demotion to Triple-A. While such roster moves often come with sadness and rancor, Bush’s was upbeat. They talked about how far he’d come, how he’d fought his alcoholism, how proud they were of him.
What an incredible story it was going to be when sometime this year Bush finally made his major-league debut.


In a sport where alcohol plays such a massive part in all social settings – on the same day Bush was arrested, Boston reliever Bobby Jenks, another player with alleged alcohol issues, was charged with a hit-and-run DUI as well – there was a great story in Bush’s continued sobriety, one to tell when he finally arrived in the big leagues. Bush’s successes were redemptive, even inspiring to addicts who fight to stay clean for even a day or a week.

Bush grew up in San Diego. His parents both worked for local schools, his dad, Danny, an electronic technician and his mom, Theresa, a custodian. By his senior year at Mission Bay High School, Bush was a legitimate top 10 prospect, ranked behind better-known college players like Jered Weaver, Justin Verlander and Stephen Drew but tantalizing nonetheless. When the hometown Padres chafed at selecting Weaver and Drew, Bush reached out to the team and said he’d love the privilege of being the top pick. It was perfect: The team would glean great public relations for picking the local kid No. 1, and he was thrilled to play shortstop and accept a bonus offer of $3.15 million, well under what Weaver and Drew wanted.
“I was always just imagining how great a million dollars would be, or possibly two,” Bush said. “It’s hard to explain, I guess. It was the greatest thing I could ever imagine. All I really wanted to do was play professional baseball, and it was surreal to know I was going to be a high draft pick, but to be No. 1 in my own hometown. It was too much.”
The pressure was immediate. Only two No. 1 picks in the game’s history – injury-prone New York Mets catcher Steve Chilcott and New York Yankees “phenom” Brien Taylor, who hurt his arm in a fight – hadn’t made the major leagues. Weaver is one of the best pitchers in the American League with the Angels. Verlander of the Detroit Tigers is the reigning AL MVP and Cy Young winner. Stephen Drew is the solid everyday shortstop of the Arizona Diamondbacks. The No. 1 pick is not a place for hometown stories, guesses, or bargains.
The Padres’ impulsiveness soon resembled recklessness. Bush didn’t have a driver’s license, and the team didn’t know that his older brother Jeremy, who would chauffeur him around the team’s complex in Peoria, Ariz., had two DUIs and spent more than a month in jail for domestic violence. Nor did they realize at the pool near where Bush lived, people would bring 30-packs of beer and toss a can to anybody who asked. Two weeks after Bush signed, he hit a party at the pool, and then went with Jeremy to a nearby bar. The bouncers refused to let them in. When bouncer put Bush in a headlock, he bit his arm. Police charged Bush with felony assault, and the Padres wondered what they’d done. They looked into voiding the contract but refused to let free such a dynamic talent based on one incident.
The Padres had paid him $150,000 to sign. Another $3 million was coming in 2005, and when it did, Bush blew through it, too. He bought a Mercedes CLS class and drove if for 1,000 miles before trading it, along with his Range Rover and $60,000, for a new Bentley. A few months later, he traded the Bentley for another car. Every new purchase enthralled him, gave him a high he couldn’t find on the baseball field, where he struggled through injuries and never hit. He kept spending until there was nothing left.
When he was arrested Thursday, Bush had only $2,000 in his bank account.
Bush’s continued drinking added weight, neutered his bat speed and turned him into an everyday oaf, yet it didn’t affect his arm, the only body part his addiction couldn’t steal yet. By the time the Padres decided to convert Bush to a pitcher in 2007, he had hit .219 in 259 games and committed more errors (76) than he drove in runs (70).
Almost immediately, the move looked inspired. Bush was hitting 98 mph on radar guns in rookie ball, where as a 21-year-old he struck out 16 batters and walked just two in 7 1/3 innings. The Padres moved him to Low-A Fort Wayne, where he debuted Aug. 9, 2007. In his first inning, Bush gassed a 99-mph fastball. His arm felt loose. There were fans, unlike in rookie ball, and he wanted to show off. He threw a perfect slider for a strike and heard a crunch. Bush left the game, worried something was wrong. His arm felt fine the next day. He picked up a ball and tried to throw it. The ball barely went 10 feet.
The ligament in Bush’s right elbow had snapped. He underwent “Tommy John” surgery when the swelling subsided. He would miss the rest of 2007, all of 2008 and fall back into the pattern of trouble that seemed certain to doom his career.
While rehabbing his injury in Peoria AZ in 2008, Bush was injured in a bar fight. Before spring training in 2009, he got drunk, drove to a nearby high school in San Diego, assaulted two students, and hit a curb driving away before he was arrested. The Padres designated him for assignment and found a taker in the Toronto Blue Jays, who acquired Bush and placed him on their 40-man roster. His father came with him to spring training the first few weeks to babysit Bush.
“As soon as he left, I felt lonely,” Bush said. From that moment on, he went back to the same routine. Eventually he stayed out until 6 a.m., missed a 7 o’clock workout, and woke up at noon. Toronto released him April 1, 2009.
Bush returned home to San Diego. He played basketball, went fishing, immersed himself in video games. He tried anything to replace the alcohol. Sometimes he’d say he needed to go to the grocery store and spend hours driving around, passing liquor stores, tempting himself, weighing the benefits and detriments of another drink. He tried outpatient rehab but found it laughable. Drinking turned into a game, a test, one he couldn’t win.
The night of his first arrest runs a frightening parallel to his most recent. Nearly three months of sobriety had lulled Bush’s family into not monitoring him with necessary vigilance. Afterward, he spent the next four months at Rancho L’Abri, a now-shuttered rehab center about 30 miles east of San Diego. He went to daily meetings and learned about addiction. He was sober for the first time in too long. The Rays sent a scout named Jake Wilson to visit Bush. They wanted to sign him and place him at the Winning Inning, a baseball-and-life-skills academy in Clearwater, Fla., that emphasizes discipline and religion.

Bush worked out during the day with Roy Silver, a former Cardinals minor-league player and manager who runs the program, and spent weekends with his friend Bill Manion fishing at Lake Tarpon and ponds around Pinellas County.
While he spent much of 2010 injured, Bush impressed Rays’ officials enough to earn a 40-man roster spot before the 2011 season. After surgery on his radial nerve, Bush finally, after five years, pitched a full season as a reliever. In 50 1/3 innings at Double-A Montgomery last season, he struck out 77 hitters. Had he continued to pitch well at Triple-A Durham this year, Bush would’ve been among the first pitchers summoned upon injury or ineffectiveness in the bullpen.
“I like the way he’s dealing with everything,” Maddon, the Rays’ manager, told the Tampa Bay Times in late February. “Here’s a young man that’s gotten a second chance, and he’s done a lot of good with it.”
How that good went so bad so quickly still preys on the minds of those closest to Bush. Maybe he was fooling everyone and played sober like a superb character actor. Maybe something pushed him and he snapped. Maybe it was like the last time, the culmination of all those clean days – nearly 1,000 this time – proving too difficult to withstand, the force of his addiction’s strength greater than the will to fight it.
“I’m in his corner,” Silver said. “He’s not in the corner with me right now. You never can go into life without being prepared. I know where Satan lives. He dominates this earth.”
Silver is mad. Silver tried to teach Bush: never let up, never give in, and never take sobriety for granted. He valued accountability.
“There’s always a place you can go or a phone number you can call,” he said. “Cancer is not a choice. This is a choice. It’s called free will.”
What Bush allegedly did plumbs the depths of human ruin – stealing from a friend, endangering the life of every person on the road and ultimately putting one man’s into peril, all things for which he deserves the punishment the law provides. Yet he is no one-dimensional villain. He is a man with a disease, a vicious, unrelenting disease.
When minutes bled into hours into days into weeks into months into years, at some point no amount of rehab or incentive or even the taste of a major-league mound could keep him from doing what his brain told him to do. It frightened him that it might never change. He was so close to the major leagues, where he may now be persona non grata, though as long as he throws 97, or 98 or 99 that is no certainty. More, to three years of sobriety, and perhaps even to rescuing himself from whatever chased him from Arizona to San Diego to Florida, up Interstate 75 and into the life of a man who was riding home on his Harley after babysitting his granddaughter.
If Tony Tufano dies, Bush almost certainly will spend at least two years in jail. A hit-and-run DUI resulting in a death in Florida carries that minimum penalty, and the other counts could result in a longer sentence.
For now, he sits in Charlotte County jail, wondering how he got there and knowing he can’t get out. This time, it’s not a dream.
The joy of an athlete and the beauty of his skills must meet the reality of life. Some times that meeting is sad. There isn't anyone Matt Bush can blame except a disease he doesn't understand and cannot control. 
That may be the sadness part of all.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

IT'S ONLY A GAME


It was an unusual scene for a day in Spring Training. No one looked happy or expectant of good things. No hope sprang eternal as it usually does in camps in Arizona and Florida before the season when all things are still possible for every team before they play the games. It wasn’t about baseball, it was real life intruding on the game. And not in a good way.

It is early enough that there are still many of the minor league players still in camp trying to impress and when one of their own announces that he is leaving the game he has loved at 23 years of age it is not a time of celebration. The obligatory statements are made about how it is a shame, the unfilled dreams, the “family” being pulled apart, and how sometimes real life takes baseball by the throat and reminds us all it is only a game.

In Pace Florida, a town not far from Pensacola, Andrew L. Cumberland began playing baseball while growing up. “Drew” to his friends and teammates he was drafted out of high school by the San Diego Padres in the 1st round of players in 2007. He played that summer at age 18 in the Rookie League and then in lower A in 25 games and batted a remarkable .320, which in baseball language means he was successful in getting a hit of some sort in three out of ten attempts. To put that in perspective, players who manage that for their entire career go to the Hall of Fame. Three out of ten over a career will be good enough to be remembered as one of the greats. In the fall, when most of the world turned to football, Drew went to the Padres team in the Arizona Rookie league and hit .318. He was a shortstop and 2nd baseman still looking for the place he was most comfortable, but if he could maintain hitting statistics like that, they would find a place and be sure he was comfortable.

In the next three years he played in Eugene, Oregon, Fort Wayne Indiana, San Antonio, and Lake Elsinore California. As he moved up his hitting remained consistent and his play in the field remained at the “excellent prospect” level.

In 2010 he had to stop playing. He had symptoms of concussion syndrome. He was later diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder which has damaged portions of both his inner ear and greatly affects his balance. Essentially retired from the game by a body that would not cooperate, he stayed at Fort Wayne to coach, and while he enjoyed the experience he refused to believe his promising career was over.

Over the winter he had medical treatment and worked out vigorously with no side effects so he reported to camp here with the hope of returning to the field. After 14 days of play, the symptoms returned and on Monday, he retired as an active player and left camp, “unavailable for comment” as the team PR flaks put it. He can no longer play the game he loves with a passion and played so well. He is done at the age of 23.

No one said the game was fair. That would make it different from real life, so it isn’t. Athletes often fail to see that, because when you are 23 and very very good at something that few others in the world can even try to do, it is devastating when you learn you no longer have the physical capacity to do it. While not exclusive to professional athletes, it is particularly prevalent among them. It is sad to watch and hard to grasp. Cumberland plans to return to coaching in the minors again this year, teaching others nearly his own age how to use the techniques and skills that made him so successful but which his body now refuses to let him display.

May Drew Cumberland also be wise enough to understand that while he has a lot to teach others, he has a life yet to be lived outside of this little boy’s game at which he excelled.

Meanwhile, on the other coast in the Florida camp of the Baltimore Orioles, Brad Bergesen, 27, a right-handed pitcher, reported with all the others. He was with the major league club last year for all of for 35 of the 162 games they played last year. For this meager effort he was paid $400,000. When he was offered a roster spot this season his agent began salary negotiations.

There is an old joke about the definition of chutzpah. It is said that it is a man who murders both his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the Court claiming he is an orphan.

As crude as it is, until last week I was reasonably certain it was as good as any. Now there is Brad Bergesen and I am not so sure.

While most of the world was wondering who would win the Super Bowl and there were still two week left before pitchers, catchers, and roster players who were injured last year had to report, Mr. Bergesen was burgling his team through a process known in baseball as “arbitration.” Baseball arbitration bears no resemblance to what may come to mind when one thinks of it in real world terms. Rather, a simplified version of how it goes is this: After the first three years with one team, a player may request salary arbitration, or, alternatively, he may be “offered” arbitration by the team if a salary cannot be negotiated to their mutual satisfaction. Once at that impasse, the player picks a number that he believes he is worth for the use of what tools he has in the coming season and the team picks a number they believe is worthy. These two numbers are given to a panel of arbitrators. After hearing arguments from the player and the team representatives, they decide which one the player will receive. The arbitrators cannot choose a number but must pick either the player’s number or the team’s. It goes without saying that the team’s number is always the lesser of the two.

This arcane process was once thought to be a fair way to keep penurious owners from keeping players of great skill in relative poverty after a surprisingly sterling early career. Like all other things in the world of baseball finance it is no longer any such thing.

How do we know this? Consider the case of Mr. Bergesen.

A native of Concord California, he was drafted in 2004 in the 4th round by the Orioles. A draft choice at that level is one which the team would  expect to reach the major leagues. He was there for those 35 games, appeared in 12, winning 2, and losing 7. He was hammered for more than 5 runs per nine innings pitched and allowed more than 1 base runner per inning pitched. Horrid numbers even by Oriole standards. When his salary negotiation came up this year, he decided the skills that had given that effort were worth $1.2 million. The team refused, but in an act of either great faith or incredible stupidity actually offered him $800,000. Perhaps they felt he might feel wanted.

There is nothing physically wrong with Brad Bergesen. He just hasn’t shown anyone that he can throw a baseball for strikes, get batters out, or keep them off base with consistency. Yet he will earn twice what he received last year and one must assume since the Orioles were foolish enough to offer it, they might expect him to be twice as good. Perhaps he will win 4 or 5 games and only lose 6. You all may stop wondering now why the Orioles consistently are finishing last in their division.

So, Drew Cumberland walks into the obscurity of the coaching ranks while reeking of potential due to his physical condition, Brad Bergesen walks back out onto a major league baseball field reeking of wealth due to the pedestrian performances of his past.