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.