Long, maddening fall for former No. 1 Matt Bush
Matt Bush was viciously drunk. He had removed his belt, swung it at a passing car and crashed his vehicle 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 like a toddler denied a toy. “I don’t care,” he yelled. Then he started to cry.
Video of the arrest on June 28, 2009 remains archived for posterity. Fox News anchor Rick Folbaum took great 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., last spring, 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, he could’ve passed for college student instead of professional athlete. 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.
“I was insane that day,” he said. “Not only was I definitely in fear of my life, I didn’t know if I was going to kill someone, take my life. It was scary. I knew it was close to happening. I could sense it. I didn’t really realize what was going on. When all the cop cars were there, it set in. That’s when you see me hysterical and crying. I thought the worst of the worst.”
The worst of the worst was in the past, Bush said. He was clean and sober and ready to play baseball. He was sure of that. He would convince himself so. The only thing left from that day was the sickening aftertaste of sitting in a locked cell, wondering how the hell 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 jail. He is going to be there for a 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 named Tony Tufano. Bush reportedly ran over Tufano’s head while peeling away. 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 Brandon Guyer, Bush’s roommate this spring, suspected anything.
The two had bonded since Rays camp started in mid-February. They went fishing almost every day. Guyer cooked dinner for Bush almost every night. On Thursday, Guyer wanted to go to the Rays’ complex and Bush offered to drop him off and take his Dodge Durango back to their apartment. Guyer 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 a source said 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 felt almost 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. Like Josh Hamilton, another former top overall pick who struggled with addiction, Bush’s successes were redemptive, even inspiring to addicts who fight to stay clean for even a day or a week. During a two-hour conversation last spring, Bush detailed the goriest times of his life, the lowest of lows, sure that talking about them would prevent their recurrence.
“If you want to hear the whole story, I can give it to you,” he said. “It might take a while.”
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. They raised him a Jehovah’s Witness, something with which Bush said he never was altogether comfortable. His athleticism won him favor with his dad anyway. Danny grew up with an abusive stepfather who wouldn’t let him play organized baseball, so he lived vicariously through Matt.
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, both clients of Scott Boras, 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 grew into one of the best pitchers in the American League, Verlander the reigning AL MVP and Cy Young winner, and Drew a solid everyday shortstop. The No. 1 pick wasn’t the domain for cute stories or guesses or going cheap.
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 on a domestic-violence rap. 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, then went with Jeremy to a nearby bar, McDuffy’s. The bouncers refused to let the Bushes in. They jumped a side rail. When bouncer Eric Edwon put Bush in a headlock, he bit Edwon’s 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.
[ Big League Stew: Matt Bush discussed sobriety just weeks before crash ]
Bush’s orgiastic life continued unabated. He was 18, unsupervised and rich. Women were everywhere. He made daily trips to the mall. A Louis Vuitton backpack for $1,100? Sure. A new outfit for Jeremy and him every day? Of course. By the time the season ended, Bush’s stuff didn’t fit in his Range Rover, so Theresa drove from San Diego to load the remainder into her truck.
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.
It’s funny to look back at the MLB Scouting Bureau’s video of Bush as a high schooler. All 5 minutes, 53 seconds of it are Bush pitching. While Bush’s continued drinking added weight, neutered his bat speed and turned him into an everyday oaf, it didn’t affect his arm, the body part his addiction couldn’t steal, not 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 at his previous level, 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 ulnar collateral 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 in Peoria 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, yelled “I’m Matt [bleeping] Bush” 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. Danny came with him to spring training for the first few weeks to babysit Bush.
“As soon as he left, I felt lonely,” Bush said. “I was down. I was scared. My dad was there with me. It was comforting. I was safe. From that moment on, it went back to the same routine. I managed for a little while. Eventually, I had a couple nights where I was lucky to make it to the field.”
One night, Bush stayed out until 6 a.m., missed a 7 o’clock workout and woke up at noon. Another, he allegedly threw a baseball at a girl who drew on his face when he was passed out drunk. Toronto released him April 1, 2009.
Bush returned home to San Diego. He played basketball, went fishing, immersed himself in video games. 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. It was laughable. Drinking turned into a game, a test, one he knew he couldn’t win.
The night of his first DUI runs a frightening parallel to his most recent arrest. Nearly three months of sobriety had lulled Bush’s family into not monitoring him with necessary vigilance. His dad was in the shower. He told him he was going to go to Wal-Mart for a video game and asked his dad where the keys were to his Cadillac CTS. Danny told him. Bush drank until he passed out in the car. When he awoke, he started drinking again, shot after shot from airplane bottles.
“It scared me,” Bush said. “I’ve never truly been able to say or think that I’m not afraid to die, like it’s no big deal. I don’t want to die. But that’s exactly what I was doing. Each time, I was getting closer and closer.”
He hasn’t watched the video. Bush said he didn’t need to see himself at his worst or hear the smarm of Folbaum. Its existence saddened him enough.
“Sometimes I want to go to YouTube,” Bush said, “to see if maybe someone has a video of me pitching.”
For the next four months, Bush stayed 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. Hamilton spent some of his recovery there.
Bush stayed in the same room Hamilton did during his time at the Winning Inning. 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. Steaming mad. Mad and sad and disappointed. He watched Bush sweep floors and pray and do everything he was supposed to at the Winning Inning. Silver tried to teach Bush: never let up, never give in – never take sobriety for granted. This wasn’t the holistic therapy found at Rancho L’Abri. Silver 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.
“I’m not a believer in the gene factor.”
On that day he spoke last spring, Bush was engaged and open, his answers quick and assured. He paused only when asked the age at which he took his first drink.
“I might’ve been 10 or 11 years old,” Bush said. “It was my dad. It was after a Pop Warner practice or game. I was really mad at the coach. I wanted to quit. [Danny] said, ‘Ah, it’s just been a bad day. Have a beer.’ He cracks it open. It was nasty, but I wanted to drink it, so I kept going. I remember going to Sports Authority and stumbling into stuff. I don’t think my dad really understood.”
Danny Bush, who did not return a message left at his home, didn’t know his real father, who, according to Bush, was an alcoholic. Danny’s brother, Bush said, was an alcoholic and drug addict who died of a brain aneurysm. Danny drank, too.
“He’d say he’d have one or two,” Bush said. “He was lying. He was having more than one or two.”
Soon after Bush entered rehab at Rancho L’Abri, he said Danny stopped drinking. Doctors had advised him to do so because of Hepatitis C, Bush said. He still didn’t seem to understand Bush’s sobriety. Bush’s family visited one day to meet with him and a counselor at the center, Dennis Plunkett. While Theresa and one of Bush’s sisters asked about his health, Danny, Bush said, wanted to talk baseball – about Albert Pujols and Manny Ramirez and everything else going on around the game.
Bush’s family and his girlfriend, Andrea Cattron, implored Danny to focus on Bush’s health, and leading up to the 2011 season, he had started. Sure, he called a little too often – almost every day just to check in, Bush said, which got annoying – but it’s easy, from the outside, to understand why: Whether one believes in genetics, deed or both, Danny had lit the fuse his son, the one he so desperately wanted to succeed, couldn’t put out.
As he tried to rebuild his relationship with his father, Bush offered a reminder almost every time Danny tried to steer the conversation to baseball.
“One day it’s going to be gone,” Bush would say, “and I’m just going to be your son.”
Nobody saw Bush more last year than Andrea Cattron. Their relationship was in its sixth year. During spring training, Bush talked about her moving to Alabama with him and how it might serve as a precursor to marriage. She arrived from her home in Michigan and spent the season with him.
“Everything was going really good for him,” Cattron said. “His arm was good. Emotionally he was good. Maybe he just got a little too ahead of himself and thought he could do it on his own. Maybe he needed that emotional support.”
Cattron is trying not to speculate. She hasn’t spoken with Bush in a few months. She still considers herself his girlfriend. He needed a break. Some time, she said, to experience sobriety on his own.
“Matt is not a bad person,” Cattron said. “What he did is really awful. And I’m so sad for Mr. Tufano and his family. But he’s not this cruel-hearted, callous person.
“This isn’t the Matt that I know.”
It’s not. That Matt Bush was sweet, kind, tender, sensitive. He would tell her he loved her and thank her for her support and say how much he appreciated her attitude that if he fell down eight times, she was going to help pick him up for a ninth, no matter how much it hurt, because that’s what love is, a commitment that transcends everything.
Even if to everyone else Bush is nothing more than a selfish drunk, behind every selfish drunk is someone he treats right, someone who sees him as a person worth loving. And even though 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 – he is no one-dimensional villain. He is a man with a disease – a vicious, unrelenting disease.
The problem with how Cattron viewed him – the problem with how everyone viewed Bush – was that it never matched how he saw himself. He was OK until he wasn’t. He tried to assure himself he was better: “I’ve never been so dedicated to baseball and life. I know I’ll get there. I know it.” God, he tried.
But 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. And it frightened him that would never change.
“I could tell everyone I was doing great, this and that,” he said. “My reality was very depressing for me. Inside, I knew it was a lie. I could only go for so many days without feeling an extreme urge to say it’s OK – it’s all right to just have one. It’s OK to have two. It’s fine to have three. And then, who cares?
“After that, I was gone.”
Matt Bush couldn’t drive last spring, either. First the DMV in California told him he needed to fill out an SR-22 form and get an ignition interlock device because of his DUI. He did both. Then there was something about old points on his license, and spring training was about to start, and rather than fight, he figured getting back into a car could wait.
“I have driving problems, that’s for sure,” Bush said. “Well-deserved, to say the least.”
He could wait no longer this spring. He was so close, too. To the major leagues, where he may now be persona non grata, though as long as he throws 97 or 98 or 99 that’s no certainty. And to three years of sobriety, or at least people think so. 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, plus the other counts could result in a longer sentence. Tufano’s survival would lessen the penalty, particularly since Bush pleaded down his previous crimes to misdemeanors.
For now, he sits in Charlotte County jail, wondering how the hell he got there and how he can’t get out. This time, it’s not a dream.
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