Matt Bush was destined to be in a uniform. A brilliantly talented shortstop, Bush was selected by the San Diego Padres as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 amateur draft at 18 years old — one spot ahead of Justin Verlander.
For the Padres, Bush was the local boy and hometown hero. He went to Mission Bay High School, just 10 miles from PETCO Park.
"I’m sitting in English class, and I told the teacher, ‘Watch, check out the Internet, I’m about to be the first overall draft pick,’" Bush said. "And then, bam, it happened that way just like that. The next thing you know, the news is coming to my school, and a few days later I’m coming to class, and my head coach says, ‘What’re you doing here? You don’t need to be here.’ Even my teachers, I’m coming to take my final, they said, ‘You can go, you don’t have to take this. You’re good to go.’"
It’s 10 years later, and Bush is indeed wearing a uniform — prison blues. As a boy he dreamed of wearing a number on his back, but DC# C07392 was not what he had in mind.
Bush’s first arrest came two weeks after he was drafted on June 7, 2004. He was brought in on numerous charges stemming from an incident at a bar. His most recent arrest came eight years and three teams later, after he allegedly hit and ran over a Florida man, Tony Tufano, while driving drunk in March 2012.
I interviewed Bush at Hamilton Correctional Institution in Jasper, Fla., close to the Georgia line. He has been incarcerated since the spring of 2012 and our crew represented his first visitors.
Bush was tired and moving slowly when he showed up in the room selected for our chat. We conversed intimately in an old, exceptionally hot, minimally ventilated, out-of-service infirmary. The prison staff had neglected to alert Bush of our impending arrival, he said.
"They didn’t even tell me you were coming," Bush told me before we turned on the cameras. "They just woke me up and brought me here."
The road Bush walks is littered with examples of numerous top athletes. What may appear to be a tragic waste of talent is often also a mind-boggling display of self-sabotage from which some have never recovered.
Bush isn’t the first promising athlete to drink and drive. I played with an outfielder in the Detroit Tigers’ system, Mike Darr. Mike was a supremely talented athlete and had a cannon for an arm, but he was legally drunk when he got in his car to head to spring training. He flipped his SUV across three lanes of highway and blasted through a fence, landing dramatically on a frontage road. He and his passenger, a longtime friend, were both killed.
The facility in Hamilton where Bush is held.
Bush can be thankful that his incident wasn’t fatal, but like Darr, two lives will never be the same.
Matt, now 28 years old and still a good-looking, olive-skinned, Southern California kid, sat across from me. Based on his athletic shape, I couldn’t help but picture him on the mound at Tropicana Field hurling a 97 mile-per-hour fastball past a flailing major-league hitter.
I marveled at the juxtaposition of the man sitting across from me with my last memory of him — the two of us sharing the outfield in Port Charlotte, Florida. That day, while on a minor-league rehab assignment, I remember us waxing poetic about organic food during batting practice.
This would be a different conversation though. He was a prisoner, who never saw the big leagues and was anxious to share his story with the world.
Occasionally in spring training, a manager will give a player the gift of a heads-up on an impending day off. It’s the ultimate sign of respect and a green light to relax or manage business or coordinate an activity. For example, players can plan fishing days, or for some, a leisurely afternoon sipping cold beer on the beach.
A day off for Matt Bush, though, was different than most players because most players don’t have the alcohol dependency issue that plagues Bush. He recounted to me the story of the night that led him to prison.
Matt Bush, then and now.
"I remember the night before knowing that I wouldn’t have to travel that day to Sarasota (the following day’s game was against the Orioles)," he said. "So I let my roommate, Brandon Guyer, know that I really needed to run some errands."
Guyer had graciously let Bush borrow his car to take care of his business, not knowing that Bush did not possess a driver’s license.
On his way to the mall to visit a Verizon store, Bush stopped at a gas station to get a beer.
"I planned to have one beer," he said. "But when I get there, I see that they don’t sell liquor at the gas station. They had Four Lokos, a really big, strong, alcoholic energy drink. So, OK, I can just have one of these. That will be sufficient. So being in the car … you know … I’d hurry up and get rid of the evidence. Drink the beer, throw it away and move on."
Bush’s destination was 45 minutes away. Already buzzed, he stopped again, and again, and again for drinks.
"I realized that I had almost no idea where I was, you know?" he recalls.
It didn’t seem real. But it was, and I realized that at that point, my life was over. You’re done, you’re over with.
-- Matt Bush
Soon, Bush received a sign — one that many of us would take as a reminder that it was time to pull over and sober up. He smacked a pole with the side of Guyer’s car.
"So the right side of Brandon’s car is dented in really bad. And man, I felt so awful that I had to bring him back his brand new truck (in this condition). I was really, really scared to bring him back his car that way."
Bush kept going. He stopped at a strip club on his way back to the house to drink more. His brush with exotic dancers came and went, and he was off on the road again. The point of no return followed.
"I was speeding, passing cars, driving recklessly, and then I remember hitting the bike Mr. Tufano was driving. I can remember slightly nudging his back tire, which caused his bike to go out of control and I remember seeing him fly off the bike and I believe the bike shot under the car," Bush said. "It didn’t seem real. But it was, and I realized that at that point, my life was over. You’re done, you’re over with."
He took off in the truck, fleeing the scene of the crime, leaving behind the man he nearly killed after he ran over his head. Panicking, Bush was too drunk to find his way home. Thankfully, flashing blue and red lights ended the possibility of any further collateral damage.
Bush was taken into custody, pleaded "no contest," and was ultimately sentenced to four years in prison. It was his third DUI. Today, having served half of his sentence, he fully acknowledges his alcoholism.
A closer look at Bush’s prison ID tag.
"You know, I’d have days where I’d go to the field to rehab from surgery and I’d have every intention of going back to my house, having a good meal, resting, being a professional and the next thing you know I’m stopping off and buying drinks and drinking without the intention of ever wanting to do it," he said. "I ended up drinking more and more after telling myself, ‘I’m just going to have one or two drinks.’ The next thing you know, I’m all the way drunk and I can’t even remember how many I had. And that’s when I knew, yeah, I am definitely. This isn’t just a problem. I’m an alcoholic.”
Bush finds himself at a crossroads. Self-medicating with addictive substances to cope with the pressures of being a star athlete is nothing new. Ken Caminiti once described the seductive call of cocaine and heroin in eerily similar terms to Bush’s relationship with alcohol. The same year Matt Bush was drafted, Caminiti was found dead of an overdose.
While Bush recognizes his addiction, he also holds onto an elusive dream. After all, he’s still young. He, like Darr and Caminiti before him, has experienced the incarceration chapter of his story. Upon his release, currently scheduled for May 2016, he’ll be confronted with the inevitable allure to march into a gas station and select his drug, putting his and other lives at imminent risk.
But this story doesn’t have to end with a funeral hymn. Another former No. 1 draft pick, Josh Hamilton, struggled with substance abuse and addiction issues before finally righting his life and becoming a productive major leaguer.
"He gave me hope when his story came out … my issues were alcohol," Bush said of Hamilton. "But it’s the same. It’s the same kind of battle."
Ultimately, this may be an unrealistic hope. I spoke with a current general manager who told me it was unlikely that Bush would be given the benefit of the doubt and an additional chance, despite the undeniable raw talent. That said, what did most GMs say when Hamilton was perceived as a washed-up drug addict? Either way, perhaps instead of looking to Hamilton, Bush could take a look at the career of former NBA player Chris Herren.
Prisoners at the Hamilton Correctional Institution.
Drafted 33rd overall in the 1999 NBA draft by the Denver Nuggets, Herren found his career derailed due to a tragic battle with drug addiction and several related felonies. His struggles ruined his dreams of basketball superstardom, but after intensive rehab, he speaks across the country, sharing his story of addiction, self-sabotage and recovery. Matt Bush may have nearly destroyed the lives of two families, but he could use his platform to positively impact many others.
Before we sat in front of the cameras, and then a second time, Matt spoke to me of a dream he recently had in prison.
"The dream was, I was going to meet up with a team to play independent ball, and it was somewhere in California," he said. "It was right around game time and someone says, ‘Hey, this is independent ball. I mean, guys are going to show up or they’re not.’"
He’s going to have to show up all right. If history is any indication, it’s not his opportunity to play professional baseball on the line, it’s his life.
"I want people to know that I’m very sorry for what had occurred," he said. "I really wish things had been a lot different. I would’ve made a lot better choices."