Wednesday, October 17, 2018
  • The Heater
  • Marc Topkin

How suspended Rays prospect Nick Ciuffo had to make ‘toughest’ call ever

PORT CHARLOTTE – Having already gotten word that he failed a second drug test for using marijuana and would be suspended 50 games, having watched his girlfriend cry in the seat next to him as they drove south to spring training, having decided it was safer to first share the bad news with his step-mom, Nick Ciuffo then faced the worst part of his most horrible day.

That came shortly after 6 p.m. on Feb. 1, when the Rays' most advanced catching prospect had to call his father, Tony, who for so long had been his biggest fan, ardent promoter and oh-so-proud dad.

"The toughest conversation I've ever had to have," Nick said Tuesday as the Rays opened camp. "It was tough to get through. About five seconds in, I started crying."

As Nick battled the tears, Tony fought back the rage.

"Initially, I was shocked. I was angry. I was hurt. All those things," Tony said later Tuesday from his Charleston, S.C., office. "Basically, I was floored."

RELATED: 2013 first-round pick suspended 50 games for second failed drug test

The hour they spent on the phone that night was the first of many recent calls, what Tony called "very hard" conversations and Nick termed "a lot more adult."

Tony has been alternating from being stern and honest to paternal and compassionate, telling Nick he had to "own" his mistakes but also learn from them and move forward.

And when Nick wasn't beating himself up, he felt miserable for how hard this was on Tony, who spent 20 years in the College of Charleston athletic department and still works in the media relations biz. Saturday, after the suspension was announced, a local writer called to say he was sorry that they had to put the news on the front page.

Nick, 22, certainly sounds like he gets it more than most in this situation, making a sincere mea culpa and case for a lesson learned, determined this is the "ah-ha" moment where his life "turned around."

(And not too caught up in the irony that had he been put on the 40-man roster in November and not just missed, his January partying wouldn't have cost him, as big-leaguers can smoke weed with no risk of suspension.)

More impressively, Nick has specific plans for action. One, to drop the athlete machismo and commit to be more open to asking for help and counseling in dealing with personal issues. Another, moving away next off-season from Charleston, where old friends seem to be the root of his trouble, to a training camp setup run by his agent in Arkansas.

"Obviously this is an awful situation to be in, but I put myself in this situation." Nick said. "So from here on out I'm just trying to find the silver linings in everything. If this helps me take care of the issues that I have personally then it won't be the worst thing ever. …

"I don't want this to be a thing where it's like, 'Oh, I served my 50 games and I'm done.' I really want to be able to affect people around me. I want people to learn from my mistake and not have to make the same mistake. And then have the moment after the mistake that I'm having now, of this is what I should have done."

This was already going to be an interesting spring for Ciuffo, a 2013 first-round pick who has moved slowly through the system, playing last year at Double-A. He was headed to Triple-A Durham, and with a good camp could have put himself into the conversation should starter Wilson Ramos or backup Jesus Sucre get hurt or traded. Instead, after spring training he'll stay in Port Charlotte for two more months, playing in extended spring training games and sharing his cautionary tale.

"I've always slightly taken little steps forward," Nick said. "Now this is a big step back. I've got to earn back the trust of my teammates, I've got to earn back the trust of the coaching staff, the front office, everybody in the Rays organization.

"I understand that. I can apologize and I can have conversations as much as I want to, but it's going to be my actions, the way I handle myself from here on out is going to determine their respect for me and their trust in me."

Also, from his dad.

"I've always been prepared to get that phone call that he wasn't good enough,"  Tony said. "I was not prepared to get a call that he wasn't committed to make the most of his opportunity."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow TBTimes_Rays.

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