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After 3 years in prison, Rangers reliever, ex-Rays farmhand Matt Bush trying to reassemble his life

Texas Rangers relief pitcher Matt Bush before a game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas, on May 13, 2016. Bush has overcome an alcohol problem and a prison stint to become a solid member of the Rangers on and off the field. (Max Faulkner/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS) 1197666

Texas Rangers relief pitcher Matt Bush before a game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas, on May 13, 2016. Bush has overcome an alcohol problem and a prison stint to become a solid member of the Rangers on and off the field. (Max Faulkner/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS) 1197666

SURPRISE, Ariz. — On Tuesday, just as they had a year ago, Matt Bush and his father, Danny, rose before the sun, piled into a red Ford F-150 and started the five-hour drive east from San Diego toward the Rangers' spring training facility.

There, they are once again sharing a hotel room. Danny Bush drives his son to camp every morning and picks him up in the evening.

The idea is to keep everything the same.

Even though it is anything but.

A year ago, Matt Bush was three months removed from work release after a 39-month incarceration for driving under the influence with serious bodily injury. He was about to turn 30 and was the longest of long shots to reach the major leagues, given a chance only because he threw 95 mph fastballs while wearing an ankle monitor in the parking lot of a Golden Corral restaurant. His story had been mostly one of failure, of unrealized expectations, self-destructive behavior and one final, alcohol-fueled blowout that ended only after he'd had three wrecks, including one that nearly killed a 72-year-old retiree.

Now, he's a budding star and perhaps the Rangers' closer-in-waiting. Perhaps more important, his actions this offseason suggest he is trying to come of age as a man, too.

"I'm in a place I've needed to be for a while," Bush said recently in a sleepy, soft tone. "I feel like I'm doing what I need to be successful, not just in baseball but in life. I've never had a good offseason. I was always distracted by everything else going on in my life, by having a nice car, by wanting to party, to do stuff that wasn't helping me out."

•••

In large part, this is a story about the ordinary days in what was an ordinary offseason. Given Bush's past, that makes it somewhat extraordinary.

He worked out. He spent afternoons on long walks with his girlfriend's chocolate labradoodle, named Kahlua long before Bush entered the picture and made it sound a bit ironic. The couple watches movies and binge-watches TV series; he saw all of Lost and most of Breaking Bad this winter. They talk about a shared future, of her desire to follow in the footsteps of Fixer Upper's Joanna Gaines as an interior designer, and of marriage.

And Bush attends 12-step program meetings daily.

Bush started attending support meetings while still in prison. When he signed with the Rangers, the club mandated that Danny Bush be with his son at all times in the minors. When he reached the majors, club adviser Roy Silver, the man who reconnected Bush with baseball following Bush's release from prison, became his on-the-road roommate and clubhouse confidant.

All of that was mandatory.

The next step belonged to Bush.

He said he has been sober for almost five years since that March day in 2012 when he borrowed Rays teammate Brandon Guyer's truck to run errands. That turned into drinks. Over and over again. And it eventually led to his running over Tony Tufano, who had been out for a ride on his motorcycle.

Bush's girlfriend, Claire Johnston, had suggested that he step up his attendance at meetings, and so had Silver. In the end, though, it was Bush who had to take the steps to really deal with the daily struggles of alcoholism. Most days this winter, he worked out, then attended a noon support meeting.

"This offseason, it hit me: I've trained my body physically, but I need to train for sobriety, too," he said. "I've worked harder on that. It's not enough to just say: 'I've done this before.' You have to stay on top of it and do something about it. I'm glad I'm doing it. It's never too late.

"I didn't want to feel like I was going through the motions with it, not with how well everything is going, my relationship, baseball, my family. Everybody, including me, is happy right now. I didn't want to make everyone go through all of that again. It's misery. I don't want to be there again. All the guys say: 'Just keep coming back.' That's what I'm trying to do."

The meetings, too, have become an ordinary part of life. There, Bush said, he's not a "screw-up" but just another guy. He has a sponsor in Dallas and another in San Diego. He speaks to both regularly during the week.

Bush acknowledged there are occasions when he has downtime that the urge to drink still hits. The difference: He picks up the phone and calls someone in his support group. Just another ordinary part of his not-so-ordinary existence.

"Sometimes I'm all by myself and everything feels good and that thought will creep into my head that, 'Hey, it's no big deal, no one is going to know, it's not going to hurt,'" Bush said. "And that's when I know I need to call. I need to talk about this.

"(My sponsor) tells me, 'You are doing exactly what you should (by calling); it's normal. You don't have to feel down on yourself about it.' He says he's been sober 20 years and still gets crazy thoughts about taking off and just going to Vegas. The difference is before I'd be in that spot and I wouldn't think twice, I would just drink."

"This is what has to happen with the situation for Matt," Silver said. "It has to be ordinary. He spent 12 years of his life stumbling, bumbling and making life-altering decisions. I give him credit for the way he has absorbed and moved down the path of maturity."

Silver met Bush in 2009 at Silver's Winning Inning faith-based baseball academy in Clearwater. Bush was still on the way down to rock bottom from being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 amateur draft. When Bush went to prison, Silver maintained contact through letters. They began in-person visits during work release. Silver, by that time, had gone to work for the Rangers in their player development department.

What began as Silver's attempt to help Bush acclimate to life after baseball morphed into throwing sessions and then a request to the Rangers to see Bush throw. There was no doubt about the arm; the questions were about the person.

"There is a night-and-day difference," Silver said. "Humility didn't come the first couple of times for him. Before you can start to grow again, you've got to humble yourself first."

•••

The day Bush was called to the majors, which oddly was Friday the 13th (of May), he called Johnston, whom he'd been seeing for a month, with the exciting news.

She played a song for him: Humble and Kind, by Tim McGraw.

"I didn't want him to change," Johnston said. "When we started dating, everything was normal. He was just my sweet Matty B. I didn't want him to get caught up in being a celebrity athlete. I wanted him to remember that and hold on to it."

By that time, Johnston, who attended Highland Park High School with Clayton Kershaw and his wife, Ellen, had become familiar with Bush's story.

He told her everything on their first date.

They met on April 15, the night he'd end up making his home debut with Double-A Frisco when Johnston's friends took her to a RoughRiders game as a birthday get-together. Bush sent a bag of sunflower seeds to her with his phone number. Johnston texted.

The next night, Danny Bush drove his son to the date. As the couple ate sushi rolls, Bush plowed right into the story.

"I asked how he got into baseball," Johnston said. "He said, 'Well, I'm trying to come back from some of the mistakes I've made.' He told me all of it. I was a little thrown off, but he was so honest and so up front. We've all made mistakes, but it's how you deal with it afterwards that says a lot about you. He was so humble and so honest, I wanted to find out more and see where this went."

He spent Thanksgiving with her family. A Johnston family tradition calls for each person around the table to offer individual thanks before the meal. She offered thanks for a man who "truly loves me."

Bush said: "I'm thankful for somebody who has helped give me the drive to be the best person I can be."

At Christmas, one of the gifts he presented her was a baseball from his major league debut.

It was inscribed: "We made it together; don't forget that."

She doesn't.

"I've never dealt with substance abuse, but I know it's an everyday battle," she said. "And I know I can be supportive, but I can't be his support system. I don't think he's doing this to keep himself sober for baseball; I think he's doing it for his life."

•••

Among the most ordinary of tasks that Bush has embraced in this winter of normalcy is one that will cause the most concern.

He is driving again.

Though his license was revoked for multiple DUI offenses, Texas makes it possible to apply for an occupational license that permits driving to and from work and performing other essential tasks, such as grocery shopping and doctor's appointments. And in the case of Bush, to ferry himself to and from support group meetings.

"It feels a little strange with everything that has happened," Bush said. "There was some fear there. I know that having a license is a privilege, and I want to make sure I do everything to do the right thing. It allows me to get to and from meetings and to have the ability to get to and from work."

As part of the program, he must have a Breathalyzer engine interlock system on any car he operates. He must carry a logbook of miles driven and have the mileage on the car regularly calibrated for accuracy.

Along with allowing him to be a little more independent, it gave his father the chance to return to San Diego in November after spending the entire season with him, and it frees up Johnston to focus more on her work.

Talking about driving makes Bush uncomfortable. After initially acknowledging the license, he became tentative before discussing it. He still mostly took Uber to offseason workouts or had friends drive him. But during the season, he will be able to drive himself to the park.

"He's moving along," Danny Bush said. "He is doing the right things. You never know what's right around the corner, but everything with him seems to be falling into place. Maybe prayer really does work. He is just more grown up."

•••

Alas, there won't be a happy ending for everybody in this story.

There are still the Tufanos of Port Charlotte. Bush crushed the motorcycle of Tony Tufano in 2012 in the last act of his alcohol-fueled spree. Tufano, a former marathoner, incurred 12 broken ribs, eight fractured vertebrae, a collapsed lung and bleeding on the brain. He has since suffered with chronic pain and a dramatically altered quality of life.

Bush twice tried to reach out to Tufano to make a face-to-face apology, once while in prison and again after his release. Tufano said he forgave Bush but had no desire to speak with him.

Through his family, Tufano declined to be interviewed for this story, but last year he told the Tampa Bay Times: "How ironic is it that his life was turned around, which is good, but now my life was turned into something bad. When Bush was in jail he had a chance to think about his life, reflect on his choices. If only I got another chance. I didn't get those choices."

Tufano's son, also named Tony, spoke about his father's ordeal: "There is no good ending here for us. The family moves on. My dad forgave him for himself; if he was angry, it would only affect him. I don't feel good or bad about Matt. I try to channel my energies elsewhere."

Bush seems to understand this.

"I can't ever forget what happened," he said. "What happened to Mr. Tufano, what I put my family through, the trauma with prison.

"When your freedom is gone, you start to think of simple things," he added. "Having a job. Staying sober. Making my mom and dad proud of me. Just not breaking the law and putting others at risk. I realized what I had thrown away. I realize that I might not even deserve this chance. I want to show people that giving me that chance wasn't a mistake."

After 3 years in prison, Rangers reliever, ex-Rays farmhand Matt Bush trying to reassemble his life 02/20/17 [Last modified: Sunday, February 19, 2017 9:50pm]
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