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Tampa Bay Rays' Matt Bush climbing back from the bottom

Matt Bush has done everything the Rays have asked and entered the Winning Inning Baseball Academy in Clearwater for help.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Matt Bush has done everything the Rays have asked and entered the Winning Inning Baseball Academy in Clearwater for help.

PORT CHARLOTTE — For Matt Bush, rock bottom came in June in a liquor store parking lot in San Diego.

Bush, the No. 1 overall pick in 2004 by the Padres, was out of baseball and "completely lost" after alcohol abuse and self-destructive behavior nearly cost him everything.

So Bush, 24, living with his parents, jumped in his Cadillac and ended up at a familiar place. He bought small bottles of liquor and took shots in his car until he passed out. The next day, he did it again. All he remembers is blacking out.

"It felt like the end," he said. "I just really felt bad, like I'm going to do something that will be the end of me."

Turns out, it became the beginning of Bush's road to recovery, a turning point in his life that led him to a minor-league deal with the Rays.

Bush was arrested that night, June 28, and later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor reckless driving involving alcohol, vandalism and resisting arrest. But in getting sentenced to 120 days in an alcohol rehabilitation center, Bush was forced to get help he knew he always needed.

He said he hasn't had a drink since that night nearly nine months ago, with friends and family saying he has turned into the man everyone thought he could be. He feels lucky to be alive and is finally ready to cash in on his promise.

The Rays say he has done everything they've asked and have a program to help him. Bush entered the Winning Inning Baseball Academy in Clearwater, staying in the same room that former Rays prospect Josh Hamilton did as he battled his drug addiction before later becoming an All-Star with the Rangers. Bush hopes it's not too late for him to repeat that feat.

"I felt like everything was really falling apart, and I reached the lowest of my low, and thankfully it started getting better," he said. "But I definitely had to get knocked down before I built myself back up."

• • •

Considering where Bush was, it was a pretty far fall. With his million-dollar right arm, he could do it all at Mission Bay High in San Diego and became the first shortstop taken No. 1 since Alex Rodriguez (1993).

"He was better than Alan Trammell at that age," Mission Bay coach Dennis Pugh, who has more than 600 wins in 30 years, said, referencing the former Detroit Tigers great who also played high school ball in San Diego. "That's how good he was. But he was a good player who had a lot come too fast for him, and he couldn't handle it."

Bush was an introverted kid who didn't come from money: His parents were custodians at schools. He didn't have a driver's license when he was drafted by his hometown Padres, who gave him a $3.15 million bonus. Bush said he wasn't tough enough mentally then to handle the pressure.

He felt invincible, and he made some bad decisions. Before he even took the field, Bush was suspended for his role in a fight outside an Arizona nightclub.

"I knew right from wrong, but I wanted to figure it out on my own," he said. "Maybe I'll be different, maybe I'll get away with it. That feeling of, 'I'm a No. 1 pick and just coming into things.' I felt like that was the way it was supposed to be, that's the lifestyle. You can go out, drink, have fun, spend my money on what I want.

"Those things ruled my life, and I searched through alcohol. It got way out of control, and it led me down a horrible path."

He struggled on the field, hitting .219 in four minor-league seasons, never advancing past Class A. In 2007, the Padres converted him to a pitcher.

But Bush tore a ligament in his elbow, requiring Tommy John surgery. With no baseball, Bush lost his identity and fell back into the trap of alcohol, he said. He tried to seek help, going to outpatient clinics and counseling, but they didn't work.

Daniel Bush, Matt's father, said alcoholism ran in both sides of their family, but he never thought it would "turn our lives upside down."

"There were nights I didn't know if he'd come home," said Andrea Cattron, 21, Bush's girlfriend of three years.

In February 2009, he was accused of drunken assault on boys high school lacrosse players (he pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor counts of simple battery). The Padres traded him to the Blue Jays, but he was released two months later for violating their zero-tolerance policy.

Bush took responsibility for his actions, saying they were a disgrace. He said he's lucky he hasn't seriously hurt anyone, including himself, feeling like someone has always been watching over him.

"People every day have times where they don't get another chance," he said. "It's just I think about it sometimes … how many times it could have been the last with myself, locked up forever, or dead."

• • •

Dominick Johnson, who has known Bush for years, didn't believe he was a lost cause.

So he called a friend, Rays area scout Jake Wilson, in September, and they visited Bush in the Southern California rehab center. Wilson, a former Padres scout, talked to Bush for four hours and left impressed.

"He just had such a glow about him of peace and happiness," Wilson said. "Realizing the mistakes along the way, he can find redemption if he wants it, and I think that's where he is."

Bush said other teams were interested, including the Red Sox, but he liked how the Rays put his recovery first, wanting him to go to the Winning Inning, a baseball academy that develops the mind, body and soul. Like Hamilton, Bush mopped floors, read the Bible and found peace.

"I know I'm a better person for having met Matt," academy director Roy Silver said.

Whether Bush makes the similar on-field splash as Hamilton remains to be seen. Though Bush is healthy, the Rays are taking it slow. They don't know what level he'll start at or what role he'll be in.

But they do know Bush has a chance to be special.

"On the mound, his arm is lightning," Johnson said. Rays pitcher Mike Ekstrom, who played with Bush in the Padres system, said he has yet to see a better arm.

"This is the kind of kid that we need to take chances on," said Dan Feinstein, Rays director of baseball operations. "He's got … the potential to be a really good pitcher in the big leagues. He's got big-time stuff. This is an opportunity that could be good for both parties."

Tampa Bay Rays' Matt Bush climbing back from the bottom 03/19/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 20, 2010 12:01am]
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