Published May 24, 2009|Updated May 25, 2009

Fernando Perez, the swift outfielder of the Tampa Bay Rays, faced a make-or-break moment during the ALCS showdown with Boston last fall.

No, it wasn't his daring Game Two dash for home on a sacrifice fly to save the day for the Rays.

It was his computer.

Alas, Perez struck out in the midst of transferring irreplaceable files from his old Mac laptop to a new external hard drive.

"It was all my old creative writing from college - things you can't really even put a value on," said Perez, who attended Columbia University.

My 21-year-old daughter, Laura, can relate - she recently faced the same kind of cruel curveball that victimized Perez.

After spending a semester studying in Europe, Laura returned home in December with more than a thousand treasured photos of herself and classmates in a half-dozen countries. She was in the process of backing them up to an external drive when - poof - they vanished without a trace.

"Dad, my entire photo library is gone - I lost every single photo I took!" I remember her exclaiming over the phone from her dorm room in Ohio.

The truth is, all of us - from pro ballplayer to college kid to anyone who's ever tapped on a computer keyboard - know that sinking feeling when a drive goes awry or some inexplicable glitch wipes out precious data.

Steve Bush certainly does. In fact, he lives for it.

- - -

Perez had never heard of Bush, a veteran Mac repairman from Tampa, when he endured his computer catastrophe last fall.

It was now Friday night about 9, with Game Six of the Boston Red Sox series set for the next evening. Perez worried that his data were gone for good. But he had gotten the name of an expert local tech from someone at the Apple Store "Genius Bar," a repair desk bustling with daily appointments and walk-ups.

What did he have to lose? Perez punched the number into his cell phone from St. Petersburg - and in Tampa, Bush, out to dinner with his wife, noticed his phone ringing.

"She looks at me and says, 'You are not answering that - enough business, you work 100 hours a week,'" recalled the owner of Screwbox Solutions, a small but thriving Tampa-based business dedicated to fixing broken, erratic or off-warranty Macs. "But she went to the ladies' room, and I listened to the message. It's Fernando Perez of all people."

Bush, a major Rays fan, had watched gleefully on TV as Perez scored the winning run in extra innings a week earlier. Now here was the same player, desperately hoping for a clutch play by the tech: "He said, 'Steve, please help me, I lost all my data, all my writing - can you do something?'"

Bush already counted various Rays and Bucs as regular clients and couldn't resist the challenge.

So, to his wife's chagrin, he prepared to make a playoff dash of his own.

- - -

Barely two years ago, Bush wasn't sure what direction he was heading.

He had sold a successful Web business, - specializing in hand-held devices from smart phones to PDAs - and made enough to take some time off to ponder his next move.

Bush loved Mac computers and was familiar with fixing them, so he returned to the work force as an Apple Genius at International Plaza. That's when he identified a niche market.

"I was older than most of the Geniuses and people in the store, and when I saw older business people coming in, they were put in the same queue as a 10-year-old boy with a broken iPod would be," said Bush, 52. "I thought there had to be a better way for people who don't want to have an appointment and wait in line. They need service immediately."

After a stint at an Apple consulting group in Tampa, Bush started his own repair company - Save Your Mac - and began making house calls throughout the Tampa Bay area, using the nearest Starbucks as his mobile "office." His gas and cell phone bills were astronomical, and he soon realized he needed his own space.

One of his clients was nationally renowned newspaper and magazine design company Garcia Media, and Mario Garcia Jr. - son of the design guru - offered to lease Bush some adjoining office space. He jumped at the chance. "I had zero dollars, but little by little I acquired the equipment and started a grass roots business," he said.

Since moving in last July, Bush has watched his operation grow steadily in a tough economy. He's hired two techs to help with repairs: Nathan Cinal and P.J. Cheng. And the work is flowing in, stemming from a combination of Apple Store referrals, word of mouth and return customers - with patrons including gospel singer Marvin Winans Jr., the visiting Trans-Siberian Orchestra (which tipped him $500 in cash above his $150 house-call fee to fix a computer one night during a local recording session) and an array of Mac-loving pro athletes.

Former Bucs tailback Warrick Dunn became a regular customer after his hard drive failed. It was too old for the Apple Store in Tampa to tackle, so someone there suggested Dunn call Bush and Co.

"They're a great team," Dunn said.

Retired Buffalo Bills linebacker Darryl Talley - whose NFL career spanned 14 seasons and four Super Bowls - is now a federal contractor who runs a traffic barricade company in Lakeland. He was also steered to Bush by an Apple Store tech when one of his six Macs was off warranty and needed special attention. Talley is now a frequent visitor to the shop. "Steve is phenomenal," he said.

The only stumble so far: Apple Inc. objected to the "Save Your Mac" name, so Bush and top tech Cinal - another former Apple Genius from Tampa - coined Screwbox Solutions. He hopes to add an office in the Orlando area in the next year, and possibly in Pinellas County after that.

"We usually have eight computers we're working on at any one time," Bush said. "People drive to us from Gainesville, Sarasota and Orlando, and the Apple Store in Chicago has people shipping their computers to us. Nate and I share one thing: We love doing this.

"Sometimes people come to us in tears over the photos they've lost. It's just so rewarding to help them get things back they thought were gone forever."

- - -

Which brings us back to daughter Laura.

Various Mac-savvy friends had tried to help her locate the missing JPEGs, but their hunches were similar: She must have accidentally overwritten the whole iPhoto file.

But like many others, I had heard about Steve Bush's place through word of mouth. I brought her laptop to his shop, where Cinal examined it and found no sign of the missing photos. It's a reality of the job: For any number of reasons, sometimes data simply cannot be recovered.

Cinal, 27, did notice her hard drive was shaky and within weeks of failing - possibly the cause of the photo loss. Since Laura was heading back to college later that day, I asked Cinal if he would simply replace the dying drive with a new one. He did so within hours, salvaging most of the key data, and handed me the old one in bubble-wrap just in case we might need it.

Laura accepted the fate of her pictures, but I couldn't leave it alone. I called Cinal back several days later and asked if there was any chance he could search the old drive one more time. It turns out he had been thinking about it, too. There was one sophisticated "forensic" data search he could still perform on the drive. The cost: $149 if he found the photos, zero if he didn't.

I drove that day to the store at 1209 N Tampa St. Less than 24 hours later, Cinal called. "I found your daughter's photos," he said.

The process is far too complex to describe, but he and Bush - in a hybrid role of doctor and detective - essentially located the entire iPhoto library hidden as "an invisible" file inside a Volumes folder, sent there in a ghostly exile when the backing up process was interrupted. They didn't find it in three searches of the folder, but on a final fourth try they did.

Said an elated Laura: "I can't believe he got them back."

- - -

Then there was Fernando Perez, fearing the worst that night last October.

"Some places charge well over a thousand dollars to get files back, so there's a big gray area," said Perez, out since March with a wrist injury. "Steve knew I was a pro ballplayer and could have charged me a helluva lot."

So imagine Perez's surprise when Bush told him over the phone that he would meet him early the next morning in St. Petersburg - and never brought up money. He met Perez, laptop and external drive in hand, at the Renaissance Vinoy and went right to work, recovering all of his lost files within 30 minutes.

"Unbelievable," said Perez.

To show his gratitude, the young ballplayer gave the Screwbox boss two tickets in the players' section to Game Six that night, three signed bats and a pair of signed baseballs from rookie phenom David Price.

If you're keeping the box score for Bush and Co., mark it down as one more save.

The Apple Web site lists a handful of MacIntosh service providers in the Tampa Bay area besides Apple Store International Plaza and Apple Store Brandon. They are:

Icon Computers, 12167 49th St North, Clearwater (727) 572-9967

Performance Computer Group, 1155 S Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa (813) 549-7000

Rays Connecting Point, 2340 State Rd 580, Clearwater (727) 712-1414

Computer Advantage Inc., 7810 N Tamiami Trail, Sarasota (941)351-2415

Mac Rx Inc., 4974 Fruitville Rd, Sarasota (941)371-2116