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From failed drug test, a triumph for Rays’ Nick Ciuffo

Rays catcher Nick Ciuffo, who made his major-league debut on Monday, came in as a seventh-inning replacement in Tuesday's 4-0 victory and is shown congratulating Sergio Romo for closing out the Blue Jays. [Associated Press]
Rays catcher Nick Ciuffo, who made his major-league debut on Monday, came in as a seventh-inning replacement in Tuesday's 4-0 victory and is shown congratulating Sergio Romo for closing out the Blue Jays. [Associated Press]
Published Sept. 5, 2018

TORONTO — The phone call Nick Ciuffo had to make to his father, Tony, on Feb. 1 was the toughest conversation he'd ever had, breaking down in relaying the news that he'd failed a drug test for smoking marijuana, and would be suspended for the first 50 games of his pivotal first season at Triple A.

The call Ciuffo made to Tony on Sunday night went a little better, breaking the late-night news that he was being promoted to the major leagues to make his debut.

Once Tony answered the dang phone.

"He was asleep,'' Nick said. "I had to call him like 15 times.''

Eventually, Nick instead called his stepmom's phone around 11:30 p.m., and Bonnie thankfully answered. He had her wake Tony so he could make a FaceTime call to deliver in as close to person the five words they'd dreamed together of for years:

"I'm going to the show.''

What was a weekend getaway at a mountain cabin in Banner Elk, N.C., for Tony and Bonnie now became a scramble to pack and a post-midnight drive back to Charleston, S.C., Tony booking a flight to Toronto for the debut none of them expected would happen this year.

At the time of the suspension, Nick Ciuffo, 23, figured he had pretty much burned whatever opportunity he would have to get to the majors this year. "No chance,'' he said. "I definitely put myself behind the 8-ball.''

Tony said he didn't even care at that point, more shocked, angry, hurt and most of all concerned more about his son's well-being than his baseball future. "It was the furthest thing from my mind,'' Tony said. "Making the big leagues was not important.''

The talk they had that night, and in ensuing days, focused on Nick being accountable for his actions and putting his transgressions behind him. It was easier to talk about than to do, as Nick went through counseling and the penance of working out during the two-month suspension with the extended spring squad in Port Charlotte.

"It's been a long year,'' he said. "It's been a really long year, starting off in February with the news being released.

"I think as a person I've grown a lot. As a player I've grown a lot over the past however many months. A lot of that has to do with some of the stuff I was mandated to do by MLB, seeing people and talking about what was going on in the personal life. I learned how to handle off the field stress. I've always been good at handling on the field stuff, but off the field I kind of just push it to the side.

"Addressing those issues has been really good. Along with having a good group of guys at Durham once I got there, accepting me and putting the past in the past and bringing me in as a teammate.''

Manager Kevin Cash said the organization was pleased with how Ciuffo (SHOO-fo) handled all facets.

"He was very accountable,'' Cash said. "He addressed the situation with the front office, with player development, his teammates. He was accountable when the media asked him about it. And then it was time to move on.

"He did everything he could to make sure he was 100 percent ready to go when the suspension came to an end and be ready to play, and he did.''

Ciuffo, reciprocally, thanked the team for helping him through it. "The Rays stuck by me, they didn't give up on me,'' he said. "They gave me the support system I needed, which was good. I really appreciated that.''

All of which brought us to Monday.

When Ciuffo made that first major-league start, trying to treat it like any of the hundreds of games he'd played, at least until he was walking in from the bullpen and noticed how high the upper deck at the Rogers Centre went. "It was a little surreal,'' Nick said. "It set in a little bit then.''

And when Tony sat in section 117, row 35, seat 103, knowing this was nothing like any of the hundreds of games he had been to over all those years, watching every pitch Nick caught and his four at-bats, hitless though reaching on a fielder's choice and scoring a run.

"I'm so proud of him because people don't see the hard work, sweat and dedication it takes to get to this level. Most just see the end result,'' Tony said Tuesday. "I've seen it first hand, and I couldn't be more happy for him. He's earned it.''

Truth be told, when they talked a couple weeks ago about the possibility of a September callup, Tony was the skeptic while Nick, despite the acquisition of (since-injured) Michael Perez and the promotion of Adam Moore, held out hope.

So when he got the word Sunday night from Durham manager Jared Sandberg, Nick knew — eventually — he and his dad would soon have another important talk.

"That was a lot better than the previous conversation of magnitude we had,'' Nick said. "Definitely.''

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.