PORT CHARLOTTE — Rays right-hander Matt Bush seemed to have turned his life around.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 baseball draft had worked to put the alcohol problem that had nearly claimed his once-promising career — and life — behind him. His father, Daniel, said Bush hadn't had a drink in three years, and manager Joe Maddon believed the hard-throwing reliever could impact the big-league club this season.
"He was so close," Daniel Bush said.
That all changed dramatically Thursday when Bush, 26, was arrested in North Port on several charges, including driving under the influence and fleeing the scene of an accident. He's now in the Charlotte County jail, without bail, awaiting a hearing today. And Anthony Tufano, 72, is in a Fort Myers hospital in serious condition, having suffered brain hemorrhaging and a collapsed lung, among other injuries, in the accident.
"He's obviously in a lot of pain," said Tufano's daughter-in-law Shannon Moore. "He's definitely not out of the woods yet."
Florida Highway Patrol troopers said Bush fled the scene after the Dodge Durango he was driving struck a motorcycle driven by Tufano at about 5 p.m.
When a search, which included deputies and a helicopter, found Bush, he told police he didn't remember seeing — or hitting — a motorcycle. The report said Bush's blood-alcohol level was .180 percent, more than twice the level at which a driver is considered impaired.
The Rays issued a statement offering their thoughts and prayers to the victim and his family, with Moore saying a team representative also reached out to them by phone Friday. Maddon said they will "follow the lead first of what's going to happen to him from a legal perspective" before deciding Bush's future.
"It's beyond unfortunate for the victim (Tufano)," Maddon said. "That's the guy we really have to keep focused on."
Bush, reassigned to minor league camp last week, wasn't scheduled to pitch in a game Thursday, so he worked out in the morning and was able to leave early. Though Bush has a suspended license and doesn't own a car, his father said he must have borrowed one. Bush told police he had a "serious alcohol problem" and was on his way home from shopping at a Sarasota mall when he stopped and bought a few drinks, according to police reports.
Scott Sugden, a witness to the accident, said Tufano was in front of him in the middle lane, and Bush was behind him, driving south on U.S. 41. He said Tufano first changed lanes to his left just before Bush did. Sugden said Bush hit the motorcycle, Tufano fell off and Bush "kept on driving," with a rear tire running over Tufano's head.
"He didn't stop. There were no brake lights or anything," Sugden said.
Moore, Tufano's daughter-in-law, said, "I just don't understand how someone can run over someone's head and leave them in the middle of the road. It's pretty stupid and silly to drive when you're drinking, but to actually run over someone's head and leave not knowing if he's dead or alive is pretty awful."
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Sugden stayed with Tufano until paramedics arrived, saying the 72-year-old was responsive and tried to get up.
"If it weren't for the helmet, he would have died immediately," Sugden said.
Moore said Tufano also suffered broken ribs and a fractured wrist and has broken bones in his back. She said she was able to speak to him Friday morning, and he was responsive but couldn't remember anything about the accident.
She said Tufano told her to thank his granddaughter, Willow, for saving his life. It was Willow, 14 — now making national headlines for purchasing a house — who made Tufano wear a helmet. Tufano was babysitting his youngest granddaughter, Iris, 7, Thursday afternoon so that Willow and Moore could do an interview for FOX TV in Sarasota. Tufano was on his way home when he was hit by Bush.
Moore said, "The first thing he said to me is, 'Give Willow a hug and a kiss and tell her Grandpa thanks her.' "
Moore said Tufano, a former railroad worker from New York, has lived in the area for 20 to 25 years. He lost his wife, Patti, less than a year ago. They had been married for about a half-century. Since then, he has had tattoos put on each arm; one is the letter "P," and the other reads "Patti."
Tufano has run the Boston Marthon twice. Moore said doctors told them the fact that he's in such good shape may be a reason he's still alive.
"He such a caring and loving man," Moore said.
Bush's father, Daniel, said his family is devastated over what happened. He said his son hadn't had a drink in three years until Thursday, though he said it has been a constant battle. He said his son once went to a rehab facility in San Diego for four months and seemed to be on the right track.
"Matt is sick — he's perfect in everything else," Daniel Bush said. "He had that problem. Everybody knew about it. He probably should have had somebody with him at all times. I wish I could have been there."
He said the last time he talked to Matt was Thursday morning, for his daily wake-up call.
"I couldn't tell anything — he was happy to get up and get going," the elder Bush said. "I haven't noticed anything strange about him."
Matt Bush had said, and done, all the right things since signing a minor league deal with the Rays in 2010. With previous arrests leading to his being released by the Padres and the Blue Jays, Bush considered Tampa Bay his last chance.
He spent his first two months at 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 becoming an All-Star with the Rangers. Bush hoped he could complete the same feat.
Maddon called Bush a "wonderful young man" and "great teammate" who made a bad decision. "There's been no visual concerns. There's been no alarms that have been going off from any direction," Maddon said. "It was a shock for me."
It took nearly a half-hour for authorities to locate Bush after arriving on the scene. J.A. Van Arsdale of the FHP, an arresting officer, wrote that he could smell alcohol on Bush, who had "bloodshot" and "watery" eyes, with unsteady movements. Bush was taken to Sarasota Memorial Hospital and at first refused a blood draw before consenting.
Van Arsdale told Bush that if he has an alcohol problem, this would be an awakening. Bush replied that he has "already been there." Bush stated that he hit a pole in Sarasota that day. The report said he had DUI incidents in Arizona and California.
Bush's agent, Jonathan Weisz, took a red-eye flight from California on Thursday night and spoke to him briefly at the jail Friday morning. He said he has been trying to find Bush an attorney and gather information.
Neil Allen, Bush's pitching coach in Double-A Montgomery, was stunned upon hearing the news, believing the San Diego native had capitalized on his chances, conquered his demons and was ready for the next step.
"It's just a disappointing, stomach-churning event," Allen said. "I think that he believed in us as much as we believed in him. That's why we're all blindsided right now. We just didn't see this coming."
Times staff writer Emily Nipps and researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.