(This is Part One of a three-part series on former minor-league pitcher Matt Bruback, his struggles in and with professional baseball, and the birth of a new dream springing from the end of an old one. Part Two will be posted May 25th.)
Some men can talk about their worst experiences as if they were only blessings-in-disguise. Matt Bruback is one of those men.
In his particular case, one might be inclined to agree with him.
The story of Matt Bruback could just as easily be the story of hundreds of others in the ranks of professional baseball. What truly makes his story special, however, has little to do with the game of baseball, and far more to do with the game of life.
“It was interesting because, in 1997, there were only two guys in San Antonio who were drafted. It was me and another guy whose father was a Marlins scout”, Bruback recalled. “I attended a lot of camps and showcases in the summer, but my senior year when I was pitching I was throwing 87 at the camps. Then the Marlins scout actually got me at 91.”
At first glance, luck would seem to have played a significant role in Bruback’s foray into pro ball. Take a deeper look, however, and you’ll see that his luck appeared to have ended as soon as he entered the ranks of the Chicago Cubs organization.
“When I was drafted in ’97, 47th round, (Cubs scout) Buzzy Keller came to our house and said ‘Hey, the Cubs want the rights to you, but they don’t want to sign you’. Then he had me sign this piece of paper stating that the Cubs would have the rights to me (as a player) for one year.”
This practice was known as ‘draft-and-follow’, in which a team would draft a player only for the right to sign that player before any other team. The deadline to a draft-and-follow prospect ran out on the date of the MLB Draft in the following year.
Being drafted in such a low round, Bruback soon found that players that were drafted after him were asking for the same money that he got ($765,000). They referred to it as “Matt Money”, which on its face doesn’t seem like it would be a lot to the fans who follow the draft in the present day. At the time he was drafted, it was a huge amount to spend on such a low draft pick.
Then, according to Bruback, something strange happened: the Cubs went about the process of tearing down the very same prospect that initially they had wished to develop.
“My situation is kind of unique, which is baseball trying to cover up its tracks regarding how much they paid me”, said Bruback, referring to his official signing by the Chicago Cubs in 1998. The draft-and-follow was a means of control: control of the right to sign said player and a limiting of said player’s options, in the process.
This incident was credited with leading to the creation of the slotted-bonus system, as well as shining a light on MLB’s signing practices. Bruback could scarcely foresee such a sea change in professional baseball’s standards and practices; his own personal experience in the pros was an even greater shock.
In the Autumn of 1998, while Bruback pitched in Instructional League (before which he had played a full college season, as well as pitching in the NY-Penn League), he came down with a serious case of pneumonia. The head trainer ‘treated’ Bruback with Alka-Seltzer and effectively isolated him from the rest of the team, in ways that appeared to the young prospect to be both physical and mental. When a physician diagnosed him with full pneumonia in one lung and wrote a prescription for antibiotics (a rational treatment plan), the team’s head trainer continued to insist that Matt continue taking Alka-Seltzer and remain on bed rest.
This was a treatment plan the Cubs pursued until the end of the Instructional League season, which arrived a mercifully-soon five days later.
The 1999 season, which found Bruback advancing to the Low-A Lansing Lugnuts, did not start out much better for him. In one of his early starts of the year, Bruback strained an oblique muscle while pitching through temperatures in the 30’s. His manager insisted that he not only remain in the game, but also told Bruback that he was not to seek treatment for the oblique injury from team trainers.
I’ll say that again: Lansing’s manager told Matt Bruback not to seek treatment for a significant and potentially-chronic injury. That manager was Oscar Acosta. More on him later.
As Bruback attempted to compensate for the nagging injury, his velocity and control suffered greatly. Enter now the Cubs’ minor-league pitching coordinator: Lester Strode. Strode’s answer to Bruback’s struggles? Yell at him, and see if it helps.
Having made it to the High-A Florida State League’s Daytona Cubs in 2000, Bruback was jolted by a rather sinister comment from the Cubs’ very own minor-league coordinator Oneri Fleita. Fleita told Bruback, in short, that he should think of the future, and of his family.
Bruback soon learned, to his great dismay, that this was MLB’s way of telling him to keep his mouth shut and play ball, in both the literal and figurative sense. To be sure, he had already experienced gross mishandling at the hands of team trainers and doctors.
This is the point at which I’m sure some of you are saying to yourselves, “Oh, come on! He’s a pro! He’s getting paid to play a game! He can deal with it!”. It’s really a moot point. Strode was a pitching coordinator, not a drill sergeant, and anyone who’s ever coached at ANY level knows that the ‘motivation by fear’ route never really works.
These were the first strange events in a continuing motif for Matt Bruback, and it wasn’t long after Strode’s ‘intervention’ that Bruback began questioning the true intentions of the Chicago Cubs.
(To be continued)