As 1999 rolled around, Bruback was told that he needed to bulk up. At that time, he was 6’7” and around 215 pounds. Made sense that the team wanted him to fill out a bit. Problem is, they subsequently put him in a weight management program. This means extra workouts and a lot more cardio, all intended to help a player lose weight. It’s doubtful that anyone in Bruback’s situation would think that this makes any sense.
In Lansing at the time, Bruback would find out just how bad things could get for a minor-leaguer. During one game, Matt got word from his then-current girlfriend Amy that her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Her mother would require surgery, among other treatments. Needless to say, Amy was in tears. Matt spent some time with her, hoping to ease her mind and calm her down.
Lansing manager Oscar Acosta (there’s that name, again) took a less-than-favorable view on Matt’s decision to leave during the game to see his girlfriend. In Bruback’s mind, he was only doing the right thing. In the mind of his manager, however, Bruback’s priorities were mixed up. Acosta proceeded to ream Bruback in front of the team after the game, then took him to his office and continued the verbal assault. At that point, Acosta did something that would have cost him his job and/or a few teeth in most any other situation: he spat on Bruback.
“I took Amy outside the stadium because I didn’t want everyone to see her crying. I wanted to sort of shield her from all of that, she was so upset”, Bruback recalled. “One of the roving instructors came out looking for me and I told him ‘I’ll be right back, just give me a few minutes here’.
“It was after the game that Acosta just ripped me, right in front of the whole team.”
“Oscar Acosta was a man who punched out a general manager, who spat in my face for something that was just ridiculous”, said Matt, concerning his leaving the park momentarily. “Yeah, he wasn’t a good man.”
Seems direct enough, especially given what some would have said about Acosta’s behavior. Acosta would eventually climb the ladder to become Chicago’s major-league pitching coach before his resignation/dismissal at the end of the 2001 season.
Lansing’s pitching coach, Stan Lyles, was part of Chicago’s mishandling of Bruback in his own way. For his part, Lyles was constantly tinkering with Bruback’s mechanics; sometimes, he would make multiple changes during a game. This was only one moment in a string of poor decisions and what seemed like a deliberate attempt to sabotage Bruback’s career. That’s a strong statement to make about anyone, but it’s difficult to think otherwise.
Bruback’s run with misfortune was only hitting its stride. After he moved up the chain to High-A Daytona, he was struck by another vehicle while travelling at 70 MPH on the highway, becoming part of a multiple-car accident. He was able to walk away from that wreck uninjured, but was more than a little shaken by the accident. The Daytona Cubs put him on the mound, shortly afterward. Hitting Coach Joey Cora voiced his concern about playing Bruback immediately after such a serious incident, but the team had a differing opinion on things.
That’s a nice way of putting it.
Daytona went on to win the Florida State League Championship, with Bruback making an appearance. As the team joined in the celebration, Bruback was instructed to take teammate Juan Cruz to the airport. Odd timing, to be sure. One of the roving instructors, however, felt that the timing was perfect: Lester Strode, the same instructor who yelled at Bruback to ‘throw harder’ back in ’99.
The 2000 season was also the year that Oneri Fleita, Chicago’s minor-league coordinator, told Bruback that he should ‘consider the future, and the future of his family’. Cryptic and somewhat provocative, Bruback saw it as part of Chicago’s deliberate attempt to derail his career. At this point, it seemed obvious.
The 2001 season saw Bruback advancing again, this time to Double-A West Tennessee. An early-season start, a line-drive to the knee and the team’s decision to leave him in the game would put him on an entirely different path in his life. He had no idea just how much his life would change, to say little of the difference he would ultimately make in the lives of so many others.
(The conclusion to Matt Bruback’s story posts on Wednesday.)