Tuesday, July 05, 2005 | FORT WAYNE, Ind. – On Friday night in America’s heartland, Matt Bush is running through his pre-game routines, taking batting practice and infield with the Fort Wayne Wizards.

He later trots from the field and takes a seat in the dugout at Memorial Stadium, home of the Padres’ Class A minor league baseball affiliate. Bush, the first pick of the 2004 draft by his hometown Padres out of Mission Bay High, is in an upbeat mood.

He is fresh from playing in the Midwest League All-Star game, having been selected by a vote of the league’s coaches. “I’m working on the right things,” Bush said. “I know now it’s not the quantity of ground balls you take, it’s the quality. If I hustle in batting practice, I’m going to hustle in the games.”

The shortstop with a strong arm and a swing that accounted for the California high school record in career hits is beginning to understand the differences between a pro and a kid.

But three-and-a-half hours later, Bush is standing outside the Wizards’ clubhouse both looking and sounding dejected. The infield single he beat out and the run he scored after a walk aren’t enough to balance his mood after making two fielding errors.

Just when Bush believes he is putting behind him the nightmare of last year when he was arrested after an altercation with a bouncer at a Phoenix-area bar, he suffers through a game like Friday night.

“I don’t think my game has been the same since it happened,” Bush said. “But all I can do is keep working hard and hopefully something good will start happening.”

If Fort Wayne manager Randy Ready, a former Padres player, is a better judge of Bush’s future, then Bush should lighten up on himself.

“He’s just 19 years old, and he’s playing in a league with 22- and 23-year-olds,” Ready said. “We’re traveling and playing on fields with different surfaces; the speed of the ball is different than high school. I don’t think the errors are a major concern – not with the hard work and progress he’s making. At the plate, he has a good foundation mechanically, but the biggest thing he faces now is recognizing pitches.

Bush’s average had inched toward .250 before a slump dropped him back to his .236 average after Friday’s game. His two errors were his 25th and 26th of the season in 72 games.

Bush wants to be known as a serious ballplayer dedicated to living up to the promise the Padres invested in him as the first pick of the draft. But in this ESPN age of around-the-clock sports news and sports talk radio, his name carries an added identity.

“When he’s been under my watch, he’s been steady on and off the field,” Ready said. “We have a routine to follow, there are organization rules and there are my rules. We wear collared shirts on the road. That’s part of being a pro on and off the field. Matt has done everything I’ve asked of him.”

Peter Ciofrone, a 21-year-old Fort Wayne infielder who was acquired by the Padres last summer from the Boston Red Sox organization, only knew about Bush what the rest of America’s baseball fans knew from watching ESPN. But that was before Ciofrone met him this year.

“I’ve been around him a lot, and he’s a good kid,” Ciofrone said. “He made a mistake, but he’s trying to move forward. He’s working hard here.”

Bush hates being asked about the incident this many months later, but he never sidesteps an answer. It was a “bonehead mistake” is what he told me Friday night.

I’m still waiting to hear Texas Rangers pitcher Kenny Rogers, who attacked a cameraman last week, issue anything but a written apology through his lawyer. And the rest of San Diego is still waiting for former Chargers quarterback Ryan Leaf’s first genuine apology that he was wrong for his blowups with the media, teammates, front office personnel and fans.

Don’t give up on Matt Bush. And don’t judge him on a “bonehead mistake.” That’s all the kid who has long dreamed of playing for the Padres asks.

Tom Shanahan has been writing about San Diego athletes at the professional, collegiate and high school levels for 27 years. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions (www.sdhoc.com). His features on high school athletes and coaches can be seen on the cable television show “School and Sports Stars” on the San Diego County Office of Education’s ITV Channel.

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