School: Wake Forest
Hometown: Devon, Pa.
College ball's top closer passed up the pros to make one more run at a national title
He defied them all. Everyone, it seemed—his friends, his coaches, even his father—was telling Dave Bush to take the money, because really, what was there left for him to do at Wake Forest? He was already an All-America, already college baseball's top closer according to Baseball America, already a fourth-round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. But to the dismay of those around him, Bush decided last August to walk away from the contract offer sitting in front of him and return to Winston-Salem for his senior year. No regrets. No second-guessing. "No looking back, I kept telling myself," says the 6' 2", 210-pound righthander. "It just didn't feel right."
Then, two days after Thanksgiving, Bush suddenly had reason to second-guess. He was driving back to campus from his hometown of Devon, Pa., when he felt a sharp pain in his back and in his left thigh, which by the time he reached Winston-Salem had swollen to twice its normal size. Bush tried to sleep the pain off, but it became unbearable, and he limped to the university emergency room. The diagnosis: a blood clot in his left hip that doctors say would probably have burst—and most likely resulted in a fatal aneurysm—if it hadn't been treated that night. Bush was put on blood thinners and kept from strenuous activity for three months. No running, no lifting. Lots of Dawson's Creek and Friends reruns. "During that time we talked a lot about whether what he'd done last summer was a mistake," says teammate Brad Comer.
Bush wasn't cleared to play until mid-February, and although only in the past few weeks has he felt as good as he did in 2001, he has put together yet another marvelous season. After finishing second in the nation with 16 saves last year, Bush, 22, has appeared in 33 of the Demon Deacons' 46 games and is 6-1 with 10 saves and a 1.83 ERA. Thanks to Bush, over the past two years Wake Forest is 68-0 when ahead after seven innings. He's the most valuable player on the most surprising team in college baseball. Heck, Bush may be the most valuable player in the nation. The Deacons, after all, weren't supposed to be world series contenders: They lost five All-ACC selections and seven position starters from last year's 44-18 team, which was bounced in the NCAA subregionals. But through Sunday they were 38-8, ranked No. 3 in the nation by Baseball America and on the verge of a fifth straight 40-win season.
Bush arrived in Winston-Salem as an unheralded catcher who had pitched just 10 innings at Conestoga High in Berwyn, Pa. He wanted a chance on the mound after it became apparent that he wouldn't start as a catcher during his freshman year. Coach George Greer gave him a shot. "I didn't learn how to throw a curveball until I got to college," Bush says. "By the end of my freshman season everything was clicking." There was, and still is, nothing fancy about Bush's pitching repertoire. He has always relied on a 96-mph fastball, which he controls with uncanny precision, and a nasty slider that's been the third strike on many of the 226 K's he has rung up in 215? career innings.
Bush may be his same dominant self this year on the mound, but off it he has changed. "The blood clot was scary, but it reminded him how important baseball is to him," says Wake pitching coach Michael Holmes. "He now comes to the ballpark every day not taking anything for granted. For us coaches, David's our most valuable asset. The younger kids aspire to be like him. He knows when to have fun and when to get serious."
It'll be all business from here on out for the Demon Deacons. Wake Forest has made the NCAA tournament for four straight years but has yet to advance to Omaha. With their big stopper now looking better than ever, the Deacons like their chances in tight games in June. "There's a big sense of unfinished business for the team and certainly for me personally," says Bush. "The opportunity to get this team to Omaha was a big part of what I came back for."