Dustin Peterson, the Tigers' new outfielder, was sitting by his locker in Comerica Park.
“I know a little bit about your background,” I said. “I know you were a high draft pick. Big bonus.”
I paused. “But how’d you end up here?”
“I’ve battled through a bunch of injuries,” Peterson said. “I had surgery on my wrist and I was in a team bus accident where I was almost decapitated.”
Then, he told me the wildest story. A story that explains everything.
A horrible bus crash
It was about 3:45 a.m. on May 13, 2015.
Peterson was playing for the Carolina Mudcats, the Atlanta Braves’ Single-A affiliate, and he was trying to sleep on the team bus during an all-night trip. The Mudcats were traveling from Salem, Virginia, to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, for a three game series — a trip of about 300 miles.
Detroit Tigers' Dustin Peterson slides safely at home plate ahead of the throw to Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli in the ninth inning at Comerica Park, Tuesday, April 16, 2019. (Photo: Rick Osentoski, USA TODAY Sports)
Peterson was curled up in an aisle seat, towards the back of the bus.
Lucas Simms, a pitcher, walked down the aisle from the bathroom to his seat and bumped into Peterson, jarring him awake.
“I was like, ‘Dang,’” Peterson said.
About 10 seconds later, Peterson heard a scream. “I heard the lady bus driver started screaming like bloody murder,” he said.
Going around a left-hand turn, the bus veered off the road. “I thought we were going off a cliff,” Peterson said.
Peterson grabbed the seat in front of him, trying to brace himself: “We hit a berm and it launched us in the air. We were flipping in mid air and landed on the side. David Peterson was a big old pitcher for us, a broad guy, and all his weight — boom — landed on my neck. I was almost killed.”
Dustin said the bus skidded for 200 feet. “When we landed, all of the windows shattered on the right side, just blew out,” he said. “People’s limbs were dragging outside the window. It wasn’t asphalt. It was grass and we were near a railroad. I think, if we would have landed on asphalt, anybody was in the window seat would have lost limbs.”
Tigers left fielder Dustin Peterson blows his bat up in the seventh inning of the Tigers' 5-4 win over the Royals on Thursday, April 4, 2019. (Photo: Mandi Wright, Detroit Free Press)
Dustin remembers people screaming, groaning and yelling in pain. “The guy who landed on me was pretty concussed," Dustin said. "He was shaking, looking at his hand. His finger was completely dislocated.”
Dustin panicked and screamed: “We need to get off! We need to get off!”
He was afraid another car would come along and crash into the bus.
“I thought some people were seriously hurt, maybe killed,” he said. “We need to get off the road and get away.”
Dustin said he climbed out of the bus through the emergency exit through the roof.
"Luckily, nobody was killed," he said.
Peterson thought that he had whiplash. His neck was stiff and he couldn't move his head. "I think I got a concussion," he said. "I played a lot of football, growing up. I had whiplash and concussions growing up. I kind of thought that’s what my symptoms were.”
The crash happened in Columbus County, North Carolina, near the South Carolina border. Peterson went to the hospital along with six other players and a team trainer.
“I was sitting down in the doctor’s office,” Peterson said. “He was looking at the X-ray and I was sitting in a chair. The doctor looked at the X-ray, then looked back at me. Then, he looked at the X-ray and looked back at me again."
“I’m like, ‘What’s going on, doc?’” Peterson said.
“He said, ‘You walked in here today?”
“He goes, 'You can see here, it looks like a fracture in your neck. We have to immobilize you. We think you will have to get emergency surgery on your neck,’” Dustin said. “He goes, ‘Don’t sneeze because you could really fracture your neck.’”
Six players from the team went on the disabled list, including Dustin. “It turned out that it wasn’t a fracture,” he said. “I had severe whiplash. Coming back from that was tough. I kind of battled a sore neck the rest of the year.”
It messed him up the rest of his season. “We all went and rehabbed in Orlando for the Braves,” he said. “We were all pretty beat up.”
Tigers catcher John Hicks receives congratulations from center fielder Dustin Peterson after he hits a home run in the sixth inning on Wednesday, April 10, 2019, at Comerica Park. (Photo: Rick Osentoski USA TODAY Sports)
A bonus baby
Peterson has a tattoo around his right wrist in honor of his grandfather, Charles T. Lunsford, who died from cancer at the age of 65. “My grandfather passed away right before I got drafted," Peterson said. “Growing up, I was very close with him. He would come to every one of our baseball games. For every home run, he would give us a golden dollar. He was always there.”
To this day, Peterson keeps those coins in his room.
“That’s something I really cherished as a kid," Peterson said. "As I look back on it, it was special to have a man like him growing up.”
His grandfather was also an artist, and he made a drawing of Dustin playing baseball. “It says, ‘Get dirty,'" Peterson said. "My mom used to be in the stands and if I didn’t dive for a ball, you would hear my mom in the stands yell, 'Get dirty!'"
Peterson could play every position on the field — his dad wanted him to be versatile — but he focused on middle infield.
Peterson was taken in the second round of the 2013 MLB draft by the San Diego Padres, 50th overall and ahead of now-teammates such as JaCoby Jones (87th) and Matthew Boyd (175th). Peterson got a $1.4 million signing bonus. The Padres moved him to third base, but a year and a half later, he was traded to the Braves as part of a deal for Justin Upton.
The Braves switched him to outfield.
Dustin Peterson #13 of the Detroit Tigers drives in the game winning run with this RBI double in the ninth inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on April 02, 2019 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo: Elsa, Getty Images)
Showing his potential
After the bus accident, Peterson moved up to Double-A for the 2016 season; and he had a fantastic year, showing why he was such a high draft pick. Peterson was named the Braves' 2016 minor league player of the year after hitting .282 with 52 extra-base hits and 88 RBIs in 132 games.
“In 2016, I came back and was healthy and felt good,” he said. “In 2017, I thought I had a chance to break with the Braves. I was really hitting the ball hard.”
In the fourth game of spring training, he took a swing and crushed the ball, getting on base.
But he felt pain in his hand and couldn’t pick up his bat.
“I remember going into the outfield and I was trying to play catch," Peterson said, "and I was like, ‘I can’t squeeze. Hopefully, a ball doesn’t get hit to me.’
"I knew something was wrong."
He had broken the hamate bone in his left wrist and required surgery. He ended up playing just 87 games that season, all for the Braves' Triple-A affiliate, and hit .248. “I came back and still battled lingering stuff from the surgery," he said. "I battled some flare-ups and they said that was common, post surgery.”
In 2018, he returned to Triple-A. “I finished really hot in Triple-A,” he said. “I was on a hot streak.”
The Braves called him up in May and he made his big league debut. He pinch-hit in two games, but didn't get a hit. Back he went to Triple-A, where he hit .269 with 22 extra-base hits in 81 games to finish the season.
Finally, the Braves designated Peterson for assignment in September to make room on their 40-man roster.
It’s possible that the Braves were hoping to sneak him through waivers, but the Tigers scooped him up. They figured, what the heck? You might as well take a flyer on a second-round pick who has already been paid a big bonus by somebody else.
“I was super-blessed that the Tigers picked me up off waivers,” Peterson said. “It’s a new opportunity here and I’m just so thankful for it. I just want to show them everything I got.”
Time to shine
Peterson made the opening-day roster after JaCoby Jones was injured in spring training.
When Jones returned, the Tigers were struggling to get Peterson at bats. But now, with Christin Stewart on the injured list, Peterson has gotten more playing time
“This year is really my first year of being strong and healthy again,” he said. “I can just tell.”
Earlier this season, he struggled to get into a groove because he wasn’t getting enough at-bats.
But since the Stewart injury, he has started two games and has two hits in seven at-bats with two RBIs.
“It’s been super-surreal," Peterson said. "I love everything about it. It’s a lot of fun, everyone gets along really well. When we start putting things together, I think we are going to be a pretty dangerous team. We are all just taking it day by day and enjoying the moment.”
Best of all, he doesn’t have to take as many bus rides.
He still feels anxiety getting on a bus.
“Since then, I’ve struggling traveling by buses,” Peterson said. “In the minors, you take a lot of bus trips and there are no seat belts. People are sleeping on the floor. People are sleeping sideways. You try to feel comfortable, traveling through the middle of the night. I just have to accept I have no control. God kept us all alive in that accident for a reason. And he kept me here for a reason.”
Peterson might have a wild journey to this point — a high draft pick who lived through a nasty bus crash and then slowly recovered from a wrist injury — but he is just 24 years old. If he can fulfill the potential that made him a second-round pick and rediscover the production that he showed in 2016, the Tigers will have gotten an absolute steal.
He's young enough to be part of this rebuild.
And old enough, with enough mental scars, to want to avoid any more bus trips in the minors.
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