Even Cleveland Can’t Quell Butler : Center Fielder’s Optimism Survives in the Second Division

Times Staff Writer

Watch Brett Butler chase down just one line drive or stretch one double into a triple, and you’ll be able to tell whom the Cleveland Indian center fielder has patterned his style of play after.

He catches line drives in a defiant manner and loves to slide head-first into third, just like his idol, Pete Rose.

And just like Rose, Butler, the American League’s Charlie Hustle, is supremely enthusiastic about his profession.

But one thing outweighs Butler’s enthusiasm, and that’s his optimism. After all, how many players would be positive about being traded to baseball’s Siberia, the Mistake by the Lake, Cleveland?


When Butler was dealt by the Atlanta Braves with Rick Behenna and Brook Jacoby to Cleveland for Len Barker in 1983, he left a pennant contender for the punching bag of the American League East.

Amazingly, he didn’t get depressed about it.

Brett Butler knew of Cleveland’s reputation . . . and, frankly, he didn’t give a damn.

“I had heard all the bad things about playing in Cleveland, all the Rodney Dangerfield jokes about Cleveland, that people don’t die, they just go to Cleveland,” Butler said.


“But I don’t have a pessimistic bone in my body, and I looked at this way: I may have been going to the bottom of the barrel, but I was still in the major leagues and still doing what I wanted to for a living. I kept in mind that a lot of people would like to be in my place, playing center field for the Indians.”

Butler certainly didn’t let the trade affect his play. He hit .269 as the Indian leadoff hitter last year, with 52 stolen bases and 108 runs scored. That was the first time in Cleveland history that a player had stolen 50 bases and scored 100 runs in a season.

This year, Butler is on a pace to surpass his 1984 statistics. After Wednesday’s game, his batting average was .301 but his five-game hitting streak ended as Cleveland lost to the Angels, 10-6, at Anaheim Stadium.

Indian Manager Pat Corrales hasn’t had much reason to smile this year, what with his team already hopelessly behind in the American League East, but Butler is one player who pleases him.


“Getting Brett Butler has turned out to be one of the better trades we’ve ever made,” he said. “He’s going to be one of the top base stealers in the league for many years and he’s a solid hitter.

“He’s also very conscientious. For the last two days, he’s been out here at 3 p.m. working on his bunting. Brett takes a lot of pride in himself and his game, and is a very good player to manage.”

It hasn’t always been easy for Butler. He first became a regular in 1982 for Atlanta, but hit only .217 and had to be benched by then-Brave Manager Joe Torre.

“That was a difficult period for me,” Butler said. “I really let the Braves and Joe Torre down.”


Torre planned to move Bob Horner to left field from third base for the 1983 season, and at that time, Butler didn’t seem to figure prominently in Atlanta’s plans.

Then the left-hand hitter had such a good spring that Torre decided to keep Horner at third and gave the left field job to the 28-year-old Butler. This time, Butler didn’t let anyone down.

Butler batted .281, had 13 triples and 39 stolen bases and played solid defense. Still, when Brave Owner Ted Turner was presented with the opportunity to acquire Barker, a player whom Turner thought would guarantee Atlanta the National League West title, he dealt Butler to Cleveland.

Actually, Butler was the so-called player to be named in the trade, and even though the transaction was made in August, Butler played the rest of the season--with the knowledge he was bound for Cleveland--in Atlanta.


And, he didn’t let it bother him.

“I knew I was going to Cleveland. Ted told me even though he wasn’t supposed to,” Butler said. “I wanted to stay in Atlanta and finish my career there, but the Braves thought Barker would get them the pennant, and I can’t blame them for doing what they did.”

So, as soon as the season was over, Brett Butler was gone with the wind to Cleveland.

The Indians finished sixth in the seven-team AL East last year, and will be hard-pressed to finish higher than last this year. But Butler still sees reason to be optimistic about his future, and about the Indians’ future.


“We’re a young team and one that is going to get better,” he said. “We’re looking for consistency, to be able to put our pitching, hitting and defense together.