A New Career of Providing Relief : Former Padre Metzger Is Still Called for Help; Now Fights Real Fires

Times Staff Writer

The phone rang.

"Help me, help me, my house . . ." cried the woman.

Butch Metzger, who listened to the voice over the intercom of West Sacramento Fire Station No. 1, had been summoned for help before. But not like this.

He had been known as a "fireman," but he now realized how ridiculous that title sounded. Back in 1976, when he was a relief pitcher, the Padres often called him for help, calls he answered 77 times.

He responded so well, going 11-4 with 16 saves and a 2.92 earned-run average, that he was named National League co-Rookie of the Year with Pat Zachry of the Cincinnati Reds. The Padres were so pleased, they called him their Fireman of the Year, and fitted him with a cute plastic hat.

"Please, please," the woman cried. "I'm on fire. I'm on fire."

This was 1982. Metzger had left baseball two years earlier. He'd been a fireman for one month. As the woman's voice faded on the intercom, Metzger strapped himself down in the jump seat behind the cab of Engine No. 1. The truck pulled out onto the bumpy, narrow street. Three and a half minutes later, it pulled up in front of a small house bursting in red and yellow flames.

"There's a person inside," shouted several of the 30 people on the sidewalk.

"Metzger," yelled the captain. "Take the lead."

Metzger entered the flaming house, crouching. He saw colors he never thought were colors. He heard crackling, whining sounds he associated with his worst nightmares.

He tripped over something. He stood up, moved a few feet and tripped again.

He landed on a bed. He pushed himself up, turned his head and came face to face with the remains of what had been a screaming woman and what had been a telephone.

"It looked so bad, it didn't look real," said Metzger, "It looked like somebody had faked it for Halloween. It made me sick. It made me realize, whoa , this is not a game ."

For the first time since 1976, another Padre may be named Rookie of the Year. He is Benito Santiago, a 22-year-old catcher. Barring debilitating injury, he should be a lock for the award. He is hitting .276 and has thrown out 33% (41 of 125) of would-be base-stealers.

"I can't think of anyone else," said Cardinal Manager Whitey Herzog, who has had the last two rookie award-winners, Todd Worrell and Vince Coleman. "Playing every day, producing like he has. Right now, he's it."

"Baseball," Santiago said, "is my life."

The other day at West Sacramento Station No. 1, the Padres' first and only Rookie of the Year pushed down his blackened yellow fire hat. He smiled. Give Butch Metzger 10 minutes alone with Benito Santiago, he'll talk to him about life.

The Padres handed Metzger his award in the winter of 1976. In May 1977, just 17 pitching appearances later, they handed him over to the St. Louis Cardinals.

He had celebrated his award by purchasing a custom home in San Diego. He had to sell it before he spent a night in it. For the first time in history, a Rookie of the Year was traded while virtually still a rookie.

After he appeared in 77 games in 1976, Metzger, 24, pitched just 83 more times in the majors. He bounced from the Cardinals to the New York Mets. He went from the Mets to the Oklahoma City 89ers. Then to to Caracas, Venezuela, in the Inter-American League, a league that shortly thereafter became defunct. He finished his professional baseball career in Richmond, Va., with a minor league coach telling him, "If you don't like it here, you can quit."

So he quit. But the need for the adrenaline rush he found when he took the mound with the bases loaded, the need for a bit of fear, that didn't go away. For two years he searched for other ways to fill that need. One day a buddy told him about firefighting.

He quit his job painting warehouses and took up firefighting. Five years later, this is what he has discovered:

"Going to a fire is like the phone ringing in the bullpen and the hair on the back of your neck standing up. Going to a fire is like, 'Give me the ball.' When that gal was screaming over the phone, it was like, 'I've got to go in there and get her. I've got no choice.'

"You know like what happened on my first few fires? I get there and I'm thinking, ' Hey, I've been here before. ' "

This, then, is what Butch Metzger can tell Benito Santiago about life.

"Players always worry about leaving the game, worried that all they know is baseball," Metzger said. "I'm here to tell you, baseball is all you need to know."

In 1978 for the New York Mets, in his final year in the big leagues, Butch Metzger worked six months for $80,000.

Today, he works 10 24-hour shifts a month. It figures to 46 hours a week. In six months on this job, Butch Metzger makes $13,800.

His job description: sleep 10 nights a month at a fire station, cook ravioli there, pick the weeds there, make the beds, climb up inside 40-foot towers on 100-degree days to clean the hoses.

Then there are the people who need you.

An average of 17 times a week, there are calls. Two-thirds of the time it is somebody needing a bandage or a life-saving breath (Metzger is a licensed emergency medical technician). The rest of the time, something's burning.

"To think of some of the things I worried about back when I played ball . . . " he said. "Sometimes, they amuse me."

On his 6-foot 1-inch frame, he used to carry 185 pounds. He was so fresh, so young and unworried, he was nicknamed "Ho-hum."

Today he weighs 210 pounds, with a fuller midsection, a harder face and eyes that have dulled. For a long time after he became a fire figher, his nickname was "Doctor Death." Not his fault. It's just that for a while, every call he answered involved a death.

"Nice name," he said. "But that's the way the guys are around here. That's the only way they can be. You can't take it, you get out.

"No big deal. Same thing they do in baseball."

Same thing, indeed.

Baseball brought Metzger a custom home, a Cadillac and fame that he was fooled into thinking he owned. Baseball left him with a pickup truck and a modest tract home.

Yet not a day passes when he doesn't think about his career and wonder, "How can anybody be so lucky?"

"I'm not bitter or angry at the game--I'm pleased with it," Metzger said. "I look at where I'm at now, and what I've been through then. I see how I've been prepared. I look at baseball and think, 'Thank you very much.' "

"He's funny like that," fellow firefighter Wally Enos said. "He philosophizes everything after baseball. He'll say things like, 'If this firehouse were the San Francisco Giants, they would treat this guy like this, or like that.' He talks about being a team player, always talks about a team."

Metzger's thoughts could even be put into a primer. Call it: "How Baseball Teaches You to Be a Fireman" (or "Learning to Fight Fire With Fire"):

1) You learn about heat .

"I remember my first game, I came in for San Francisco against the Braves, Dusty Baker at bat, Hank Aaron on deck, Aaron just staring at me," Metzger recalled. "All the time, this guy was my hero, and now he wants a piece of me."

Sort of like the time a woman ran to Station 4 from across the street.

"I think you better come over," she told Metzger. "My friend is having a baby."

Metzger came, asked the pregnant woman a few questions, and much to his sweat he realized: "She was giving all the right answers. She really was having a baby."

Surrounded by co-workers, following a mental textbook, Metzger made his first delivery. He cut the cord, a baby girl started crying, and he nearly joined her.

"I turn around and there's firefighters and ambulance guys and family members, and they are all cheering," he said. "Man, I can't tell you how that felt."

2) You learn to hide the pain .

Metzger's career didn't end when he was traded from the Padres to the Cardinals in 1977: "I know it doesn't sound great, but I was kind of happy to be going to a pennant contender," he said.

The end came at the beginning of the 1978 season. First he complained that Cardinal Manager Vern Rapp was trying to change the way he pitched. He was traded to the New York Mets, and pitched 37 innings. His ERA was 6.57 and he complained about his teammates. Said they didn't care.

He was sold to the Philadelphia Phillies, where the following spring he finally complained about a sore arm that had bothered him since his rookie season. The team doctors, after what Metzger describes as a quick "feel" exam, recommended rotator cuff surgery. He refused the surgery and could not get a job in the majors again.

"If I have advice for any rookie, it is, 'Don't believe anything anybody says about how good you are,' " he said. "As soon as you believe, it jumps up and bites you in the rear."

Never let them see you hurt. It's like the time Metzger was lying in a Station 4 bed at 1 a.m. in those weeks when he was just beginning the job. He heard the far-off screech of a car. Then a boom. Then the intercom calling them to the truck.

"We got to the scene five minutes later and saw a classic case of car vs. telephone pole," he said. "The passers-by were dragging what appeared to be a young girl out of the driver's seat. We rushed up and, well, there was nothing we could do. We couldn't even recognize her. It was the first time I'd ever seen that."

With blood on his fingers from the 19-year-old victim, Metzger walked behind the engine, where nobody could see. He pretended he was fooling with a lever. He wasn't. He was crying.

"I felt so bad, and I was so scared somebody would see me," he said. "Then I thought about baseball, and your game face, and it sounds corny, but I went back out there. It worked."

3) You learn patience .

Metzger was signed by the San Francisco Giants in June 1970 as a second-round draft pick from Kennedy High School in Sacramento. It would be four seasons before he advanced past Double-A. It would be six years before he started a season in the big leagues.

That would be 1976, with the Padres, and here's why it was his best year: "Because at that point, I had become obsessed. I had worked too long and hard to screw up. There was no way I wasn't going to make it."

The patience he acquired helped him through his first disappointing attempts at cardiopulmonary resuscitation. In his first few months working fires, Metzger was involved in several attempts at reviving victims using CPR. None of them worked.

"I was convinced that CPR was just something they made up to make people feel better, that it never worked," he said. "Then one day we dragged this old man out of a truck and began working on him. The ambulance came and there was still no sign of life. Then we put him in the back of the ambulance, still working on him, and suddenly I feel a pulse in his neck. He was breathing. He was even looking up at us."

It was the first time Metzger had saved a life.

"I said, 'Yeah!,' " he recalled. "It was like postgame after a great win. I couldn't say anything, I had to remain professional. But I was looking around for somebody to high-five.

"I learned, like baseball, that what you are supposed to do doesn't always work, but that doesn't mean stop doing it. If a changeup is your best pitch, go with it, even though it will get smacked now and then."

4) You learn crowds .

In 1976 with the Padres, Metzger started the season 10-0 with eight saves. The sudden impact so pleased him, on the way to his car after home games he would turn to crowds of timid children and ask them, "Can I give you my autograph?"

One day the following year, in Chicago, pitching only as a set-up guy for Rollie Fingers, Metzger gave up three straight homers. He heard the laughter and jeers. The next day he was traded to St. Louis and, from all those fans who were supposedly his backers, he heard the silence.

"You don't know crowds until you have to run through one to get to a burning house," he said. "People who go to fires are fans, very unforgiving. They'll shout, 'Look at the flame over there, get that flame there!' or 'Do more, can't you do more?' They just don't understand. Just like baseball fans."

And just as inescapable. After fighting one structural fire for 30 minutes in full gear--"And we kicked the fire's butt" said Metzger--Metzger went looking for a nice place to rest. And get sick.

"I found a place, back behind the truck," he said. "Except while I was getting sick, I look up and see 10 people crowding around watching me."

Rookie of the Year is baseball's only award that celebrates not your past, but your future . You win it, people spend 10 minutes talking about what you've done, and 10 years talking about what you're going to do. It's not so much an award as a long-term loan, with repeated payments expected, and plenty of interest due.

"Sometimes during my rookie season, I thought, 'Hey, I'm going to be here a long time,"' said Metzger. "Then other times I would think, 'Damn, are they going to expect me to do this every year?'

"I think there's a real fear there. No good rookie playing now will admit it, but there's definitely a fear. They are all asking themselves, 'Am I lucky? Am I really this good?' "

Only now does Metzger realize the answer.

"Yes," he said. "I was that good."

He grinned. "Maybe it was only for a year. But man, for that year, I was among the best. And nothing can take that away from me."

He finally realized this by sitting with other firefighters in overstuffed chairs in front of a baseball game on the station television set: "On TV, the announcers will mention my name once in a great while, talking about rookies or something, and all the guys will say, 'Wow, that was really you? And I'll think to myself, yeah, they're right, that was me. If only guys could appreciate it while they are playing."

If only guys could see where Metzger plays now. On a couple of summer nights a week, he pitches a few innings in a semipro league for Paragary's Bar and Oven. If a game falls during work, he will use compensation time to make it. "Depending on how much time I am owed, sometimes I can even get there for batting practice," he said.

He can still pitch. On a recent night, against a team of players in their early 20s called The Stars, Metzger came on in relief and threw three perfect innings. He pitched to nine batters, had 31 strikes, 11 balls, four strikeouts.

Up in the metal stands sat his mother, Leona, watching him as she had since rookie league, when she took those 1,200-mile drives to Twin Falls, Ida.

"When he was a little boy, he always said he wanted to be a baseball player and a fireman," she said. "How many little boys get to be both?"

Down below Metzger paced in the dugout. He chewed enough tobacco to make it appear he was suffering from impacted wisdom teeth. He was happy. He was realistic.

"That stuff I threw tonight gets me a butt-kicking in the big leagues," he said afterward. "But . . ." He smiled through a thick sweat. "This ain't the big leagues."

He also plays in a couple of other local leagues--the man is still only 35, remember. Everywhere he goes, the response is the same: "They always yell at me from the bench, 'You ain't nothing, you never pitched in the big leagues.' I just yell back at them, 'Oh, you want to play hardball, huh? Then I start pitching inside.' "

And in some odd way it does seem Metzger's big-league day's have been air-brushed from history. The Padres' media guide, one of baseball's most careful and complete, contains an all-time roster of 280 players. Metzger is not one of them.

Several years ago the Padres sent Metzger a detailed questionnaire that would assist them in planning a poster of all-time Padre greats. Metzger filled it out, sent it in, and received a letter several weeks later.

"They told me thanks, but they weren't going to have room for me on the poster," he said. "At first I was mad, but then, hey, I can understand."

He hasn't attended a Padre game since leaving the team. Since retirement, he hasn't even attended a major league game.

"I just don't think I could enjoy it," he said. "Remember, I used to have the best seat in the house."

A couple of years ago, he and then-fiancee Cyndee visited San Diego for the first time since leaving the team. Metzger arrived at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium in the early afternoon, renewed acquaintances with a security guard, found his way down to an empty field, on to an empty pitching mound. He stood there for a few minutes, then left.

"I asked him, 'Honey, don't you want to stay for the game?"' recalled Cyndee, who recently married Metzger. "He just said no."

It's not that baseball has been bad to him, remember. It's just that the rest of life has been a little more important.

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