THE LEADING MAN : Brett Butler Is the Player Giants Are Counting On to Get Things Started
They played “Tara’s Theme” from “Gone With the Wind” each time Brett Butler went to the plate with the Atlanta Braves, whose owner called Butler’s wife Scarlett and suggested they name their daughter Ashley.
Butler didn’t take Ted Turner up on that, nor did he ever wear a white plantation hat and suit to spring training, after giving it much thought.
He enjoyed the Brett and Rhett Butler byplay in Atlanta but prospered after a move to Cleveland.
Playing regularly during four seasons with the Indians, Butler became one of baseball’s top center fielders and leadoff men. No question as to his name. No question that the San Francisco Giants knew who they were getting when they signed him as a free agent Dec. 1.
Having used 12 leadoff hitters while winning the National League’s Western Division title last year, the confident Giants consider Butler the missing link.
“He’s one of the top leadoff men in baseball and better defensively than anyone we had in center field last year,” Manager Roger Craig said, alluding primarily to Chili Davis, now with the Angels.
“We were good last year, but he’s the big reason we’ll be better this year,” Craig said. “He gives us the dimension we never had.”
Veteran San Francisco catcher Bob Brenly put it another way. “Brett Butler is definitely a (catalyst). Opposing pitchers know he’ll do anything to stir it up. We’ve seen third basemen play halfway to home in exhibition games and he still bunts it in their face.”
As far back as when his boyhood pals chose up sides, Butler has had to overcome the perception that he is too small, that he wasn’t good enough. If others view him as arrogant or cocky, well, those are weapons he’s had to use.
“There’s nothing wrong with being confident if you can back it up,” the 5-foot 10-inch, 160-pound Butler said.
“As a kid I had to be flamboyant because I wanted to be noticed. I was always the last one picked when they chose up sides. Then we’d play and I’d be the first one picked the next time. Now I have to be the spark of the club, the table setter.
“If I can get on, steal and score in the first inning, it gives our pitcher a tremendous lift. If arrogance plays a part in it, then I guess I’m arrogant, though I prefer to call it desire. There are guys with more talent, but no one has more desire.”
Desire has helped Butler produce:
--A .993 fielding percentage, one of the highest in history.
--A yearly average of 41 stolen bases and 23 bunt hits as an Indian.
--A career batting average of .280, and marks of .346, .351, .273 and .322 with runners in scoring position as an Indian.
--A 1987 average of .295 while finishing fifth in the American League in walks, fifth in triples, seventh in on-base percentage and ninth in steals.
Aggressive? Always. Butler didn’t wait to choose up sides last year when Danny Jackson, then of the Kansas City Royals, threw his first two pitches over the leadoff man’s head in one game. Butler charged the mound and was eventually suspended for three games, then missed four more with a jammed thumb suffered in the melee.
He was also thrown at in another way after leaving the Indians last winter.
Cleveland catcher Andy Allanson said Butler was a selfish player, interested only in his own statistics.
Butler sat in the Giant clubhouse recently and said, “If Joe Carter or Brook Jacoby had made those comments, guys I’d played with for a long time, I’d have to step back and evaluate myself.
“But how can a guy who’s only been in the big leagues for a year and a half say that? How can I take it seriously?
“I set goals that are between me and God, and if I achieve them I help my team win. I’ve seen Andy Allanson a couple times this spring and talked with him as if nothing happened. I don’t dislike the man or boy or whatever you want to call him.”
In what became a lamentable trade for the Braves, Butler’s first full major league season was interrupted in August of 1983 when he and third baseman Jacoby were traded to the Indians for pitcher Len Barker.
Four years later, Butler isn’t among those who tell jokes about Cleveland. His view is that he might have continued as a platoon player or less with the Braves. The Indians, he said, gave him a chance to develop and establish himself. It was a blessing to have been traded there, he said.
“I have only sadness when I think about leaving my friends and teammates in Cleveland,” he said.
“If the Indians had offered a 3-year contract, I’d have stayed. But they kept saying, ‘Give us another three or four days.’ They kept putting me off. It was as if they weren’t really interested. Then, after I signed with the Giants, they came out and said I hadn’t given them a chance to sign me.”
The Indians finally offered a 2-year, $2.8 million contract, but Butler had already decided to accept the same terms from San Francisco, having been rejected by the Dodgers and Braves.
Butler said he was interested in Los Angeles because of a latent desire to try acting and was interested in returning to Atlanta because he makes his winter home in Duluth, Ga.
“I never considered the Giants because I thought they had a set team,” he said. “But they were persistent all the way. They showed interest from the start.”
The Giants, of course, considered Butler a replacement--and more--for Chili Davis.
Butler, 30, considered his signing with the Giants to represent a homecoming of sorts. He was born in Los Angeles and spent most of his adolescent years in Fremont, a town on the Southeast Bay.
“I went to Candlestick Park about a half-dozen times a year,” he said. “My idol, of course, was Willie Mays, but I remember guys like Jim Davenport and Juan Marichal and Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda. It’s almost like I grew up with the team. It’s like I’ve come full circle.”
There are some who wouldn’t have believed it, some who only looked at Butler’s size and gave him little hope of emulating idols Mays and Pete Rose--a superstar blend of talent and desire.
“I remember how people described Willie Mays’ glove as a place where triples died and I dreamt that someday they’d say that about me,” Butler said.
They seemed to be dreams only. He attended high school in Illinois and was told by the coach that he wasn’t good enough or big enough to start. He spent a year on the junior varsity at Arizona State and has since heard varsity Coach Jim Brock say he never even knew Brett Butler was in school there.
He transferred to Southeastern Oklahoma State and was an All-American in the National Assn. of Intercollegiate Athletics, which hardly impressed the scouts. He was drafted by Atlanta in the 23rd round and signed for $1,000. He was drafted, he said, only because the scout, Bob Mavis, was a friend of his coach, Don Parham, and was willing to do him a favor.
All of that, of course, fueled his desire and served as a motivation.
“I was a late bloomer,” Butler said. “I wasn’t good enough in high school. I respect the coach for telling me that and I’ve told him so. I’ve also told him that he became a driving force in my life. I wanted to prove to him I could play.”
Butler brought to the challenge that desire and cockiness essential to the underdog and leadoff man.
He was, he said, hyperactive from the start, a kid who would feign sickness in mid-class merely so he could run through the halls, releasing energy.
“I can’t be complacent and laid back or I don’t play well,” he said. “If I don’t get nervous, if my hands aren’t cold and sweaty before a game, I’m not going to play well. I’m still hyperactive and I think that helps in my particular role.”
It has obviously helped, but he has never won a Gold Glove or an All-Star appointment that he would seem to have deserved.
He smiled and said, “Sometimes things happen that you don’t understand. But as long as I have the respect of my peers, that’s all I want.”
He will also have the limelight that was missing in Cleveland. Of the responsibility that accompanies it, he said, “I’m just 1/24th of the team. I can only do my part.”
The particular part that the Giants hope Butler will address and correct is their lack of success on the bases. They converted only 57% of their steal attempts last year, the poorest percentage in the majors and a galling statistic for Craig, a devotee of the stolen base, the hit and run.
The manager smiled and said he will definitely have his new leadoff man on the move. He said that 50 steals represents a modest goal.
One thing is certain: It will be Brett and not Rhett Butler in the re-runs.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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