Midlife Crisis : Even Though He's Hitting .309, Brett Butler Worries That He's Getting Older but Not Better

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The aging process of a baseball player affects more than the hamstrings, although Brett Butler has one in his left leg that recently gave him as much trouble as a toothache.

The aging process affects more than the back, although Butler recently woke up so sore from a collision with a fence that he spent 15 minutes standing motionless under a hot shower.

The aging process, which creeps up like a surprise winter storm on this sport of endless summers, also affects the mind.

This is the battleground for Butler's latest fight.

As the Dodgers' losing ways begin to get old, he sees himself getting old, and he doesn't like it.

Before the start of a weekend series with the New York Mets tonight, he is the Dodgers' leading hitter with a .309 average. He ranks second in runs scored with 13, and is second in the league with four triples.

But Butler, who will turn 35 next month, does not consider those statistics as he sits in his hot tub early mornings after night games, unable to sleep.

He thinks about his .160 average with runners in scoring position, down from his team-leading .309 average in those situations last year.

He thinks about his three stolen bases, which put him on a pace for a career-low 20.

He knows that there are several 35-and-over position players in the game who are thriving--Dave Winfield,

George Brett and Robin Yount. But he also knows that, unlike those players, he makes his living on speed and quickness.

"So I know when my legs go, I go," Butler said.

He thinks so much about these things that teammates, who look to him as their leader, have started thinking.

"I've had a couple of guys come up to me and say, 'Brett, you're the spark of the team, but that spark has been missing the last couple of days. Is something wrong?' " Butler said. "And I know, I haven't sparked the club in a way I'm capable of doing."

He added: "Then I caught myself talking about being old and I told myself, 'C'mon, do you really think you are old? Do you act old? Then stop thinking about it!' "

But he has been depressed at times. Manager Tom Lasorda even phoned him at home after one game to offer encouragement. And Fred Claire, vice president, shook his head when he spotted Butler in the dugout mourning a loss.

"I've talked to him about it and said, 'Brett, you are fine,' " Claire said. " 'You are doing everything we want you to do.' "

Eric Davis, who saw several players age with the Cincinnati Reds, knows about the dangers of thinking old. He has told Butler, in essence, to knock it off.

"The problem starts when you think you are old," Davis said. "Once your mentality dies, once you are no longer feisty, then yes, you are classified as old. And Bugsy (Butler) isn't like that.

"One of Bugsy's biggest problems is that he is too critical of himself. Now that he's getting up in years, that's getting worse."

That was evident in Wednesday's 3-1 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies.

Butler had two hits, one of them his fifth bunt single this season. He stole a base and scored the eventual winning run.

But in the first inning, after Butler had a great jump on a steal attempt, Lenny Harris fouled off the pitch and Butler went back to first. Moments later, running again, he was caught off first on a line drive to shortstop Dale Sveum.

Butler was so far off base that instead of trying to return to the bag, he leaped and futilely swatted at the double-play throw by Sveum.

Seven innings later, with runners on first and third and two out, he was called out on strikes after throwing down his bat and beginning his ball-four trot to first. For the first time in recent memory, he argued with an umpire.

"Some of the things that happen just ache at me," Butler said. "I've got to be more of a threat to other teams. How? I don't know."

The Dodgers don't know, either.

"Sometimes I think Brett tries to pick up more than his load," Claire said.

Butler feels more of the load is his, however, since the departure of team leaders Eddie Murray and Alfredo Griffin, particularly Murray.

Butler was one of Murray's closest friends on the team. They would spend hours discussing the old ways of playing, then would go out and set good examples.

Now among the everyday players, there are only Butler and catcher Mike Scioscia to fill that role.

"I miss Eddie's leadership," Butler said. "I miss the old-school atmosphere that he brought. Sometimes I feel like more of a player-coach around here than a player."

He remembers participating in a group joke during spring training and hearing one of the younger players say, "I can't believe you are laughing with us. You're supposed to be 'the man.' "

Claire said Butler may be trying too hard.

"In their own way, Eddie and Alfredo each brought great leadership qualities to us, and Brett has the awareness that they are not here," Claire said. "I think he tries to do more in that area than he needs to do. You still have to play, you still have to just go on the field and let it flow."

Butler said it is harder now for him to flow anywhere.

"I remember in Cleveland, I used to see Phil Niekro and Andre Thornton sitting in the whirlpool before games and say, 'Look at you old guys!' " Butler said. "They said, 'Just wait.' And they were right. Now I am one of those old guys."

For a while, Butler was thinking about growing a mustache, but decided against it.

"Who knows?," he said. "It might have come in gray."

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