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Ready for the Worst : Butler, 36, Says He’s Assuming That Dodgers Won’t Pick Up His Option for Next Season

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s late summer, it’s hot and Brett Butler is finally home for three days and everything is, well, hectic. His kids are back in school, which means his wife will stay here in their sprawling suburban home and he will be alone in Los Angeles for the rest of the season.

“It’s that time of the year where you want to say, ‘See ya, guys, finish off the year without me,’ ” he says. This from a player who hates to sit out a game. He has done so only three times in 129 games this season and five all of last season. But then, the mere thought of Butler on the bench for more than a game could cause an uprising among the players.

“Brett has to play,” Cory Snyder said. “If he stayed on the bench, he would drive the guys crazy.”

Sitting quietly has never been Butler’s favorite activity. In grade school, his teacher had to belt him to his chair.

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“If he was bored he would sit and talk to the wall,” said Dave Hinman, Butler’s best friend since kindergarten. “He will carry on a conversation about anything.”

Butler has thoughts he likes to express, about baseball, about life, sometimes giving advice. But what’s on his mind isn’t always what others have in mind.

“He cares so much about people he can go overboard,” Snyder said. “All I hear is that sometimes he bugs you because he talks too much, but those same guys definitely want him on the team.”

So before this particular game in Atlanta, Butler is staring at the pass list, trying to see what players didn’t use their allotment of tickets. He needs only 14 for this game. Usually when he’s home in Atlanta, he has a lot more friends and family who come to watch him play.

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But how long they will see

Butler in a Dodger uniform is a recent topic for discussion. It’s a question only Fred Claire, Dodger executive vice president, can answer. And with a deadline of Oct. 31 to pick up or give up Butler’s 1994 option, Claire seems to be in no hurry.

So last week, Butler decided it was time to talk with Claire. He said that he wanted to end his career with the Dodgers, and asked Claire about his option.

That figures to be one of the most important decisions Claire will make for next season. Butler’s three-year, $10-million contract ends this year, and Claire has to decide if Butler is worth another year at $3.5 million, or buy him out for $500,000.

“I really didn’t expect him to say yes, but I told him that I’m kind of in a dilemma because I had a chance to go to Israel and the club is talking about a trip to Japan at the same time, and I was trying to get all that out in the open,” Butler said.

Butler also told Claire to pay no attention to rumors that he wants more than a one-year guarantee to stay in Los Angeles.

“I told him I don’t want money to be an issue--if in fact they do pick up this option--for later years down the line, " Butler said. " All I want to know is that I am going to play every day, because, like I have said, when the day comes that I’m not going to play every day, that’s the day I walk away.

“But I told him that if he could tell me before the end of the year, it would help me, because I would like to go into the end of the season knowing if I’m going to be a Dodger or not. Fred said that he wasn’t in the position yet to make the decision, which I respect.

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“So on that note, I’m going into the end of the season, the last 10 days that we are home, as it being the end. As much as I would like to come back, I have no other choice but to think of it that way.”

With a number of outfield prospects waiting for their chance, and the Dodgers in a youth movement, the 36-year-old Butler might be through in Los Angeles. The decision is complicated for Claire, who hasn’t seen enough of Butler’s center-field understudy, Raul Mondesi, to know if he will be ready by next season. What was clear from Mondesi’s first stint in the majors, which ended a month ago, was that he wasn’t ready then.

“We have a significant and an important decision as you have any time when you have that kind of money involved,” Claire said.

“There isn’t anyone who does more things you like to see then Brett Butler. He plays the way you want to see, he prepares the way you would want him to play. I’m just recognizing that at some point we have a decision to make. Brett realizes it, his agent realizes it and we realize that.”

Said Butler: “It has gone through my mind to a degree, the options of what can happen. I play the end of the year out and they don’t pick up my option, then what do I do? They pick it up, then what do I do? But I can’t dwell on it.”

In his three seasons with the Dodgers, Butler has played in all but nine games and maintained a batting average around .300. He has stolen more than 100 bases, led the league in singles and been in the top 10 in the league in walks and on-base percentage. He has not made an error in 226 games and has committed only two errors in his 444 games as a Dodger.

Butler leads the team with 147 hits, the National League with 10 triples and has had a hit or a walk in 104 of his 125 starts.

But for Butler, it’s still not good enough.

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“He’ll never give up,” Hinman said. “We were always the smallest, so he worked very hard to show that he belongs and that his size doesn’t matter.”

When Butler was a high school wrestler, according to his brother, Ben, Brett used to have to eat to try to make weight. But at 5-feet-10, size is no longer a factor.

But age is.

“All (clubs) could find negative about me was my age,” said Ozzie Smith, who, at 38, re-signed as a free agent with the St. Louis Cardinals before this season.

“That’s what they used against me. You are not supposed to be able to do the same job in life after 35. But Brett and I are both blessed with the body and the makeup to play over the age of 35, and we also have the desire and determination to do it. When the good Lord blesses you with the makeup, you don’t take the skills for granted.”

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If there is a predominant theme in Butler’s career it’s that his accomplishments, though duly noted, never seemed to be quite as celebrated as the next guy’s. He is a player more likely to be missed after he’s gone. Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox was one of the first to notice Butler’s talent.

“In the minors, he was this little guy, so he wore wristbands up to his elbows and made funny little moves and stuff, anything to get noticed,” Snyder said. “It was Bobby Cox who saw something he liked in Brett and gave him the chance. That’s what everybody needs, is a chance.”

Despite Butler’s fielding abilities, he has never won a gold glove. In five of his 12 major league seasons, he has made two errors or fewer, and in two of those seasons, he made no errors. Scott Smith of Rawlings Sporting Goods, which issues the award, says that Butler finished in the top 10 in voting last season, but barely. Still an accomplishment, but not an award.

“It is not a statistical award or based on defensive stats,” Smith said. “The award is voted on by managers and coaches who are asked to pick the three outfielders in their league who are the best defensive players. Managers are not allowed to vote for their own players.”

Last season Andy Van Slyke, Larry Walker and Barry Bonds ran away with the outfielder awards. No player came within 20 votes of them and there are only 70 cast.

“I have wondered for years why he hasn’t won one,” Snyder said. “He plays hard every day. He reminds me of me--he goes all out for balls. Maybe it’s because we don’t make the great diving catches. With Brett, he’s got great speed, so he gets to them before he has to dive, and I have a good sense of the ball so I’m there. But we have no control over that.”

Butler was unnoticed as a high school player, but after playing well in a summer semi-pro league, he received an offer from Southeastern Oklahoma State University. He earned two All-American awards. But the scouts weren’t swarming, and as a favor to his coach, he was chosen in the 23rd round of the June draft in 1979.

“The Braves’ scout recommended me, more or less, as a favor to my college coach,” Butler said. “Then when the scout walked into my house and I asked for a $5,000 bonus, he turned to walk out. I grabbed him before he could leave and signed for $1,000.”

More than 15 summers later--12 of them in the major leagues--Butler is in no hurry to retire from baseball, even though his wife, Eveline, has his retirement party planned.

“Not because I want to get out of the game, or because she wants me to, but because I am a realist,” Butler said. “Everybody I have ever talked to is not prepared to get out of the game. I want to be prepared. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to play until I’m 41 or 42.

“But I will not go the way of Gary Carter or some other players who just hang on. I can’t be a platoon player. I just can’t sit. That will be my last year. I’ll retire or try and start new somewhere else.”

When Butler signed with the Dodgers in 1991, he was described by Manager Tom Lasorda as the “final piece to our puzzle.”

Now, he might be merely an extra piece.


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