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Baseball / Spring Training : Step Back! : Angels’ Butcher Uses Fear to Keep Foes on Their Toes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He was 11 at the time, and absolutely terrified his father was making him do this. Please, let him keep playing third base, he cried. Don’t make him pitch.

“Dad, what if I hit somebody,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt anybody. I can’t do it, I just can’t.”

Bob Butcher refused to listen, ordering his son to the mound and giving him advice that would forever change his life.

“Son, if you hit somebody,” Bob Butcher said, “just go ahead and hit the next batter, too.”

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The boy went out and hit the first batter in the thigh. He plunked the next kid in the ankle. The third one started crying in anticipation of getting hit.

A legend was born.

Mike Butcher no longer is terrorizing the kids in the East Moline (Ill.) Youth League, but as a closer in the Angels’ bullpen, the hitters in the American League will tell you that little has changed.

Why else would New York Yankee pitcher Jim Abbott telephone the Angels’ clubhouse last season, asking Butcher if he intentionally was throwing at teammate Paul O’Neill?

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Why else would Butcher be ejected from a game last June for throwing a curveball over the head of Oakland outfielder Dave Henderson?

Why else would Yankee slugger Danny Tartabull still be looking for his first career hit against Butcher in six at-bats?

“Hey, I’ll be honest,” Tartabull said, “I hate facing the guy. He just makes you feel uncomfortable.

“You don’t know if his next pitch is coming under your chin or over the plate.”

Said Bob Butcher: “I’d be a liar if I thought he’d ever make it as a major league pitcher, but there was never a doubt in my mind that he would be one tough SOB.”

Butcher, 6 feet 1, 200 pounds, was never considered one of the most gifted athletes in his hometown, but his reputation quickly spread. He was the center on his United Township High football team and inside linebacker on defense. He played every minute of every game, until the referees occasionally intervened.

There was the game against Quincy his junior season when he was ejected for chasing an opposing player down the field long after the play was over. “I got clipped,” Butcher said, “so I got mad.”

There was the game his senior season against Moline when he challenged the entire team to a fight. “Maybe I got a little carried away in that one,” he said, “but they were our big rivals.”

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Said Bob Butcher: “It got to be a little embarrassing. He wasn’t always blatant about it, but he was sneaky.

“There would be a pile-up on the field, and all of a sudden, you’d see this hand making into a fist, and going in and out of the pile.

“You’d go, ‘Oh-oh, there’s Mike.’ ”

Said Mike: “I never got the impression that it really bothered my dad. I mean, he’s a retired cop. Now, my mom, that was a different story.

“It was, ‘Now, Mike, you should really calm down. You’re too old to be doing this kind of stuff.’ ”

But it’s this same unabashed aggressiveness that has enabled Butcher to emerge this spring as a candidate to become the Angels’ primary stopper. He won’t dazzle anyone with his array of pitches, but he has the ability to intimidate some of the game’s finest hitters.

“I just love to watch what he does to guys,” Angel shortstop Gary DiSarcina said. “He’s got this mean streak. I mean, we know he’s not going to intentionally throw at somebody’s head, but they don’t know that.

“You just watch them stand up there with their knees knocking together.”

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Said Angel Manager Buck Rodgers: “Believe me, no one digs in at the plate on Butch. If you do, he’ll stick it in your neck. It has nothing to do with being a bean-baller, but everything to do with intimidation.

“Don Drysale, (Juan) Marichal, (Sandy) Koufax, they all had that quality.”

Butcher’s aggression certainly has not always been beneficial to his career. He was released in 1988 by the Kansas City Royals organization for being disrespectful to his double-A manager. A couple of years later, he punched an opposing manager in the face.

Steve Lubratich, who was managing double-A Wichita, remembers screaming at Butcher for knocking down first baseman Guillermo Velasquez on a brushback pitch. He tries not to remember the rest.

“I yelled, ‘If you got something to say to me, come out and say it,’ ” Butcher said.

“As soon as he got on the field, I popped him one. You know something, that started a pretty good brawl.”

This same guy who was without a college scholarship until he thumbed through a phone directory and called North Eastern Oklahoma Junior College, now believes he will be the Angels’ everyday closer.

Butcher won’t promise to erase the memories of Bryan Harvey, but after spending this past winter in Phoenix to rehabilitate his right elbow, he believes that he is the man for the job.

“I’ve worked my (rear) off all winter to get this job,” Butcher said, “and I’m taking the job. I’m telling everybody I’m going to be the closer.

“I’m not trying to be cocky, but I’m taking it, and nobody’s going to stand in my way.

“I’ve never wanted anything so bad in my life.”

The Angels, who love Butcher’s temperament but still are not sure his arm can stand the rigor of an entire season, nearly denied Butcher his opportunity. They made a multiyear offer to free-agent reliever Gregg Olson, only to be spurned in January.

The way Butcher looks at it, the Angels merely saved themselves a lot of money.

“I wouldn’t have blamed them if they got him,” said Butcher, 27, “because he’s a premier closer. But I wouldn’t have been scared competing against him. Hey, I would have enjoyed the challenge.

“I’ve never backed away from anything in my life.”

It’s this self-confidence that sets him apart.

“I love standing on the mound,” Butcher said, “looking into a hitter’s eyes, and see that he’s uncomfortable. I can look into his eyes when he gets into that box, and know right away whether I have him.

“It’s the greatest feeling in the world to have the game on the line, being out on the mound, and having that ball in your hand.

“You’re giving him that crazed look. You’ve got a scared batter. And it’s your game to win or lose.

“Now, man, that’s living.”


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