Butler Is a Natural at Top of the Lineup

It was in the seventh inning of a tie game when Brett Butler committed his dastardly act. He hit the first pitch. It rollicked down the right-field line, another inexcusable bit of treachery on his part. Brett Butler's hits are supposed to land in short left--if indeed they leave the infield in the first place.

It drove in a run. Later, he stole third and came home on a hit to build a Dodger lead.

Now, this is grossly unfair to the pitchers' union. For a pitcher, this was behavior barely to be countenanced. It was like seeing St. Francis of Assisi drowning birds, or Mother Teresa showing up at a disco. The Phillies should have protested the game.

It is written in stone that Butler a) never even offers at the first pitch, and b) if he does, he bunts it, and c) either way, it goes to the left side of the field.

Pitchers count on this. In some dugouts, managers post fines for any pitcher who throws anything but a strike on the first pitch to Butler. And woe betide the third baseman who plays deep.

Butler, you see, is a pure leadoff man. Not the careless modern type who completely misunderstands the nature of leadoff hitting. The Rickey Henderson-Tim Raines-types who think the proper way to lead off is with a home run.

No proper leadoff man would have any truck with a home run. Brett Butler has no use for the home run. He hit only one last year and only three the year before that. Brett likes to make more of a production of his runs. He gets them 90 feet at a time, and he has to connive, work, think, dissemble and string them out.

"I'm a throwback," Butler says. "I'm a Richie Ashburn-Wee Willie Keeler-type of leadoff. Rickey Henderson is not a leadoff hitter. He's a three-hole hitter. He hits 21 to 28 home runs a year. Why waste that? I would be on base for him. We'd get two."

Butler never tries to overpower a pitch--or a pitcher. He tries to outsmart him, and it. Every at-bat is a kind of game of liars' poker. There's a lot of bluffing going on.

The modern ballplayer usually leaves the dugout swinging. There are some players so aggressive, they swing at passing butterflies. A pitcher could get two strikes without letting go of the ball.

Not Butler. He makes the pitcher work for his out. Every out is a marathon.

"What a batter has to do up there is, get his pitch," Butler insists. "He has to make the pitcher throw the pitch he can hit. You have to work for that pitcher's mistake and jump on it. You can't do that by swinging at everything that leaves his hand. Impatience has ruined more hitters than the curveball."

Like a riverboat gambler, Butler feels that the more of the other guy's cards he sees, the bigger his advantage. Last year, he was second in the league in pitches looked at and rejected with 2,743. Butler scrutinizes a pitch the way a jeweler inspects a diamond. The slightest imperfection and he passes it up. He should wear a loupe at the plate.

Barry Bonds led the National League in four-base hits last year. But the other BB, Brett Butler, led the league in one-base hits. That's his stock in trade. He lets other guys work the fences. He has led the league in singles four years in a row.

He plays what he calls a "maitre d' " kind of baseball. "I set the table for the guys in the No. 3 and No. 4 hole," he says.

He says this is more important to club morale than a leadoff homer.

"You pull the team along," he said. "You unnerve the pitcher. You start rallies."

Butler comes with first base attached. He reached first 272 times, fifth in the league, last year. He has as many ways to get on base as a burglar has of getting into a bank. He can hit away. He had 147 singles last year. He can bunt his way on. He had 26 bunt hits last year. He had 41 in 1992 and has more than 250 for his career. He can beat out an infield hit. He had 47 last year and 70 in 1992. He leads the league annually in infield hits. He can walk his way on. He had 86 walks last year, fifth highest in the league, and 108 in 1991.

"He does more with less than any player in the game," a rival manager once complained.

They walk Barry Bonds out of fear. Bonds walked 126 times last year, and 43 times the walks were issued intentionally. Brett walked 86 times last year--only once intentionally. Brett has to slicker the pitcher out of his base on balls. Bonds gets them tied with ribbons.

Butler is a throwback, all right. He would have been just as at home playing in 1908, when the ball was a beanbag and the advantage was all the pitcher's.

But his real edge, he feels, is his love for the game.

"I can't wait to get to the ballpark," he says. "I'll tell you something: I'm a fan! When we don't make the playoffs, you'll find me in the seats in Atlanta watching the postseason games. A lot of guys just go home and don't even watch on TV. Not me. I love baseball."

It shows. Butler almost never has a scowl on his face, a curse on his lips. He plays the game like a kid on a sandlot with a new glove.

His dedication was tested this spring. The Dodgers had traded for Delino DeShields, the speedy leadoff man from Montreal who has stolen 187 bases in four years.

Baseball wisdom seemed to call for the younger, speedier DeShields to lead off, Butler to bat second.

But would Butler do it? He has a proud record of 1,128 runs scored as a leadoff man. Wasn't he jealous of his position?

No problem.

"Great idea!" Butler says of DeShields leading off. "That way I can help him, give him a chance to steal! I take a lot of pitches anyway and this would give Delino a great chance to take another base."

So, he would accept the supporting role?

"Listen," Butler says. "I would sell tickets! Whenever I think they took this kid who was under 5 feet tall and weighed 80 pounds in high school and he got put in a big league uniform and played for 14 years and only needs a few hits to reach 2,000, I don't think anybody owes me anything. I owe the game. I play where we win."

As usual, when the Dodgers need a role filled, or a run scored, they ring for their Butler.

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