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Every Day Is Father’s Day : Family Is Close to Dodgers’ Brett Butler, Even When It’s Across Country

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s about a $40 cab ride from the heart of Atlanta to the Butlers’ home in nearby Duluth, a beautiful two-story traditional in a cluster of estate-like houses just beyond the Chattahoochee River. Not a mansion by any means, and not as nice as the house they are building with retirement in mind, although retirement is not really on Brett Butler’s mind. At least not until the family votes him out.

There is a baseball bat lying on the edge of the front lawn, giving the house some visual separation from the rest on the block. But inside, it appears to be ordinary life on a Saturday afternoon.

There is a huge family room and television downstairs, but Blake, 6, is in the corner of the kitchen lying on a converted bench, watching cartoons on a 13-inch color television. Over near the food cupboard, Brett, just home from taking his four children to the pool, is explaining to Abbi, 12, and her friend, Sarah, that yes, they can have some chips, but if they don’t eat their lunch, he will not be happy.

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In the Florida room, which in California would be called the living room, lies the evidence that this family is truly different. In piles everywhere are clothes, neatly folded and stacked. In two days, Eveline Butler, her four children, two dogs and 11 suitcases will make their pilgrimage back to Los Angeles for the summer, so they can be with Brett and live together as a family for 10 weeks. Stefanie, 10, and Katie, 9, are their other two children.

“I have tried it every way, putting the kids in school in both places, Atlanta in the winter and in the city Brett plays in during the summer,” Eveline said. “I have hired tutors, even home schooled them. But we decided a couple of years ago that the best way was to keep them in Atlanta at home during school, and then join Brett when school lets out.

“When Brett first started playing, we thought it would be a couple years and it would be over. I mean, you think about it, he was a 23rd-round draft pick and not a home run hitter. I always said to him, I love you, I will follow you everywhere, just never to Cleveland. Well, God has a good sense of humor, doesn’t he?”

After two seasons with the Braves, Butler was traded to the Cleveland Indians before the 1984 season. The trade came as a shock, since Butler’s only full season with the Braves, 1983, was successful. But there they were, two years after they were married, living in Cleveland for four years, then in San Francisco for three, and now Duluth and L.A.

“I told him he would get the first 10 years, and I would get the second 10, and I kid him that he’s on my time now,” Eveline said. “Audrey Chambliss (Chris Chambliss’ wife) said to me as this little rookie wife, ‘If you remember two things, you will do OK. First of all, it’s a business, and second, don’t ever take anything personally.’ ”

Near the end of last season, the Dodgers had a $3.5-million option to keep Butler another year, and they picked it up. With the minor league outfielders still unproven, with Darryl Strawberry’s status uncertain and the departure of Eric Davis, Butler represented stability and productivity. He batted around .300 most of the year, more than satisfied his role as the leadoff hitter and again, played an errorless center field.

This season, he is putting up All-Star numbers, even hitting home runs. He is batting .322 with 77 hits, 45 runs, three home runs, 44 walks and shares the league lead with seven triples. But there is no option remaining on his contract, though the Dodgers have several options of their own. Raul Mondesi, who played center field until this season, is proven, and there is more outfield talent at the club’s triple-A team in Albuquerque than in any other area.

“As long as I’m producing and living up to expectations, I want to play as long as I can,” said Butler, 37. “Not in a platoon situation, though, because if I am not an everyday player, that will be it. If we get toward the end of the season and they tell me that they want to start playing the young kids because they have no desire to keep me, then I will send the word out and see if anybody else wants me. But I would like to finish in L.A.”

Butler is staunch about not being a reserve, and his teammates would agree, if only because he talks so much that there would be an uprising on the bench.

“The other day when I wasn’t playing I must have really been talking because Jeff Treadway said, ‘Hey Brett, there’s a call for you in the restaurant,’ ” Butler said.

“The restaurant is three levels up, way down the first base line in right field.”

But the decision of whether Butler remains with the Dodgers isn’t only the club’s. Last year, when the team told him they wanted him back for the 1994 season, Butler held a family meeting.

“He told the kids if they wanted him to retire, he would or he would keep playing, whatever the family wanted,” Eveline said. “Then we took a vote. The three girls voted for him to keep playing, they said they love to watch him play and they knew he loved it, and they like to go to the park. I voted for him to keep playing too. Only Blake voted against it.”

*

Living in Atlanta and having a father who plays for the Dodgers has its drawbacks. One winter, Butler said the school bus pulled up and Abbi and Katie were in tears.

“I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ And Abbi said, ‘Daddy, the kids are saying the Dodgers (stink) and you are no good.’ Then Stefanie came in, and she was mad. I said, ‘What did you do, Stefanie?’ She said ‘Daddy, I went up to Johnny, or whatever the kid’s name was, and shook my fist and said, ‘We’re rich. And if I hear one more word from you I am going to punch you out.’ ”

Butler tries to keep life as normal for his children as he can. When he goes to school functions, the other students have come to learn that he is there as a father, not as a baseball player. You can find him playing squirt hose with the neighborhood kids, a method also used to curtail curiosity on the street.

“When I was with the Braves, the kids in the neighborhood used to come to my door constantly and ask for autographs, so I decided to fix the situation,” Butler said. “I went out and started playing with them, and they no longer asked for autographs, then they started coming to the door and asking if I could play.

“One night we were playing kick the can, and my neighbors were leaving in their car, and the woman said to her husband, ‘Honey, that big kid is going to hurt somebody.’ And he said, ‘Honey, that big kid is Brett Butler.’ ”

Whenever she can, Eveline takes the children to Brett’s games, and, when she can’t, she watches any baseball game to get information on how the Dodgers are doing. They talk on the phone every day, sometimes twice, and she and Brett try to not to go more than 10 days without seeing each other. Since the season started, she has packed up the kids four times and flown to the city Brett is playing in on the weekend.

“I don’t really like it when people say, ‘So, what do you do all day?’ like I don’t do anything,” Eveline said. “Halle Berry (Dave Justice’s wife) was quoted in an article talking about how tough can it be to be a baseball wife, when all they do is sit in the stands and look pretty. She has no idea what it’s like. She’s off being an actress. Well, that’s not what I do.

“I am not embarrassed because I am not a professional, this is my job, and this is what I do. I know plenty of women who got divorces from players and I have no ego about not using my education to be a professional. I admire women who can work and raise a family.

“One day, Blake looked across the table at me and said, ‘Mom, are you ever going to get a job?’ I said, ‘Blake, you don’t think what I do is a job?’ ”

The children say they don’t mind living in two places, although Eveline says it’s getting a little tougher for Abbi, who, at 12, wants to hang out more with her friends in Atlanta during the summer.

“The kids don’t really know any other way of life than this,” Eveline said. “It’s always been this way for them. And sometimes when we are home for an extended period of time, they will come to me and say, ‘Isn’t it time we go on a trip?’ ”

*

When Butler was with the Braves, he used to look at teammate Jerry Royster and ask him, “Do you ever think I will make as much money as you?” Royster made $400,000.

“Financially we are well set, and we can live in the same style as we do now, even if I quit playing,” Butler said. “We often talk about what we are going to do when I retire, but we really don’t have to do anything. About a month ago, Al Campanis approached me and told me to stay in the game. He asked me what I wanted to do when I’m not playing, and I told him I want to run a club.”

This season, though, the value Butler places on family has been strengthened, if that is possible. Two weeks ago, doctors discovered that Butler’s mother, Betty, has cancer and treatment is ongoing. Butler missed a game to be with his mother during surgery, and joined the team two days later in Atlanta, looking a little worn.

“My relationship with God, and the earthquake in San Francisco in ’89 is what changed my perspective on the game and its importance,” said Butler, who was at Candlestick Park during the earthquake during the World Series. “If Candlestick Park would have gone down, I would have lost everyone in my family, except for my children. My mother and my relatives, Eveline, my friends, they were all there. There was so much that was destroyed, it put perspective that baseball is just a game, and there is so much more that is important in life. And I think what happened with my mother has made that feeling even stronger.”

Butler’s 14 seasons in baseball are chronicled in his home. A Leroy Neiman original hangs in his study, depicting Butler coming out of the batter’s box in a Dodger uniform. The game was against the New York Mets, and Neiman just happened to be present at one of the few times in Butler’s career when he has hit a home run.

“Every time I get back home, I don’t want to leave,” Butler said.

On his desk is a gold glove, given to him by a friend after Butler went 161 games without an error one season and still didn’t win the award. “God’s Gold Glove,” it’s named. Butler has never won a Gold Glove.

Remembering how it was supposed to be, a caricature of Butler, Davis and Strawberry hangs on the wall, the outfield that could have taken L.A. by storm, but, except for Butler, created one instead.

His jerseys are hung in another room--Cleveland, Atlanta, San Francisco. But there is one missing.

“I’m going to wait to hang L.A.” he says.


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