Mike Butcher sat alone in his hotel room, waiting for the phone to ring, imploring someone to tell him it was all a mistake, that he could come home now.
He didn’t belong where he was. He was a major league pitcher. He was supposed to be the Angels’ stopper.
Instead, there he was in Vancouver, Canada. He was back in triple A, the minor leagues.
“I was in a state of denial,” Butcher said the other day. “I had a bitter attitude. I didn’t want to be here and didn’t think I belonged here.
“I got a hotel room because I thought maybe I’d just be down here a few days, but after a while, I really didn’t know what they thought of me.”
Who would have imagined that the greatest morale boost the Angels could have provided was not phoning Butcher a week ago?
Butcher, the only Vancouver player who has a major league contract, fully expected a call back to the big leagues last week.
Considering that he earns $150,000 whether he’s in the major leagues or the minors, it seemed financially logical that the Angels would call him up in time for the strike, so they wouldn’t have to pay him.
It happened everywhere else. The Cincinnati Reds called up Rob Dibble. The Colorado Rockies summoned Mike Harkey. The Seattle Mariners called up Torey Lovullo.
“I kind of prepared myself either way,” Butcher said. “If I got called up, it was a business decision. There would have been no hard feelings.
“But man, they left me down here, which shows me a lot.
“The way I figure it, if they didn’t want me, if they really had no plans for me, they’d have called me up for the strike. They must have left me down for a reason. And I can’t tell you how much I appreciate what they did.”
Still, Butcher concedes, it’s an eerie feeling knowing he’s still playing, and being paid, while the rest of his buddies are on strike.
He sat in on all of the Major League Baseball Players Assn. meetings. He was present at the monthly team meetings. He cast his vote, along with the rest of the Angels, favoring a mid-August strike.
“That’s why I have mixed emotions about all this,” Butcher said. “It still feels weird, and I definitely would have preferred staying in the major leagues and going on strike rather than be here.
“I went through the season preparing to go on strike, but now, all of a sudden, it’s like everyone’s on strike but me. You feel kind of funny about it, but then you look at (Albuquerque’s) Jose Offerman, and people wonder what he’s still doing there. I mean, he’s making a lot more money than me.”
If nothing else, the strike should allow Butcher’s Angel teammates to stay in touch with him, but there has been one problem.
Hardly anyone was able to find him.
Butcher, figuring that he will be with Vancouver until the strike ends, or perhaps even until mid-September, when the Pacific Coast League playoffs conclude, moved out of his hotel the other day. He is sharing a cramped apartment with Garret Anderson and Eduardo Perez, and they still have no phone.
But it didn’t stop Angel designated hitter Chili Davis, who telephoned the Vancouver clubhouse from his boat, and summoned Butcher to the phone.
“He kind of rubbed it in, how everyone is on vacation but me,” Butcher said. “I know
they wish they didn’t go on strike, but everyone seems to be enjoying themselves.”
It’s times like these when Butcher is envious, but the cold reality is that if he doesn’t improve during his stint at Vancouver, he may never return to the Angels.
They still are debating what to do with him when the strike ends, and there’s mixed opinion whether he has a future in the organization. The Angels desperately are seeking a closer for the 1995 season, and club officials say they probably will overhaul the entire bullpen.
The only consistent performer has been 35-year-old Bob Patterson, but he is used almost exclusively as a left-handed setup man. The Angels have tried seven relievers in the stopper’s role, and Joe Grahe is the only one who has produced more than two saves.
“I’m not knocking anybody, but we just don’t have anyone that really intimidates a team,” shortstop Gary DiSarcina said. “I remember that feeling when we had (Bryan) Harvey. When we had the lead in the eighth inning, it was over.
“It’s a fear factor, something that goes along with a killer instinct, and it’s been missing all year.”
Butcher was the one man in the Angel bullpen whom hitters feared. Butcher hates the tag of headhunter, but he thrived on intimidation, savoring those moments when batters wondered whether the next pitch was coming at their head or breaking over the plate.
“I love standing on the mound, looking into a hitter’s eyes, and seeing that he’s uncomfortable,” Butcher said. “You’re giving him that crazed look. You’ve got a scared batter. And it’s your game to win or lose.”
That demeanor led the Angels to believe that Butcher could be their stopper. This, after all, is the man who once challenged an entire high school football team to a fight and once punched an opposing minor league manager in the face.
“I’ve never seen my son afraid of anything in my life,” said Butcher’s father, Bob.
So who would have believed that Butcher’s greatest problem would be a lack of confidence?
Butcher, who underwent arthroscopic shoulder surgery last fall, suddenly became passive. His arm was strong, but it was as if he was afraid to challenge batters. He even telephoned Alan Trammell of the Detroit Tigers after one game, apologizing in case Trammell thought he was intentionally trying to hit him.
“I guarantee you, and I’m telling you right now, I’ll never, ever, call up another hitter and say anything to him,” Butcher said. “I don’t need to apologize to anyone.
“I look back now, and I never was myself.
“I kept thinking nobody had any confidence in me, so I lost confidence in myself. I didn’t think I could get so down on myself, but it happened.”
His troubles, Butcher says, can be traced to spring training, when he pitched only 10 1/3 innings. He desperately needed more work, as indicated by the 23 hits he gave up and his 14.81 earned-run average, but the Angels wanted to take all precautions with his arm.
When the season opened, he simply was not ready, and with a 16.62 ERA after six outings, he was sent to Vancouver on April 23. He was back two weeks later, but all was not fine. He was demoted to mop-up reliever within 10 days after Marcel Lachemann was hired May 17, and on July 15 was sent back to Vancouver to stay.
“I really don’t feel I was prepared to start the season,” Butcher said. “And in my mind, I never did get comfortable. . . . I still wish I could have thrown more.
“That hurt me an awful lot.”
Butcher, 28, still is not pitching the way the Angels had hoped when they sent him to Vancouver. He is 1-1 with a 5.03 ERA, yielding 24 hits in 19 2/3 innings, but he has 21 strikeouts.
“He’s starting to get his act together now,” said Gary Ruby, Vancouver’s pitching coach. “People have to remember he’s not an experienced pitcher, and he’s still learning.
“He’s gone through the whole circuit this season, and I think just now he is starting to believe in himself.”
Said Butcher: “I can’t wait for the strike to get over. I want to show (Lachemann) that I’m a big league pitcher. I want to show everybody I can pitch.
“I know I’m a big league pitcher.
“I just have to remind myself now and again.”