The third-grade teacher phoned the Butler home in Duluth, Ga., saying she wanted to meet with the Butlers because their 10-year-old son was struggling.
“She told me that Blake was really worried about his dad and it was affecting him in school,” Eveline Butler said of that conversation three weeks ago.
“Blake told her, ‘My dad is going to leave soon. I don’t want him to leave again. He might get sick. What if he gets sick again? I don’t want him to die.’ ”
Brett Butler is trying to play one final season for the Dodgers with a body that has been assaulted by cancer. He is trying to become only the fourth center fielder since the turn of the century to play at age 40. And he must put up with the emotional consequences.
“Let’s face it,” Butler says. “There is a little selfishness of me trying to come back another year. But I feel I have to do it. I have to give it a try.
“I sat down with Blake and the rest of the family and explained that everything would be all right. I’m not going to do something that will hurt me. Really, I’ll be OK.
“They understand, but I think deep inside, they still think I’m going to die.”
It would be easy, and quite convenient, for Butler to walk away. He doesn’t need the fame or money. He has already defied the odds, simply by returning last season.
Yet, Butler feels almost as if it’s a moral obligation to give this a shot.
The Dodgers desperately need him as a leadoff hitter and center fielder but there is much more than baseball going on here.
This is about receiving 180,000 letters--one from singer Elton John--in the nine months since his cancer of the tonsils was diagnosed. This is about the phone ringing incessantly, with cancer patients seeking advice. This is about people telling him that his proclaiming his religious beliefs is responsible for turning around their lives.
Butler’s story has 20 publishing companies vying for book rights and he soon will sign with a production company for a movie.
“I always thought it was too vain to do a book or a movie,” Butler said. “But this thing is bigger than me. The warmth and support has been overwhelming.
“Look at all of the people who prayed for me. Look at all of the letters. People say I’ve given them strength to do things. People have reevaluated their lives. People have accepted Christ in their life.
“You see, I can have more of an impact now than I’ve ever had. I can educate people. I can be a disciple for the kingdom of God. When I go to the pearly gates, God isn’t going to care that I was a lifetime .290 hitter. He’ll want to know whether I made a difference.
“I really would love to make a difference.”
Butler peers into the mirror, gently strokes his face, probing for anything unusual. He stares at the scars that start just below the right earlobe. One runs down the right side of his neck, stopping eight inches later at the collarbone. The other jets across his neck.
“I look like a filet of fish,” Butler said.
These are the souvenirs of his cancer, the one that left him helpless and wondering if he would die.
Butler does not feel rage, anger or even sorrow. He shuts eyes, bows his head, and thanks God for keeping him alive another day.
“You have to understand,” Butler says, almost in a whisper. “I’ve been blessed having cancer. Sure, I know I could have died. The cancer could still come back. But there was a reason for all of this.
“I think if I wouldn’t have gotten sick, there might have been kind of a remembrance of the strike and being one of the 12 [players] on the negotiating committee.
“But because of this, more than anything else I’ve done, just the tenacity and the drive of coming back from all of the adversity is what they’ll remember.”
Indeed, long forgotten is that August evening in 1995 when nearly 50,000 fans booed Butler for his views and comments on bringing up strike-replacement player Mike Busch. Butler was acting as a team spokesman and took the brunt of the fans’ anger.
“I hated to be booed that night,” he said. “But I think the fans weren’t necessarily mad at me, but all of baseball. I have no regrets. I took Mike Busch aside and explained it had nothing to do with him. He understood.
“I’m a black-and-white kind of guy, and this was just a matter of union principle.”
That is why Butler has no qualms about irritating, or even angering, his teammates occasionally. When Butler sees someone acting irresponsibly or treating the game without respect, he doesn’t hesitate to articulate his thoughts.
“Some of the things I see going on in baseball now drive me crazy,” he said. “The money in baseball has gotten out of control.
“And I can’t believe some of the things I’m seeing. I couldn’t believe the [Roberto] Alomar [spitting] incident. And he’s not suspended? Come on.
“I don’t care if you respect me, but respect the game.”
It is Butler’s respect for baseball that prompts him to say he has no desire to play this season if he cannot be a contributing, everyday player.
He debated all winter whether he should attend spring training. He told Paul Molitor of the Minnesota Twins during his Christmas vacation that he was calling it quits.
Then he thought about Don Mattingly, who retired one year too early and missed the New York Yankees’ World Series. He thought about Dale Murphy, who was traded by Atlanta just before they won their World Series. He had to at least give himself a chance.
“We used to tease him this winter and ask, ‘What’s it going to be today?’ ” Eveline said. “One day he said he wanted to play. Another day he said he would retire. It got to be a standing joke.
“Even when he said he would come back, I figured he’ll come to spring training for a few weeks, and then come home. But now, he even has me convinced.”
Butler has been given full medical clearance. He has had six checkups since the end of last season, one an MRI three weeks ago. There has been no trace of cancer. His biggest obstacle is that his saliva glands still do not work. He drinks about five gallons of water a day to compensate, and dares not to venture far away from the nearest water bottle.
“I see no evidence of anything at this point that could keep him from going on,” said Robert Gadlage, his personal physician. “I mean, look at what happened last year. He had surgery on May 21 and he was back within four months. I couldn’t imagine somebody that one month after radiation treatments, with the amount of devastation it does to the human body, could do what he did.
“He amazed all of us.”
It’s still too soon to say that the cancer is gone for good. There is an 80% chance that it will return within the first year, so If it has not returned by May 21, the anniversary of Butler’s surgery, there can be a mini-celebration.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Eveline said. “But until May 21, we’re still all waiting and holding our breath. Then, we can celebrate.
“Believe me, it’s been a tough year, a long year. It’s still hard to look back. Having to relive that is very difficult, very emotional.”
Butler hopes those painful memories will give way to satisfying recollections of his final season. He fully anticipates being ready. He has even requested special turtlenecks to hide his scars.
His dream is to be wearing one of those turtlenecks next October in New York, Toronto, Seattle, whichever American League city the World Series is being played in. He would win a championship, announce his retirement, go skiing for the first time in his life, and then off on a 12-day vacation in Israel.
Yet, he will be defying the odds. He will be 40 in June. The only 20th century center fielders who played 80 games when they were 40 were Johnny Cooney of the 1941 Boston Braves, Doc Cramer of the 1945 Detroit Tigers and Willie Mays of the 1971 New York Mets.
And is Hollywood ready for a 40-year-old baseball player starring as himself in his life story?
“My wife already has it figured out,” Butler said. “She wants Tom Cruise to play me in the movie, and she would play herself.
“I told her Tom Cruise is right-handed and he’s bigger than me.
“You know what? She doesn’t seem to care.”