September 19, 2012
Reading Lolita in Durham
DBAP/ DURHAM—Brett Butler is probably best known to you as one of the premiere leadoff hitters of his decade, roughly 1983-93. He ranks 25th all-time in stolen bases (less than 30 shy of Maury Wills), and is tied for 78th in career triples (131) with… Joe DiMaggio? Yep. You could look it up.
Maybe you’re an Atlanta Braves or Cleveland Indians fan. In that case, Brett Butler is the main guy (Brook Jacoby and Rick Behenna were the others) traded after the 1983 season from the Braves to the Indians for Len Barker. That one pops up on numerous “most lopsided trades ever” lists, even though Barker had thrown a perfect game in 1981. To add insult to injury, the Braves also gave the Indians $150,000.
Or you know Butler as the guy who came back from throat cancer and played in a game just four months later. Or as the player who, in the 1989 Earthquake Series as a San Francisco Giant, is reported to have said, as the ground shook: "Somebody's trying to shake us up. All right, Lord, I heard ya!" Or even as the answer to this trivia question: Who is the first batter Roger Clemens ever faced?
Less likely is that you know Brett Butler as nothing more or less than the manager of the Reno Aces, the Triple-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Reno franchise has existed only since 2009, and Butler has been the Aces’ skipper since day one.
As for me, I know Brett Butler as the first player I ever saw who clued me in on the difference between a minor leaguer and a major leaguer. I was a kid when Butler played for the Durham Bulls in 1980, the Bulls’ first year of operation after an 11-year period of dormancy in which there was no Bull at all in Durham. They were a Class-A Braves affiliate when they returned, managed by the legendary Dirty Al Gallagher. Butler was promoted to Durham from low-A mid-season and proceeded to hit .366 in Durham, post a perfectly ludicrous .513 OBP, steal 36 bases in 66 games (and be caught 15 times) and play with the kind of aggressive, assured intensity and skill of a surefire big leaguer.
In retrospect, that’s pretty amazing. Butler was no bonus baby, a 23rd-round draft pick in 1979 out of Southeastern Oklahoma State, not exactly an elite program (although it did produce another great athlete, Dennis Rodman). Yet he played like a superstar-to-be for the Bulls, by far the brightest light on a team that went 84-56. His teammates included Behenna, who nearly threw a no-hitter in the Bulls’ second home game of the year; (Royal) Albert Hall, who made Butler’s 36 stolen bases look piddling compared to his 100 (!) swipes; and Joe Cowley, who is famous for being the only guy in history to throw a major-league no-hitter and then never win another game.