Former pro digging in
Baseball devotee Rich Butler has realized a number of dreams in his 39 years:
• signing his first professional baseball contract in 1990 with the Toronto Blue Jays;
• making his professional debut with the Jays in 1997;
• hitting his first major league homerun off Scott Eyre on April 1, 1998;
• belting a homer off a pitch from all-star hurler Roy Halladay.
Now, Butler gets to realize one more goal — running a baseball camp in the area where his family roots run deep.
Beginning on Aug. 27, Butler will be conducting the first annual Butler Baseball Elite Camp at the field in Upper Island Cove.
“It’s like realizing another lifelong dream,” Butler said last week of the four-day clinic.
The opportunity came when his wife, Jackie, accepted a permanent job in Upper Island Cove, her hometown.
“He always called me son. I just said, ‘yes Mr. Clemens.’” — Rich Butler
Butler saw a chance to help grow the game of baseball when he accompanied Jackie and their daughter, Carrie Daisy, to the Conception Bay North town.
“I had been wanting to start something here 10 years ago,” he said.
Butler never had the opportunity to do so because his job as instructor at the Homerun Baseball Academy, which he operates with his World Series champion brother Rob Butler, took up so much of his time.
“I was going 12 months-a-year, seven days-a-week,” he said. “I just didn’t have the time.”
With his family in Upper Island Cove, Butler said he would be spending much more time here and hopes to make the permanent move in the near future.
“I ’m going to be here for a month at a time or two months at a time,” he said. “It’s perfect. Now, I can come here and build it.”
Butler had been in contact with Scott Adams, a member of the Conception Bay North baseball executive, about bringing a Butler Baseball camp to the region.
Adams has been a big proponent of baseball for a number of years. He, along with others like Scott Mercer, have helped grow the program over the last number of years.
“To grow, you need people like Scott Adams and Mercer,” said Butler. “And, with Butler Baseball, it’s a perfect fit.”
Since his arrival in Newfoundland and Labrador, Butler has been making the rounds.
He has been in Butlerville, where is father Frank is from, where he has taken some cuts wi t h young softbal lers and recently attended the provincial bantam AA championship game between the CBN Bulldogs and the Gander Pilots.
“I was just amazed at the excitement, the draw, the crowd. It was awesome,” said Butler. “Baseball as a whole in Newfoundland has really taken off.”
The details surrounding the camp were only hammered out recently.
The camp runs from Aug. 2730 and is limited to players as old as bantam. Athletes in the mosquito age group will be going from 10 a.m. to noon, while peewee and bantam athletes run from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Each camp is limited to 16 players and will help players in all facets of the game.
Minor league experience
Butler, of East York, Ont . , signed his first pro contract 1990 with the Jays.
“It was actually kind of scary,” he said. “At that time, there actually wasn’t a lot of Canadians who were in pro ball. There was no one we could talk too, me and Rob.
“It was, like, oh my God, I got to sign this contract and I got to get on the road. I was 17 years old.”
It was also exciting for Butler, who enjoyed the challenge of making it to the big leagues.
“I knew it was going to be tough … pro ball is really tough,” he said. “I only started learning real baseball when I started pro ball.”
Butler started in rookie ball with the Gulf Coast League Blue Jays when he was 18 years-of-age.
The next year, Butler would move to A ball and the Myrtle Beach Hurricanes, where he played with future major leaguers Alex Gonzalez, Christ Stynes and Paul Spoljaric.
He said the minor league experience is close to the one you might f ind in the movie Bul l Durham, about a minor league franchise, the Durham Bulls.
“You have your quirky guys. You have all of these different personalities and characters,” said Butler. “They fight each other, and do weird things.”
He tells one story which could be ripped right from the Bull Durham script. Butler, Alex Gonzalez and Chris Stynes broke into their home stadium in Myrtle Beach and removed the tarp during a rainstorm, flooding the field.
“We did the sliding thing … when the cops came over the hill, we snuck back out,” he said. “They never did find out who did it.”
When his brother Rob was winning a World Series with the Blue Jays, Rich was with the Knoxville Smokies of the Southern League, the Blue Jays AA affiliate.
He said the energy and the excitement from that win, and the one i n 1 9 9 2 , re v e rberat ed throughout the organization.
“We all celebrated,” said Butler. “From rookie ball to AAA. We all sat together watching it on the televisions.”
It took Butler seven years to get to the big leagues because of various injuries.
“I completely tore my shoulder and missed two years,” he said.
In 1997, Butler made his professional debut with the Blue Jays against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium in New York City.
“I still remember not feeling my feet as I was walking out into the stadium and seeing the crowd,” he said. “It was a dream come true, but at the same time it was frightening. It’s almost like I ’m outside myself looking at myself.”
His first major league hit came on Sept. 9, 1997 off Ken Hill.
Butler spent seven games with the Blue Jays in 1997. His locker mate was seven-time Cy Young award winner Roger Clemens, regarded by some as among the greatest pitchers to ever play the game.
“He always called me son,” he said. “I just said, ‘ y e s Mr. Clemens.’”
That winter Butler was left unprotected in the expansion draft and was taken by the Tamp Bay Devil Rays in 1998.
There, he was locker mates with one of his baseball heroes and Red Sox great Wade Boggs.
“He was always talking baseball,” Butler remembers.
It was in a Devil Rays uniform that he hit his first career homerun.
“It was an inside fastball and see you later,” said Butler.
For Butler, there was a difference between the Blue Jays and the Devil Rays.
“Playing on your home turf and being Canadian, there was something extra special about Toronto,” he said.
Butler said his track record speaks for itself, and his program should help the players in CBN.
“We ran a really good program in Ontario, probably one of the tops in Canada,” he said. “They’re going to benefit so much. I really work them out and polish their skills, all through hard work.”
Former major league ball player Rich Butler will be holding his first annual Butler Baseball Elite camp in Upper Island Cove, Aug. 27.
Rich Butler is shown stealing a base during his minor league playing days with the Knoxville Smokies.
Rich Butler is shown in action with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays during the 1998 season.