The Hall of Fame, 90 feet at a time

March 31, 1996|By GEORGE F. WILL

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- It is one of the little civilities that soften life. At end-of-the-season high school sports banquets, coaches always say something nice about everyone, even scrubs. But at Brett Butler's high school baseball banquet in Libertyville, Illinois, this is what his coach said about him: Butler couldn't play for me and he thinks he's going to play for Arizona State.

Monday in Houston, Mr. Butler will dress in Dodger blue and play in his 2,075th major league game.

It is opening day. Twenty-eight teams are unbeaten and it is possible to think that anything is possible, so in the spirit of the season, consider the unlikely career of a ballplayer's ballplayer.

It has been said that baseball is the game you can play even if you you are not 7 feet tall or 7 feet wide. However, most of the men who make it to the big leagues these days are big -- human home runs. Butler is a bunt -- 5 feet 10 inches, 160 pounds. At age 38 he is entering his 16th George F. Will

season and if he plays a few more he will have put up numbers that should get him considered for Cooperstown. Not bad for someone who as a high school freshman was 5 feet tall and weighed 89 pounds.

As a senior he wrestled at 119 pounds, then gained about 30 pounds in 10 days for baseball. For little advantage. He was played sparingly. But having decided he was going to be a major-league player, he decided to go to the university with the best baseball program, which in the mid-1970s was Arizona State.

There, he and 207 other dreamers tried to get into the program as non-scholarship ''walk-ons.'' Mr. Butler was one of eight the coaches kept. He played junior varsity his freshman year and was told that by his junior year he might get a scholarship. But he was out of money so he had to leave school.

''This little guy?''

Back in Illinois he was playing in a fall league when someone from Southeastern Oklahoma State saw him and urged the baseball coach there to give him a scholarship. When he arrived on campus the coach took one look at him and asked, ''This is the guy you recommended -- this little guy here?''

That little guy became a two-time All-American. Still not getting respect, he was drafted by the Braves in the 23rd round, just as a favor to Southeastern's coach. In just two and a half years he went from A ball to the big leagues.

Of the approximately 14,600 people who have played in the big leagues since 1876, only 117 have got more hits than Butler's 2,243. If he plays two more seasons he will rank around 70th, ahead of such Hall of Famers as Pie Traynor and Mickey Mantle.

A leadoff man, which is what Mr. Butler has been most of his career, is supposed to get to first base so the big guys can drive him in, and Mr. Butler has walked to first base 1,078 times. But he does not loiter at first. Only 16 players in major league history have stolen more bases than his 535.

Are you picking up the pattern here? Baseball since Babe Ruth and the end of the dead ball era has featured power hitters producing runs in bunches. Mr. Butler is a reminder of what elegant fun baseball can be when played 90 feet at a time.

A step closer

He is left-handed, so he starts a step closer to first base than right-handed hitters do. Still, it takes impressive skill to lead the league, as he did last year, in the production of what, to the untutored eye, seems unimpressive -- 43 infield hits, 19 of them on bunts. He once got 41 bunt hits in a season. He has 280 in his career. That is a season and a half worth of hits without swinging at the ball. He probably has about four seasons' worth of hits that never left the infield. But as baseball people say, in the box scores 100-foot four-hop hits are indistinguishable from line drives.

Recently after playing seven innings of an exhibition game here Mr. Butler spent an hour working out, part of the time on his back throwing a medicine ball up in the air. With that kind of dedication, you can make serious money hitting singles. Is this a great country or what? Short hits have brought him a long way from Libertyville, which must have had a heck of a high school team that couldn't use him.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/31/96

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