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A New Career of Providing Relief : Former Padre Metzger Is Still Called for Help; Now Fights Real Fires

August 18, 1987|BILL PLASCHKE | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The phone rang.

"Help me, help me, my house . . ." cried the woman.

Butch Metzger, who listened to the voice over the intercom of West Sacramento Fire Station No. 1, had been summoned for help before. But not like this.

He had been known as a "fireman," but he now realized how ridiculous that title sounded. Back in 1976, when he was a relief pitcher, the Padres often called him for help, calls he answered 77 times.

He responded so well, going 11-4 with 16 saves and a 2.92 earned-run average, that he was named National League co-Rookie of the Year with Pat Zachry of the Cincinnati Reds. The Padres were so pleased, they called him their Fireman of the Year, and fitted him with a cute plastic hat.

"Please, please," the woman cried. "I'm on fire. I'm on fire."

This was 1982. Metzger had left baseball two years earlier. He'd been a fireman for one month. As the woman's voice faded on the intercom, Metzger strapped himself down in the jump seat behind the cab of Engine No. 1. The truck pulled out onto the bumpy, narrow street. Three and a half minutes later, it pulled up in front of a small house bursting in red and yellow flames.

"There's a person inside," shouted several of the 30 people on the sidewalk.

"Metzger," yelled the captain. "Take the lead."

Metzger entered the flaming house, crouching. He saw colors he never thought were colors. He heard crackling, whining sounds he associated with his worst nightmares.

He tripped over something. He stood up, moved a few feet and tripped again.

He landed on a bed. He pushed himself up, turned his head and came face to face with the remains of what had been a screaming woman and what had been a telephone.

"It looked so bad, it didn't look real," said Metzger, "It looked like somebody had faked it for Halloween. It made me sick. It made me realize, whoa , this is not a game ."

For the first time since 1976, another Padre may be named Rookie of the Year. He is Benito Santiago, a 22-year-old catcher. Barring debilitating injury, he should be a lock for the award. He is hitting .276 and has thrown out 33% (41 of 125) of would-be base-stealers.

"I can't think of anyone else," said Cardinal Manager Whitey Herzog, who has had the last two rookie award-winners, Todd Worrell and Vince Coleman. "Playing every day, producing like he has. Right now, he's it."

"Baseball," Santiago said, "is my life."

The other day at West Sacramento Station No. 1, the Padres' first and only Rookie of the Year pushed down his blackened yellow fire hat. He smiled. Give Butch Metzger 10 minutes alone with Benito Santiago, he'll talk to him about life.

The Padres handed Metzger his award in the winter of 1976. In May 1977, just 17 pitching appearances later, they handed him over to the St. Louis Cardinals.

He had celebrated his award by purchasing a custom home in San Diego. He had to sell it before he spent a night in it. For the first time in history, a Rookie of the Year was traded while virtually still a rookie.

After he appeared in 77 games in 1976, Metzger, 24, pitched just 83 more times in the majors. He bounced from the Cardinals to the New York Mets. He went from the Mets to the Oklahoma City 89ers. Then to to Caracas, Venezuela, in the Inter-American League, a league that shortly thereafter became defunct. He finished his professional baseball career in Richmond, Va., with a minor league coach telling him, "If you don't like it here, you can quit."

So he quit. But the need for the adrenaline rush he found when he took the mound with the bases loaded, the need for a bit of fear, that didn't go away. For two years he searched for other ways to fill that need. One day a buddy told him about firefighting.

He quit his job painting warehouses and took up firefighting. Five years later, this is what he has discovered:

"Going to a fire is like the phone ringing in the bullpen and the hair on the back of your neck standing up. Going to a fire is like, 'Give me the ball.' When that gal was screaming over the phone, it was like, 'I've got to go in there and get her. I've got no choice.'

"You know like what happened on my first few fires? I get there and I'm thinking, ' Hey, I've been here before. ' "

This, then, is what Butch Metzger can tell Benito Santiago about life.

"Players always worry about leaving the game, worried that all they know is baseball," Metzger said. "I'm here to tell you, baseball is all you need to know."

In 1978 for the New York Mets, in his final year in the big leagues, Butch Metzger worked six months for $80,000.

Today, he works 10 24-hour shifts a month. It figures to 46 hours a week. In six months on this job, Butch Metzger makes $13,800.

His job description: sleep 10 nights a month at a fire station, cook ravioli there, pick the weeds there, make the beds, climb up inside 40-foot towers on 100-degree days to clean the hoses.

Then there are the people who need you.

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