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THE LEADING MAN : Brett Butler Is the Player Giants Are Counting On to Get Things Started

March 27, 1988|ROSS NEWHAN | Times Staff Writer

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — They played "Tara's Theme" from "Gone With the Wind" each time Brett Butler went to the plate with the Atlanta Braves, whose owner called Butler's wife Scarlett and suggested they name their daughter Ashley.

Butler didn't take Ted Turner up on that, nor did he ever wear a white plantation hat and suit to spring training, after giving it much thought.

He enjoyed the Brett and Rhett Butler byplay in Atlanta but prospered after a move to Cleveland.

Playing regularly during four seasons with the Indians, Butler became one of baseball's top center fielders and leadoff men. No question as to his name. No question that the San Francisco Giants knew who they were getting when they signed him as a free agent Dec. 1.

Having used 12 leadoff hitters while winning the National League's Western Division title last year, the confident Giants consider Butler the missing link.

"He's one of the top leadoff men in baseball and better defensively than anyone we had in center field last year," Manager Roger Craig said, alluding primarily to Chili Davis, now with the Angels.

"We were good last year, but he's the big reason we'll be better this year," Craig said. "He gives us the dimension we never had."

Veteran San Francisco catcher Bob Brenly put it another way. "Brett Butler is definitely a (catalyst). Opposing pitchers know he'll do anything to stir it up. We've seen third basemen play halfway to home in exhibition games and he still bunts it in their face."

As far back as when his boyhood pals chose up sides, Butler has had to overcome the perception that he is too small, that he wasn't good enough. If others view him as arrogant or cocky, well, those are weapons he's had to use.

"There's nothing wrong with being confident if you can back it up," the 5-foot 10-inch, 160-pound Butler said.

"As a kid I had to be flamboyant because I wanted to be noticed. I was always the last one picked when they chose up sides. Then we'd play and I'd be the first one picked the next time. Now I have to be the spark of the club, the table setter.

"If I can get on, steal and score in the first inning, it gives our pitcher a tremendous lift. If arrogance plays a part in it, then I guess I'm arrogant, though I prefer to call it desire. There are guys with more talent, but no one has more desire."

Desire has helped Butler produce:

--A .993 fielding percentage, one of the highest in history.

--A yearly average of 41 stolen bases and 23 bunt hits as an Indian.

--A career batting average of .280, and marks of .346, .351, .273 and .322 with runners in scoring position as an Indian.

--A 1987 average of .295 while finishing fifth in the American League in walks, fifth in triples, seventh in on-base percentage and ninth in steals.

Aggressive? Always. Butler didn't wait to choose up sides last year when Danny Jackson, then of the Kansas City Royals, threw his first two pitches over the leadoff man's head in one game. Butler charged the mound and was eventually suspended for three games, then missed four more with a jammed thumb suffered in the melee.

He was also thrown at in another way after leaving the Indians last winter.

Cleveland catcher Andy Allanson said Butler was a selfish player, interested only in his own statistics.

Butler sat in the Giant clubhouse recently and said, "If Joe Carter or Brook Jacoby had made those comments, guys I'd played with for a long time, I'd have to step back and evaluate myself.

"But how can a guy who's only been in the big leagues for a year and a half say that? How can I take it seriously?

"I set goals that are between me and God, and if I achieve them I help my team win. I've seen Andy Allanson a couple times this spring and talked with him as if nothing happened. I don't dislike the man or boy or whatever you want to call him."

In what became a lamentable trade for the Braves, Butler's first full major league season was interrupted in August of 1983 when he and third baseman Jacoby were traded to the Indians for pitcher Len Barker.

Four years later, Butler isn't among those who tell jokes about Cleveland. His view is that he might have continued as a platoon player or less with the Braves. The Indians, he said, gave him a chance to develop and establish himself. It was a blessing to have been traded there, he said.

"I have only sadness when I think about leaving my friends and teammates in Cleveland," he said.

"If the Indians had offered a 3-year contract, I'd have stayed. But they kept saying, 'Give us another three or four days.' They kept putting me off. It was as if they weren't really interested. Then, after I signed with the Giants, they came out and said I hadn't given them a chance to sign me."

The Indians finally offered a 2-year, $2.8 million contract, but Butler had already decided to accept the same terms from San Francisco, having been rejected by the Dodgers and Braves.

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