The Dodgers ended their long search for a center fielder and leadoff hitter late Friday by agreeing to a contract with new-look free agent Brett Butler, a 5-foot-10 player who adds considerable size to their championship hopes.
Butler confirmed the deal about 8:30 p.m. PST, but three hours later the Dodgers had not made an announcement.
Said Butler from his Atlanta home: "Yes, sir, I am now signed with the Dodgers. I can't tell you how happy I am."
Said Fred Claire, Dodger vice president: "I'm sorry, we are not in a position to make a comment."
Butler speculated that the Dodgers were waiting until the other two teams in contention for his services, Atlanta and Boston, had been informed. An official announcement could come this morning.
In filling two holes that have haunted them since their 1988 world championship, the Dodgers gave Butler a guaranteed three-year deal that will pay him $10 million, with an option year worth an additional $3 million. The option year, which the Dodgers did not include in their original offer earlier this week, apparently closed the deal.
The signing has resulted in an outfield that must be considered among baseball's best, with Darryl Strawberry in right field, Butler in center, and either Kal Daniels or Hubie Brooks in left.
Butler's .309 average for the San Francisco Giants last season would have ranked him second on the Dodgers behind Eddie Murray's .330 mark, while Butler tied for the league lead with 192 hits.
"As soon as it happened I told my wife, 'This is just like a dream,' " Butler said late Friday from his Atlanta home. "This is what I've been dreaming about since I was 6 years old. To be playing in Los Angeles, in this great winning tradition . . . it's sure going to be fun."
This is something the Dodgers have been dreaming about since they lost Steve Sax after the 1988.
In Butler they are acquiring a left-handed hitter who has not batted worse than .269 nor stolen fewer than 30 bases in any of his eight full major league seasons. He has averaged 76 walks per year and only 59 strikeouts.
He averages more than 20 bunt singles per season. And in completing the image of a prototype leadoff hitter, last year he grounded into a double play only once every 207 at-bats.
Butler is the sort of player who is best described by those he plays against. Or \o7 used \f7 to play against.
"We needed a leadoff hitter . . . man, we got one of the best in baseball," Daniels said late Friday. "I hate to play against him for a lot of reasons.
"First off, in the field, you can't play nowhere where you are sure of stopping him. You just can't position him. He will bunt on two strikes. He will turn on a fastball and hit it out to right field. He will slap that same fastball up the middle."
Daniels said that Butler is equally difficult to face when he is standing in center field.
"He uses all his tools on defense," said Daniels, who was victimized by one of Butler's diving catches late last year. "I can't remember how many hits he has taken away from me. I couldn't talk about that catch he made last year, and I still can't talk about."
Daniels said Butler would be the perfect teammate--if he was assured of being his teammate. Because of the overstocked outfield, either Daniels or Brooks is expected to be traded for a left-handed pitcher that many feel is the Dodgers' final missing piece to a potential championship team.
Both players were puzzled by the Butler agreement. Each feels the trade could involve him.
"I guess this means I have no job," Brooks said late Friday. "It's a good signing for the Dodgers, but I don't know what the deal is with me. Am I out of here? I don't know."
Said Daniels: "Somebody has to go, and I've got the feeling that I'm the guy. I think I've got more value than Hubie because of the age difference (Brooks is 34, Daniels is 27) and because I'm a left-handed power hitter."
Butler was wooed by the Dodgers the moment he and 14 others became free agents last week as part of a collusion settlement between owners and players that dated to 1987. As part of that settlement, the Dodgers are not required to give the Giants a future draft pick, unlike earlier this winter when they surrendered picks upon signing Strawberry and pitcher Kevin Gross.
Butler was hoping to remain with the Giants, but he was forced out when they signed Willie McGee to a four-year, $13-million contract because they assumed Butler's demands would be too high.
"Everybody was saying I wanted $15 million from the Giants--that was wrong," Butler said. "I never made that demand. I was stunned to be left out."
Butler hoped to make as much as McGee, but was let down Wednesday when the Dodgers offered a three-year deal worth $7.5 million. The Braves, Butler's second choice, countered Friday morning with a similar deal worth only a few more dollars.