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T.J. SIMERS

Brett Butler hopes to have an ace up his sleeve

Former Dodgers outfielder, who overcame cancer, is the manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks' triple-A team in Reno and looking for a shot to take the helm of a big league club.

June 14, 2011|T.J. Simers
  • Former Dodger and current Reno Aces Manager Brett Butler has made it his goal to manage in the major leagues some day.
Former Dodger and current Reno Aces Manager Brett Butler has made it his… (Rod Hanna )

From Reno — First of all, thanks to everyone who emailed to say they thought I should take some more vacation time.

I had no idea so many people cared.

As for those who also told me where to go, you're not far off, as we begin another vacation next week in Phoenix.

That doesn't allow much time to explain what happened on the vacation I just finished. So we begin with Phil Weidinger, his old lady and Brett Butler.

Some of you probably know Butler pretty well: 763 games over seven seasons with the Dodgers during the '90s, the jockey-sized hustler batting .298 in that time, maybe the high mark a standing ovation upon his return from beating cancer.

He was born June 15, 1957, in Los Angeles, is still as intense and feisty as advertised while working now as manager of the Reno Aces, the Arizona Diamondbacks' triple-A affiliate.

"Led the league last year in getting thrown out of games," he says. "And that was with me breaking my leg with six weeks to go."

He snaps off his answers as if everything about him has to be short. And yet he's over-the-top confident in his abilities, bordering on cockiness, while proclaiming, "I have always been told I'm too little, and I couldn't do this or that. But every goal I have ever set, I have made. My goal now is to manage in the big leagues."

I never met the dreamy over-achiever until last week, but thought it best by way of introductions to let him know he has no shot of becoming a big league manager.

His window of opportunity is closing, nearly slammed shut if you listen to the Aces' PR guy, who has him being 58. With a PR guy like that, Butler's more likely to be asked to retire than get his big chance to grow into a big league job.

He also lacks the sugar daddy Don Mattingly had, has yet to even get an interview and is now parked behind Kirk Gibson.

No surprise to those who watched Butler play baseball; he bounces back determined as ever to reach his goal.

"'I've heard opinions all my life; none of them have been right," he says. "I wasn't good enough to start on my high school team, was told I'd never make it at Arizona State, so I went to a small NAIA school. Got drafted late, but only as a favor to my coach. I was never going to play in the big leagues, blah, blah, blah.

"Add on to that now I'll never get the shot to manage in the big leagues."

This is where Weidinger and his old lady enter. Weidinger is a Lake Tahoe PR guy, and while I'm sure he has some redeeming qualities, he likes talking about his old lady and pushing Lake Tahoe, Reno, Carson City, Truckee and Graeagle as scenic getaways. If you live in Lake Tahoe, why would you want to get away?

Whatever, that's why he suggested visiting Butler, knowing it would take us to the baseball stadium built here three years ago.

And what a spectacular, feel-good ballpark, the perfect place to pass time while waiting for a quickie divorce. Or so I'm told after writing what my wife had to eat while talking about Kobe.

Inside the park, Butler has the Aces in first place and by a huge margin. They fell behind, 7-0, the night we talked, only to win, 8-7, in extra innings, Butler later was heard mumbling something about never giving up.

"The cup has always been half full with me," he says. "I believe if the Lord wants me to manage, I will. I just need a chance, and if somebody takes it, they won't be disappointed."

Butler played 17 years in the big leagues, the little engine that could compiling a career .290 average and a 1-0 mark versus throat cancer.

He took five years off at age 40 after retiring to be with his kids before starting as low as he could go in baseball to learn how to manage. Along the way he studied his role models: Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Tom Lasorda.

It took him three years to climb to Reno, and that was three years ago — still one giant step removed from the big leagues.

"I'm living the dream," he says, the discussion turning to his time with the Dodgers. "I remember the 23 steps from the top of the dugout to the batter's box, 54,000 people standing and wishing me well when I came back from cancer. I'll never forget that."

It's hard to remember 54,000 fans in Dodger Stadium at the same time.

"When I think of the Dodgers, I do so with pride and a sense of family," Butler says. "To this day, every quarter or so, I get a note from Peter O'Malley wishing me well. When I got cancer he said to take his plane and go wherever I needed to go."

He says he feels sorry now for the Dodgers, but his attention is fixated on developing the Aces and preparing himself to manage in the big leagues. Now would be the time to roll your eyes.

"I'm a man of character, a man of integrity and I want the best for my family," he says. "And I want to leave a positive impression on this world."

The interview is over, and Butler is left behind to chase windmills. The phone rings a day later.

It's Weidinger. He says the Oakland A's have just fired their manager and I'll never guess who they have hired.

I feel like a complete dummy, for a minute there believing it really has happened -- never for a second thinking Weidinger has a joke in him and it's Bob Melvin who has been named interim manager.

But maybe that's what happens when you spend time with Butler. You start to understand anything is possible.

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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