Rich Butler had a number of dream-come true moments in his baseball career, including signing a contract with the Toronto Blue Jays , making his big-league debut with the Jays, hitting his first major league home run and touching up all-star pitcher Roy Halladay for a round-tripper
These days, Butler is getting to check off one more item on the to-do list: run a baseball camp in the area where his family roots run deep.
This week, Butler is conducting the first annual Butler Baseball Elite Camp in Upper Island Cove. the home town of his wife, Jackie, who recently accepted a permanent job in the area. But his connection with Conception Bay North goes beyond his spouse.
The 39-year-old grew up in East York, Ont., but his father Frank is a native of Butlerville, just a few kilometres from Upper Island Cove. Butler and his brother Rob, who also played for the Jays and won a World Series with the team in 1993, spent many summer days in the area while growing up.
Now Rich Butler is back for another summer after finally establishing a camp that’s been in the planning for years.
“I had been wanting to start something here 10 years ago,” he said.
But his job as an instructor at the Home Run Baseball Academy, which he operates with Rob in Ajax, Ont., took up most of his time.
“I was going 12 months a year, seven days a week,” he said.
But with Jackie and their daughter, Carrie Daisy, having moved to Upper Island Cove, Butler said he will be spending much more time in Newfoundland and hopes to make a permanent move in the near future.
“I’m going to be here for a month at a time or two months at a time. It’s perfect. Now, I can come here and build it,” he said of the camp, which began Monday.
Butler had previously been in contact with Scott Adams, a member of the Conception Bay North baseball executive, about bringing a Butler Baseball camp to the region. Adams, along with others like Scott Mercer, has helped foster the minor program in the region.
“To grow, you need people like Scott Adams and Mercer,” said Butler.
“With Butler Baseball, it’s a perfect fit.”
Since his arrival in the province, Butler has been making the rounds.
He has been in Butlerville and took some cuts with young softballers. And he recently attended the provincial bantam AA championship game between the C.B.N. Bulldogs and the Gander Pilots.
“I was amazed at the excitement and the crowd. It was awesome,” said Butler.
“Baseball as a whole in Newfoundland has really taken off.”
Butler was an undrafted 17-year-old when he signed with the Blue Jays in 1990.
“I knew it was going to be tough,” he said.
“I only started learning real baseball when I started pro ball.”
His started his climb to the top in 1991 in the Gulf Coast League. The next year, he moved up to A ball and the Myrtle Beach Hurricanes, where he played with other future major leaguers Alex Gonzalez, Chris Stynes and Paul Spoljaric.
He said the minor-league experience is close to that depicted in Bull Durham, the movie about the often-zany exploits of players on a team in the single A Carolina league.
“You have your quirky guys. You have all of these different personalities and characters,” said Butler. “They fight each other, and do weird things.”
He recalls one time when he, Alex Gonzalez and Stynes crept into their home stadium in Myrtle Beach under the cloak of darkness and removed the tarp during a rainstorm, flooding the field.
“We did the sliding thing ... when the cops came over the hill, we snuck back out,” he said.
“They never did find out who did it.”
When Rob was winning a World Series with the Blue Jays, Rich was toiling for the Knoxville Smokies of the Southern League, Toronto’s AA affiliate.
He said the energy and the excitement from the Jays’ back-to-back Series wins in 1992 and ’93 was felt throughout the organization.
“We all celebrated,” said Butler. “From rookie ball to AAA. We all sat together watching it on the televisions.”
Because of an assortment of injuries, including a banged-up shoulder that cost him nearly two years, it took Butler nearly seven years to get to the majors.
He made his professional debut with the Blue Jays in 1997 against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium.
“I still remember not feeling my feet as I was walking out into the stadium and seeing the crowd,” he said. “It was a dream come true, but at the same time it was frightening. It’s almost like I’m outside myself looking at myself.”
His first major league hit came on Sept. 9, 1997 off Anaheim Angles pitcher Ken Hill.
Butler appeared in seven games with the Blue Jays in 1997, and during his stay in Toronto was locker-mates with seven-time Cy Young award winner Roger Clemens.
“He always called me ‘son.’ I just said, ‘Yes Mr. Clemens.’”
That winter, Butler was left unprotected in the expansion draft and was taken by the Tamp Bay Devil Rays in 1998.
There, his locker room next-door neighbour with one of his baseball heroes, Wade Boggs.
“He was always talking baseball,” Butler remembers.
It was with Tampa that Butler hit his first career home run off Scott Eyre of the Chicago White Sox.
“It was an inside fastball, and see you later,” said Butler.
For Butler, there was one big difference between the Blue Jays and the Devil Rays.
“Playing on your home turf and being Canadian, there was something extra special about Toronto,” he said.
Butler believes his track record speaks for itself, and his program should help the players in C.B.N.
“We ran a really good program in Ontario, probably one of the tops in Canada,” he said.
“They’re going to benefit so much. I really work them out and polish their skills, all through hard work.”