Brett Butler sat in his hotel room late Monday afternoon, sweating, anxiously looking at the clock.
In a couple of hours, Los Angeles Dodgers team buses would be pulling up. And for the first time in nearly four months, Butler would be seeing Dodgers players, not as a visitor stopping by the clubhouse, but as a teammate. He wasn’t quite sure how he would react, or what he would say, but he knew how badly he needed to see them.
Butler left his wife, Eveline, and their four children in Atlanta earlier in the day, for the first time in four months, and was craving companionship.
“It was tough leaving them,” Butler said. “Eveline has been with me all but two days since this all happened. My kids didn’t want me to go. It was very difficult.
“This still hasn’t really hit me yet.
“I know people are saying the team needs me, but believe me, I need the team a heck of a lot more than it needs me.”
Butler, who last played May 1, believing he would be back in a few weeks after having his tonsils removed, instead has spent the last four months wondering if he would play again.
His condition was not tonsillitis but cancer. He had a plumb-sized tumor removed, as well as 49 lymph nodes, during two operations in May. He underwent six weeks of radiation treatment, and then another three weeks of physical therapy with his confidant, Mackie Shilstone, in New Orleans.
Today, for the first time in three months and 26 days, Butler will put on his uniform, step onto the field at Olympic Stadium, and begin workouts with his teammates.
If all goes well, he will be activated next week, and perhaps play Sept. 6 in the opening game of the Dodgers’ homestand against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“To think four months ago I was stricken with cancer, and now I’m about to come back,” Butler softly says, “this is nothing short of a miracle.”
When Butler was told May 6 by Dr. Robert Gadlage he had cancer, he assumed he would never play baseball again. He didn’t even want to play baseball. If he simply could live a normal life, that would be enough.
That changed when Butler realized he could be an inspiration to other cancer patients, when thousands of letters and telegrams reached him.
“Maybe this will give hope to people who have cancer, who are thinking about giving up,” Butler said, “letting them know you can go out and live your life.
“And hopefully, all those that have been praying for me, that got on their knees each night, closed their eyes, and had children pray for me, their prayers have been answered. Hopefully, this will renew their belief and bring them closer to Christ.”
Butler, 39, has no idea how his body will respond. Two recent tests showed no traces of cancer. He would like to believe it’s no different than any other player returning from a four-month stint on the disabled list. He would like to believe his timing will be back, his speed will return, and he’ll again be one of the greatest leadoff hitters in the game. He would like to believe he can help the Dodgers return to the playoffs, possibly to the World Series.
“I didn’t work my tail off this long and this hard just to come back and be a cheerleader,” he said. “This is no gimmick. I really think I can do this.”
Butler, who still has numbness in his right arm, has been running sprints, lifting weights, shagging fly balls and even taking batting practice. He can’t predict how he will react when he sees 90-mph fastballs again, but vows he will not do anything foolish or detrimental to the team. If he feels he can not pull this off, he’ll back off, and be used in any way the Dodgers see fit.
“Hopefully, I’ll be ready in nine or 10 days,” said Butler, who gained 18 pounds in the last 19 days. “But I’m not going to come back if it causes the team to lose focus. If it’s positive, you bet, I’ll be there. And if I can’t do it, I’d be the first to say, ‘Guys this won’t work.”’
Butler insists he won’t permit his comeback to be turned into a media circus.