The smile is back on center fielder Brett Butler’s face these days. It’s a smile that wasn’t often seen last year.
Butler is happy for many reasons, one of which is he’s back where he believes he belongs for at least one more year in baseball - as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
That’s right, the same Dodgers who dumped him - his words - nearly a year ago, and then got him back in a trade in August.
The same Dodgers who broke his heart, but didn’t kill his love for the game.
It was just part of what he remembers as the hardest year of his life from an emotional standpoint.
“An emotional roller-coaster,” Butler said at the Dodgers’ spring training complex. “It started with negotiations, being involved in negotiations, and then being told from that point that you’re selfish, greedy, all you want is more money when in fact, I had nothing to gain from that.
“I go from there, I get dumped (by the Dodgers), my mother develops brain cancer. No, I’m sorry, I sign with the (New York) Mets, then my mother develops brain cancer, she dies in August.
“I’m traded back, the replacement player scenario, booed in front of 50,000 people in Los Angeles, faxes out the kazoo where people tell me the kind of person they thought I was, and then my grandmother dying at the end of the year.”
That’s some year, and it was reflected in Butler’s eyes as he recounted it.
“There’s always going to be my mother,” he said. “But other than that, by nature, I’m a forgiver. That’s my character. I think I can fix things and sometimes that gets me into trouble. My honesty, at times, gets me into trouble.”
By nature, Butler is also positive and upbeat, traits that have returned this season.
Through all of the chaos of last year, Butler, who turns 39 in June, hit .300 - the fifth time in his career he has accomplished such a feat - with 32 stolen bases.
He hit .345 after the All-Star break and had 19 bunt hits, nearly what he said he’s averaged in his long big-league career.
“I thought that would never happen,” he said of returning to the Dodgers in the Aug. 18 trade. “I was shocked. It was weird. It was like nothing had changed.”
He said he was “pleasantly surprised in New York” and had fun there, but added: “You could tell it affected me by my results against L.A.”
He had only three hits in 24 at-bats against the Dodgers before the trade.
A little more than a week after going back to Los Angeles, the Dodgers purchased the contract of Mike Busch, a former replacement player. Few, if any, Dodgers players were in favor of the move, but Butler, an active member of the players’ association, was all but alone in expressing his opinion publicly.
He got nothing but criticism from the fans.
“I regret the way I handled it,” he said. “I think I could have been more clear on the fact that some of the statements I made were on behalf of the union, that this is a union statement, not a Brett Butler statement.
“The whole situation put everybody in a position to fail.”
Now, he stresses, those days are behind him. And he said he plans on playing as long as he’s wanted - and that continues to play to a certain level and has the support of his family.
“I can lose a step-and-a-half, but I don’t lose any bat speed,” he said. “I’ve always been a Punch-and-Judy hitter. If I hit .250, I’m done. I’ll walk away from the game.
“The money has gotten so big. I’ve got my money. I don’t need to play anymore. I’m playing because I still love baseball. When I’m done, I’ll have season tickets for the Atlanta Braves the rest of my life.
“Winning is first. Numbers and such are second. Baseball’s in my blood, it’ll always be in my blood.”
That’s quite a change from the attitude Butler had last spring.
He said the Dodgers offered him a one-year deal for $3.5 million early in the 1994 off-season, but when the strike ended last April, they didn’t offer him a contract of any kind.
So, eventually, he signed with the Mets and almost didn’t go to spring training. His wife had to talk him into it.
“It hurt me, it just hurt me,” he said of the Dodgers’ withdrawal of any offer. “What did I do to deserve, in my opinion, being deserted?” So how did he get over it? “You realize that it’s just a game, that you’re a piece of meat,” Butler said. “You’re used and abused accordingly.”
But spring training always seems to bring a new perspective.
“I’m excited about being here,” Butler said. “In the short time I’ve been here, this appears to be the best Dodger team I’ve been on.”