July 14, 2008 in Sports

Tireless worker

Hard work, extra practice paying off for Indians’ Butler
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Rajah Bose photo

Spokane’s Joey Butler batted .528 in June and was voted Indians team MVP for the month.
(Full-size photo)

Inside

Indians go 14 innings to beat Vancouver in series finale/C5

Tonight

Yakima vs. Spokane: 6:30 p.m., Avista Stadium.

Perhaps the single biggest adjustment a ballplayer must make when going from college to pro is one simple fact: He is no longer the big star.

Generally, the baseball players who get drafted are the ones who turned heads during college; they were the big fish in the small pond. But once they’ve step onto the professional field, they’ve become a guppy in the ocean. Everyone in the pros is good.

Few players have handled the transition as well as Joey Butler of the Spokane Indians. The first-year minor leaguer batted .528 in the month of June and had an average of .389 going into Sunday’s game in Vancouver, B.C.

In Spokane, Butler is still the big star.

“He’s been amazing,” Indians hitting coach Luis Ortiz said last week. “Since the first day he came to Spokane, he’s been my most consistent student.”

As college stars, many players develop bad baseball habits because they can get away with it, Ortiz said. When they move into the pros, it’s up to the coaches to break those habits and get the kids to play the way the baseball organization wants.

So Ortiz has been teaching Butler how to play Indians style, which, when it comes down to it, is the style of the Texas Rangers, the major league team with which the Indians are affiliated.

Butler has been one of Ortiz’ most diligent students, working on loosening up in the batters box, waiting for the best pitch, timing his swing to the perfect millisecond, and having “quiet eyes – allowing the game to come to him instead of him forcing the game,” Ortiz said.

Butler takes extra time in batting practice to work on Ortiz’ advice.

“He puts them in action right away, he trusts it,” Ortiz said. “And I think the results speak for themselves.”

Indians fans, not surprisingly, voted for Butler as the team’s June MVP. He is the Northwest League’s No. 2 hitter.

Before Sunday’s game, he had 28 hits including six doubles. He had the league’s best on-base percentage at .500.

“It feels great for me. This is probably the highest I’ve batted this deep into any season,” Butler said last week. “But I think that has a lot to do with, once again, my hard work combined with the smartness of my hitting coach, Luis.

“And, like I said, man, it takes practice, it takes a lot of hard work. I don’t just show up every day and play, you know. I’m here early, I’m hitting the cages early. It takes work.”

The 22-year-old was drafted in the 15th round this year as a senior out of the University of New Orleans. As a Privateer this past season, the outfielder batted .345 and led his team in hits with 92.

The Moss Point, Miss., native started playing baseball at age 5, encouraged by his parents and grandparents.

That’s where Butler’s mantra, “hard work,” comes in. Hard work is how he’ll ultimately play in the big leagues, he said.

And he learned a lot from his older brother, Enrico Jones, a Mississippi State standout who didn’t quite make it to the pros.

“I picked up on what coaches were saying, and I didn’t let it go in one end and out the other,” Butler said. “I let it go in and stick in.”

So when he was drafted this year, he felt mostly a sense of relief, he said. His college days were marred by the struggle of Hurricane Katrina, but he worked past that. His senior season at college was the hardest he’d ever worked, he said, because it was his last chance to get into the pros.

“Now I see,” he said, “that that hard work I did to get drafted is paying off still, now that I am drafted.”

The big question, of course, is how long Butler will stay in Spokane. There are plenty of levels to move up to in the Rangers organization.

But for now, Butler is enjoying his time in Spokane and letting the future bring what it brings, he said.

“I would like him to move up because he has the talent to do it, but I’d like him to stay around because I like what we’re doing right now,” Ortiz said, referring to the Indians’ current dominance of the Northwest League. “He’s very studious of the game, really understands the mental side of the process.”

Nick Eaton can be reached at 509-459-5445 or nicke@spokesman.com.


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