Commentary

Dan Butler's day has come

Undrafted rookie catcher embraces his first Red Sox start, hopes for more

Updated: September 5, 2014, 9:38 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- If you didn't know any better, you'd figure Karen Butler was just another overprotective parent when she refused to let her son Daniel play Little League baseball because she didn't want him to get hurt.

But Karen and her husband, Steve, had probable cause. Daniel, you see, was what they called accident-prone. Which might be an understatement.

"By the time he was 7," Karen said Sunday, "he had stitches in his chin, stitches in his knee and a fractured arm.''

The chin? That happened when Daniel hopped on his sister Cristina's bike and tore off through the neighborhood, a joyride that ended badly when he crashed. A neighbor carried him home, and Steve and Karen took him to the hospital. Daniel was 5.

The knee? Similar story. Daniel decided to test the moguls on a dirt-bike track, wiped out and was carried home by another neighbor. Yup, back to the hospital.

As for the arm? Well, that came from Daniel spotting his dad returning from work and reacting by jumping up and down on a swing set and yelling, "Daddy's home, Daddy's home.'' The yelling stopped when he fell and fractured his arm. By then, all the nurses knew him on sight.

[+] EnlargeButler family
Gordon Edes/ESPNBoston.com

The Butler family -- grandparents Elmer and Mickey Moseley, aunt Ruth James, mother Karen Butler, father Steve Butler, and aunt Melanie Smith -- drove from New Mexico and Arizona to see Dan Butler's debut.

But Bill Oliver, the Little League coach, figured out a way to set Karen's mind at ease. He came to the house one night and said, "I'll tell you what. We'll make Daniel the catcher. He'll be covered from head to toe in protective gear -- helmet, mask, chest protector, shin guards. Nothing to worry about."

Karen gave in. Which is why, 20 years later, she and Steve were sitting in Angel Stadium, with grandparents, aunts, high school coaches and Daniel's best buddy and catching instructor from home, Rafael Marchione, to see their son make his major league debut. A nine-hour ride from their new home in Albuquerque, with a detour to Prescott, Ariz, to pick up Daniel's grandparents, Elmer and Mickey Moseley.

This was an hour before the game, and a stadium usher stuck a lineup sheet in Karen Butler's hands. "There he is," he said, sounding as excited as a member of the family. "Right there, batting ninth. He made it."

These are the best kinds of days in baseball, when a kid who went unrecruited out of high school, served as a backup catcher on his college team, went undrafted out of college and signed with the Red Sox as a free agent wakes up knowing his name will be on John Farrell's lineup card.

"We had always hoped, but it's a long ride," Steve Butler said quietly. He wasn't referring to the drive from New Mexico. "Very few people make it this far."

Daniel Butler doesn't get here this day if David Ross isn't out of commission with plantar fasciitis, which put him on the disabled list. Funny thing is, Ross went to the University of Florida, Butler to Arizona [he went to Greenway High in Phoenix], but they had the same college coach, Andy Lopez.

Ross laughed and said he heard from his old coach the other day.

"Andy Lopez told me to take plenty of time coming back," Ross said. "He said, 'Dan needs some big-league time.'"

You know what else is funny? This notion that catchers don't get hurt, even if they're the ones wearing the armor.

"Nobody gets beat up like a catcher," Ross said.

Butler was not the exception. He fractured the hamate bone in his wrist, a hitter's injury, which caused him to miss most of his junior year in high school. He had Tommy John surgery on his throwing arm, which cost him his freshman year at Arizona.

But beyond the constant barrage of foul tips and blocked balls and the occasional backswing endured by catchers, there was the time when Butler was playing on a travel team that Karen Butler could no longer take seeing her son in harm's way. Butler had torn off his mask in pursuit of a pitch gone astray, dived back to the plate with the ball in his glove and caught the cleats of the sliding runner right in the mouth.

"I passed out," she said.

That one took 31 stitches to patch up. But by then, Daniel Butler had set his course, the one he had imagined for himself as a 10- or 12-year-old sitting at the kitchen table and practicing his autograph.

He didn't hesitate Sunday morning in the Sox clubhouse when asked whether he'd believed this day would arrive, despite the long odds.

"Yeah," he said. "I mean, I wouldn't keep playing if I didn't. If I were just going to be another guy, an organization guy, stay in Double-A or Triple-A, I wouldn't have kept playing."

When the Red Sox cut ties with A.J. Pierzynski last month, Butler didn't get the call-up from Pawtucket. That went to Christian Vazquez, an uncommonly skilled catcher who won raves with his play, especially behind the plate. Farrell described his work in Saturday's 19-inning marathon as "fantastic."

And one of the team's most highly regarded catching prospects, Blake Swihart, was just promoted to Pawtucket and is on a fast track to the big leagues. But Swihart might need another year of seasoning, Ross will be 38 next season and Butler's skills as a receiver and ability to call a game are held in high regard by the Sox. Maybe he'll never be an everyday catcher in the big leagues, but there could be a place for him as a backup. And when you've beaten the odds every step of the way, why limit yourself?

[+] EnlargeRed Sox
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesButler and closer Koji Uehara celebrate after the Red Sox's victory over the Angels on Sunday night.
"Any time you look at a guy coming to the big leagues without ever being drafted," Farrell said Sunday, "it's a different significance and [has a] little bit more meaning, because it points to the individual maybe having to go above and beyond: the work ethic, developing skills and, probably more importantly, what's on the inside -- the heart and the desire. Daniel possesses all that."

Ross has more than a passing interest in Butler. When Ross first came to the Sox in 2013, Butler was his lockermate. Jarrod Saltalamacchia sat on the other side, but Ross was uncertain how he'd be received by the team's incumbent catcher. The first guy he really talked to was Butler.

"I was the new guy," Ross said. "And he was the first guy who made me feel welcome. Danny was open, honest and forthcoming. I told him, 'Show me the ropes. Hey, man, don't let me mess up. If I look like an idiot, I'll kick your butt.'

"He's the guy I've known the longest. His personality just fits the position, and he asks all the right questions. He's usually a fun, happy-go-lucky guy, but today I could tell he was a little more serious, analyzing everything."

Ross said that in his first game in the big leagues, he caught Hideo Nomo.

"I was a wreck for about the first four innings," he said.

When Butler swung at the first pitch he saw Sunday from Angels pitcher Hector Santiago, Ross said he giggled inside. He remembered how he too had swung at the first pitch. "Had to do something with all that energy [and] anxiety."

Butler didn't get a hit Sunday. But he guided Rubby De La Rosa through seven innings of one-run ball, then caught veteran relievers Edward Mujica and Koji Uehara for the final two innings of a 3-1 Red Sox victory over the Angels.

"To get a win and have a significant role in a win in the big leagues -- there's nothing better," Ross said. "I'm sure he was really nervous, but you could tell he was happy after the game."

Dan Butler was still in full uniform when he went to the waiting area outside the visitors' clubhouse to see his family and friends and say goodbye.

How did the day compare to the way he envisioned it?

"It's hard to put in words," he said. "It was more than you could ever imagine."

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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