Brett Butler is heading home. It is 9:33 p.m. last
Friday--eighth inning, one out, score 1-1--and before him lie
the next 90 feet of a journey so torturous he has called it
going "through hell and back." A play at the plate looms. There
are 41,509 people at Dodger Stadium rooting for him to beat this
damned thing...and for him to beat the throw from rightfield, too.
In the full flight of his sprint after tagging on a fly ball,
the tiny man appears, even at 39, as childlike as ever. His
feet, size 7 1/2, and his hands, balled inside a pair of
size-small batting gloves, pump like the wings of a hummingbird.
But look closer. He is pale. A hideous scar runs from the base
of his right ear, down his neck and across half of his throat,
forming a crooked letter L. There is also this: His mouth is dry
because his saliva glands no longer work. His right shoulder is
numb. His 161-pound body is fueled mostly by fruits, vegetables,
regular injections of an experimental cancer-fighting drug
called laetrile and 59 pills a day.
Just four months after his cancer of the tonsils was diagnosed,
just 38 days after undergoing the last of 32 radiation
treatments and just five emotionally charged hours after
explaining at a news conference that "this means more to me than
any game I've played in my life," Butler slides across the plate
as the throw from Pittsburgh Pirates rightfielder Mike Kingery
bounces on the infield grass. Butler has made it, safe and sound.
September 15, 1996
That run turns out to be the deciding one in a 2-1 Los Angeles
victory that puts the Dodgers in a first-place tie with the San
Diego Padres in the National League West. "Another miracle,"
Butler's wife, Eveline, said after this, his first game back as
the Dodgers' centerfielder. "Miracles happen around us, you know."
Miracles? Rarely in the sport has the word rung with such
resonance as it did last week. Four days before Butler's
return, New York Yankees righthander David Cone made a stunning
comeback from a career-threatening aneurysm--a ballooning of the
artery--just below his pitching shoulder that had sidelined him
four months earlier. With his father, Ed, watching from the
stands at Oakland Coliseum, Cone no-hit the A's for seven
innings before Yankees manager Joe Torre wisely decided not to
risk Cone's health for the glory of a no-hitter. He pulled Cone.
Reliever Mariano Rivera finished the game and allowed one hit,
an infield single in the ninth inning, as Cone and the Yankees
Cone followed that with another strong outing, albeit a losing
one, at Yankee Stadium last Saturday. He allowed the Toronto
Blue Jays three runs on his first five pitches, then shut them
down before departing after seven innings, giving him this
sparkling post-op pitching line: 14 innings, five hits, three
runs, six walks and 14 strikeouts.
"I haven't had a chance to talk to him recently," Butler says of
Cone, whom he had befriended during the 1994-95 strike when they
both assumed leadership roles in support of the union. "He's
probably been as busy as I have. Plus, I think the doctors
wanted to isolate me from baseball as much as possible the last
four months." Butler, who chewed tobacco early in his career,
says doctors told him that stress may have contributed to his
cancer. "It came with the pressure from the strike, the Dodgers
not re-signing me [after 1994], my mother dying [in 1995, of
brain cancer], getting traded from the Mets back to the Dodgers
and the whole replacement-player thing." (He was vilified in Los
Angeles for shunning Mike Busch, a replacement player who was
recalled by the Dodgers last season.)
One year later Butler is so beloved in L.A. that the day after
his comeback his locker overflowed with gifts, flowers,
telegrams and faxes. A bottle of wine wrapped in cellophane went
untouched. "I can't drink alcohol," he said. "It burns my mouth."
It was on May 3 that Butler underwent what was expected to be a
routine tonsillectomy. Doctors, however, extracted a plum-sized
lump that turned out to be cancerous. His first thought was that
he was going to die. Nearly three weeks later doctors removed 50
lymph nodes. On June 17 Butler began six weeks of radiation
treatments that left him a withered 142 pounds. His throat was
so sore from the treatments that it took him 15 minutes to
swallow a strand of spaghetti when he visited Dodger Stadium on
Over the next month Butler rebuilt his body with the help of
trainer Mackie Shilstone in New Orleans. He began working out
with the Dodgers on Aug. 27, and 10 days later he was in the
The announcement of Butler's first at bat brought a 45-second
standing ovation. He bit his lip, tipped his helmet to the
crowd, took two deep breaths and grounded out on the first
pitch. In the third inning he popped out weakly. Then in the
fifth he slapped a ground ball single between shortstop and
third base. The crowd rejoiced. It was one of those magical
nights when the game seemed as small as a pebble on the ocean
floor. The same kind of feeling was evoked in 1993, when Bo
Jackson hit a home run in his first game with an artificial hip,
and in 1989, when Dave Dravecky won his first game back after
having a cancerous tumor removed from his pitching shoulder.
The winning run last Friday was vintage Butler: a seven-pitch
walk, a stolen base on which he continued to third on a throwing
error, and the dash home on a fly ball. An exhausted Butler was
replaced in the ninth inning. Still, he started the next night,
going 2 for 4 in a 4-3 win over the Pirates, and even on Sunday,
when he went 0 for 2 with two walks. Asked about needing a day
off, Butler shot back, "My goal is to play every day."
He did admit, however, that he must conserve his energy better.
He arrived in Los Angeles at 4:30 a.m. last Thursday on the team
flight from New York, taped The Tonight Show later that day,
scored the winning run on Friday, went to bed at 1:30 a.m. and
was up at 8 a.m. on Saturday to appear on Fox's pregame show. "I
can't keep that up," he said. Doctors have told him the survival
rate is 85% for patients who stay cancer-free for two years.
Let Sept. 6 stand as an unofficial holiday on the baseball
calendar. On that date in 1995 Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig's
record for consecutive games played (2,130). One year later,
even as Eddie Murray was hitting his 500th home run in
Baltimore, Butler was scoring the winning run in the most
important game of his life. After that game Butler repaired to
the trainer's room and underwent one of three weekly IV
infusions of laetrile, a drug not approved by the FDA.
It was 10:55 p.m. when Butler emerged from the 20-minute
treatment and a shower. All of his teammates were gone. A
clubhouse attendant handed him a message. It was from Murray,
his former teammate, who wanted Butler to call him.
Butler dressed, but he could not retrieve his valuables from the
safety box in his locker. He had been gone so long that he had
forgotten the combination on the lock. He walked out of the
clubhouse and into a room next door where Eveline was waiting.
Wordlessly, with tears pooling in her eyes, she hugged him
around his scarred, reddened neck, holding tightly, as if she
did not want to let go of the whole wonderful night.