EVERETT — Tony Butler is a changed man.
No longer is he the wide-eyed teenager making his first attempt at navigating the world of professional baseball, the way he was when he originally came through Everett. He’s learned. He’s matured. And he’s been humbled.
But one similarity remai
ns to his stint five years ago with the Everett AquaSox: He’s grateful for the opportunity and determined to make the most of it.
Butler is attempting to restart his baseball career, and Everett is serving as the first rung on his climb back up the minor-league ladder.
“I’m glad to see him back with the organization,” Everett manager Scott Steinmann said. “He looks good and we’re going to get him some starts here and hopefully push him out and get him on his way.”
Age-wise Butler isn’t out of place in the Northwest League. At 23 years old, the towering 6-foot-7 left-handed pitcher is only about a year older than the typical member of Everett’s staff.
However, in baseball years it’s been a lifetime since Butler first donned an AquaSox jersey. It was 2006 and Butler was just a month out of high school. He was the Seattle Mariners’ third-round pick in the draft, and he performed so well in the rookie Arizona League that the Mariners made him the rare player to appear in Everett the same summer he graduated.
Butler was a hit with the Sox. In nine starts he went 1-2 with a 2.76 ERA, striking out 52 in 421/3 innings. Big things were predicted for Butler, and he ended up being one of the key pieces insisted upon by Baltimore in the 2008 trade that sent pitcher Erik Bedard to Seattle.
But following the trade Butler ended up wandering the minor-league hinterlands. He developed arm trouble that required arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder in April of 2009, and his arm never bounced back completely. In nearly three seasons in the Baltimore organization he pitched just 160 innings, usually ineffectively. He never advanced past Class A ball.
Then, last June, the unthinkable. The Orioles’ patience ran out and Butler was released. He caught on briefly with the Milwaukee Brewers organization, but was released again after throwing just another 132/3 innings.
“It’s quite a different feeling, being told you’re not good enough,” Butler said. “It was an emotional roller coaster.”
Butler returned home to Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and found himself at a crossroads. He was a pitcher with no team and a balky shoulder. But faced with a career in doubt, he chose the difficult path.
“I decided on Super Bowl Sunday I was moving out to Phoenix,” Butler said. “I didn’t know where I was living, didn’t know where I was working out, didn’t have a throwing partner. I just jumped in my car and drove from Wisconsin to Phoenix and committed myself.”
Butler started working out at Fischer Sports in Phoenix, a facility that trains major-league baseball players and NFL football players. Among those players is Butler’s buddy, New England Patriots defensive end Landon Cohen. While Butler slowly got his body back into top condition, Cohen and the others at the facility helped Butler refine the mental aspect of his game.
After three months Butler was feeling great. His arm regained the range of motion that was missing since undergoing surgery, and he was ready to give it another try. He approached his former organization, the Mariners, and landed a tryout. The Mariners were impressed and re-signed Butler on May 26.
Butler is a different pitcher than he was in 2006. Back then he relied heavily on his four-seam fastball, using his sweeping curve as his out pitch. Since then he’s added a two-seam fastball, cut fastball and change-up to his repertoire. He’s also gained the wisdom of experience — for example, he no longer pays any attention to the radar gun.
“On the field the biggest thing I’ve learned is routine, so that it becomes you and becomes second nature,” Butler said. “Off the field I’ve learned you have to fully commit. You have to take care of your body. What you put into your body is what you’re going to get out of it.”
Butler’s first time out with the Sox this time around couldn’t have gone much better. Last Saturday at Tri-City he allowed just one hit and one walk in five scoreless innings.
More outings like that and Butler just might put himself back on the path he was on in 2006.