The bag gives him away. It is Royal blue and powder blue, and it includes the logo of his former employer. Billy Butler has carried the same cloth container for his bats with him since 2008, and he brought it with him to his new office, a 45-minute trek across the Cactus League from his old spring-training home.
One morning this week he fished inside his locker and found a green and gold replacement. In addition to a three-year, $30 million contract, the Oakland Athletics have, indeed, furnished Butler with the necessary equipment.
“I’ve got a bat bag,” Butler said. “I just haven’t done it yet.”
Some adjustments come easier than others. Butler sold his home in Leawood and found a place in the suburbs of Oakland. He expects the Athletics to contend for the same prize Kansas City chased in 2014. He returns to Kauffman Stadium on April 17, and he will celebrate his 29th birthday the next day. He figures his pennant ring will make for an emotional present.
Never miss a local story.
Butler earned a share of the Royals’ American League crown last October. But he will not contribute to its defense. Even if he left Kansas City on good terms, even if he understands this game is a business, the reality still gnaws at him. He spent eight seasons as a Royal, but it is the last month that sticks with him.
“Obviously, the biggest memories are the one we just had,” Butler said. “I don’t care what people say. That stuff is still processing. That stuff is still very fresh in your mind. I feel like that was a week ago.”
Butler feels pangs for Kansas City like a phantom limb. He has said he would like to return to the organization in some capacity. Down in Arizona he has dined with closer Greg Holland. He still thinks about the rhythms of the clubhouse, his place in the organization’s history and the front office’s plans for the next few seasons.
In the immediate future, those plans will not include Butler. The team signed Kendrys Morales as a successor at designated hitter. On the diamond, Morales must replace a hitter who managed only nine home runs with a .702 on-base plus slugging percentage in 2014. The Royals believe Morales can produce this, and more.
Yet in the clubhouse, his absence is felt more strongly. Asked what he missed about Butler, Yost held a smile for seven seconds as he waited to answer.
“Just Billy being Billy,” Yost said. “You’ve got to understand who Billy is. He’s a great person. That is always entertaining. And always outgoing. Always talking. I just miss Billy. Because everybody is unique. But Billy is really unique.”
Butler occupied a specific niche in the clubhouse ecosystem. He was a constant source of hilarity. He possessed the confidence of a man born to hit for a living, and the bluster of a man willing to remind you about this.
His teammates responded as ballplayers do. One day in Texas last season, someone taped a photograph of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man over his nameplate. In Cleveland, someone duct-taped his iPad above his locker. Butler needed a stepladder to retrieve the device.
Butler absorbed the verbal jabs with a chin borrowed from Julio Cesar Chavez. He could resemble a punching bag, but he was a beloved punching bag. When a reporter informed a group of Royals about a recent visit with Butler, their excitement was palpable.
“You saw Bill?” Eric Hosmer said.
“You tell Bill he’s well-missed,” Jarrod Dyson said. He joked the team would pay Butler to join them on FaceTime before games.
“That’s the nicest thing Dyson’s ever said about me,” Butler said. “You know what, that’s probably the guy who misses me the most. He gave me the most (expletive) of anyone.”
Butler could not hide his grin. “I miss Dyson,” he said.
Butler is still searching for that camaraderie. Many of the faces inside Oakland’s clubhouse are new. Butler lockers next to Ben Zobrist, the former All-Star from Tampa. A few stalls down is Ike Davis, the once-prized Mets prospect, looking to rejuvenate his career.
“If you look everywhere in this room, there’s nothing about question marks,” he said.
When the offseason opened, the Royals declined Butler’s $12.5 million option for 2015. Butler said he received legitimate interest from Baltimore, Seattle, Texas and the Royals. But Oakland pounded on his door. The aggression caught both Butler and his former employers by surprise.
“They weren’t prepared for that,” Butler said. “Neither was I. I was just sitting there, enjoying my first week of the offseason, feeling like I’m getting used to taking my daughter to school again, doing all kinds of stuff at home again. Then I get a phone calling, saying this is real.”
Oakland finalized the contract only 20 days after the World Series. Butler gave the Royals an opportunity to match it. The team declined.
At the time, Butler was still decompressing from the previous month. The end of his last season in Kansas City touched the peaks and valleys of emotion. He emerged as a key contributor down the stretch after enduring an awkward fortnight mostly on the bench to start September.
“It’s definitely tough,” Butler said. “I’ve played every day my whole career. And then we’re in this race where I’ve been in the organization for 10 years, and all we’ve done is lose. No pun intended. We were working our way to get there, but there were a lot of tough times.
“For me to be a part of it for that long, for it to be a rebuilding process, to play as well as I did my whole time there — it was definitely a tough pill to swallow. But I took it as motivation to try to get better, and to help this team get better. Because I knew I was going to have a shot.”
Butler made sure not to speak out during that period. He specifically avoided interviews because he feared he would come across as selfish. And when Yost installed him back in the lineup, Butler did help. He hit .310 during the American League Championship Series and the World Series. In the game that started the entire run, he extended an eighth-inning rally with an RBI single.
“The guys who are left in here are not happy with me about the Wild Card Game,” he said.
Butler planted deep roots with the Royals. A decade with one team will do that.
“I still view myself as a long-term part of that organization,” Butler said. “As it stands right now, most offensive categories, I’m in the top 10 or top five (of the franchise record book). In all of them. And that’s throughout the whole career. It shows you the type of player that Alex Gordon is that he’s going to pass me in some of them.”
Butler is curious to see how the Royals handle Gordon’s free agency. Gordon can hit the open market this winter. Butler wonders if his own departure may affect Gordon’s decision.
“I know if I would have stayed, it probably would have helped his decision to stay,” he said. “Obviously, it’s all finances. I don’t know what the Royals’ finances are. But I know Alex Gordon is the best left fielder in the game.”
He added, “That’s going to bring some financial problems with a small-market team. But then again, he’s from there. You never know what they can work out.”
Butler is sure to stay informed about the matter. He appeared somewhat aware of current events in Royals camp, like the club’s pending decision on whether to continue their victory celebrations. Those parties will not include Butler in 2015. But they will still be on his mind.
“I’m rooting for them,” he said. “Except when they play us.”