First day of spring training. Billy Butler’s first official work day in another uniform after a full decade with the Royals. This was always going to be weird. That he signed to play with the Athletics — the team Butler’s Royals beat in that outrageous Wild Card game — was always going to make it weirder.
But then Bob Melvin, the A’s manager, stands up in the front of the room and speaks to the team and weirder grows into weirdest.
“Last year is over,” Melvin told the team. “We need to move past it.”
Butler couldn’t help it. The heartbreaking end to Melvin’s season was the greatest thrill of Butler’s professional life. More painful for you than it was for me, he remembers thinking.
“Obviously I didn’t say that,” he says now. “But I smirked a little bit.”
Butler is back in Kansas City for a three-game series at his old baseball home this weekend. Through some combination of happenstance and serendipity, the schedule gives him the perfect reunion. For starters, he’s on a 10-game hitting streak — including a home run over the train tracks in Houston this week — and his 29th birthday is Saturday.
Even better, the A’s were off Thursday, so they flew in a day early. Butler made dinner plans at Rye, one of his favorite places here, with some new teammates from Oakland and old friends from Kansas City.
Then, on Friday, Butler will get his American League championship ring. He’s seen pictures of it, and saw one in person when Royals scout Gene Watson worked an A’s game earlier this month, but that’s nothing like having your own.
“I can’t wait,” Butler says.
This whole experience is going to be surreal. Butler knows that much. Including the 2014 playoffs and the 2012 All-Star game, he’s played 595 games at Kauffman Stadium. But, always in a blue and white uniform. Always from the first-base dugout.
“If I make an out, I might take a right and go to that dugout,” Butler jokes. “I don’t know how I’ll react. I’ve made a lot of outs. I’ve made a lot of outs and peeled off the other way.”
Baseball is a business, of course. Eleven of the 20 men who played for the A’s in that Wild Card game are no longer on the roster, for instance. Turnover is the rule, but for a long time Butler was the exception in Kansas City.
He grew up with the Royals. Literally, in many ways. His first game with the Royals was two weeks after his 21st birthday, so long ago that Vladimir Guerrero started on the other side and was still in his prime. So long ago that Alex Gordon was the third baseman, and, well, so long ago that Butler was the left fielder — that’s not a typo.
Butler made lifelong friends in the home clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium. He cussed losses and oh-fers. He celebrated home runs and eventually playoff wins. He got in arguments with teammates, wore the business end of jokes, and grew from a rosy-cheeked rookie to an All-Star and multimillionaire.
Butler no longer works here, but the Royals remain a part of him. During spring training, he hosted some friends from Kansas City at his house in Scottsdale.
His Hit-It-A-Ton charity essentially covered the Bishop Sullivan Center’s food budget the last seven years, and is living on in his absence with Christian Colon’s help. Actually, Butler was going to stay with Greg Holland this weekend, but the Royals play in Minnesota on Thursday so he’ll be at the team hotel.
Butler is too young to be making any plans about it, but he thinks he’d like to be a hitting coach when he’s done playing. And if he’s going to be a coach, he’d love to do it with the Royals.
“That’s home, you know?” he says. “I still view it as home, because I have so many friends there and lived there for so long. I have ties there that are going to connect me to the city the rest of my life. I’m part of the city.”
He’s still getting used to his new city. He says the biggest difference, besides all the new faces, is the pace. He went from baseball’s second-smallest market to the country’s sixth-biggest.
The A’s played a day game last week, for instance, and afterward Butler stayed in the clubhouse with some of his new teammates for a bit. By the time they got out of there, it was close to 5 and the traffic was a nightmare. It took an hour and a half to get home, the same drive that takes about 25 minutes after night games without traffic.
There is nothing like that in Kansas City, and the comparisons are just too hard not to make. Like he says, it’s home. The truth is that even as a first-round pick and two minor-league batting titles, he had no way of knowing if he could hit big-league pitching until he got to Kansas City.
So if he came up with the Royals barely able to legally drink, he left as a star who will have an interesting case for the team’s Hall of Fame someday. Left with a lot of memories, too, and in those eight big-league seasons with the Royals there are three that stick out.
The first was the All-Star Game in 2012. That game happened to be at The K, and then Butler found himself seeing standing ovations and hearing his name chanted by 40,000 people at every opportunity.
The second was the Wild Card game, an experience that even more than six months later leaves Butler stumbling for a description before settling on this: “hands down, the best thing I’ve ever been a part of.”
The third was game two of the World Series, when he had two RBI singles and the Royals won big and the fans gave him the last curtain call of his time in Kansas City.
Even over the phone, you can tell the memories are putting a smile on his face. He talks, still, of being happy that the fans who suffered through so much losing finally got a payoff. He checks box scores and highlights when he can, openly rooting for his old team in every game until this weekend.
Butler has tried not to think too much about the actual game on Friday. Baseball is best played with a clear mind, and between seeing old friends and getting his new ring, Butler has enough to think about without considering what kind of reception he’ll get.
But you can tell this is important to him, how he’s remembered here. Like he says. It’s home, you know?
“I’m interested to see the fans’ reaction,” he says. “I played there a long time. They’ve always been good to my family. I’m looking forward to playing in front of them again.”