He would be forgiven if he said he told them. You would understand if he said he always had a bat. You would nod if he said that the scouts who looked at him and determined that he was lacking were all wrong.
Instead, Joey Butler just smiles.
And keeps on swinging.
He has spend an eternity in the minor leagues, playing on fields where no one watches, in games no one remembers, and for a long time, it seemed that Butler would finish his career there without anyone ever really knowing that he had played. He was what they call a AAAA player, a player who was very good in AAA but not quite good enough for the majors.
But Butler kept showing up. In Round Rock, Texas. In Surprise, Arizona. In Frisco, Texas. Pretty much, any team that would give him a chance and an opportunity. When all a guy has is stubbornness and love of the game, what else is there?
But this is baseball. Hang around long enough, and team is likely to have a need great enough to give you a chance.
And then, you can sneak up on the entire American League the way Butler has done.
Butler had three more hits in the Tampa Bay Rays’ 7-5 victory over the Chicago White Sox, improving his average to .342. In his last five games, he has nine hits, and he has hit safely in 12 of his last 13. Over that time, he has hit .404. He leads all AL rookies with .342.
Baseball always seems to have a story like this, a player who has no expectations and no pedigree assaults the league. Consider all the No. 1 draft choices who have fizzled and failed, and here is Butler, a 15th-round draft pick who spent eight seasons in the minor leagues. Over that span, he had all of 14 at bats in the bigs. It is fair to say that no one was really looking for big things or high impact from Butler.
“It’s like a dream,” he said, his voice a rich rumble. “A dream come true, I guess. It’s a lot of fun. It’s what I always thought it should be. You always want to believe in yourself no matter what anyone else thinks or says or if they question you.”
Oh, there are always questions. Somewhere, there is a minor league lifer, a guy derisively referred to a as not being good enough, an understudy who is still waiting for a shot. Butler lets that guy know that it may yet come no matter what anyone says. He is a last-chance ballplayer, a player who would not give up on the game even at those times it seemed to be giving up on him.
He hit only .220 in Japan. He hit .294 in the American minor leagues, but it wasn’t enough for a team to go all in on him.
Until, because of injuries and desperation, the Rays nibbled. And suddenly, Butler was a phenom.
“It’s pretty awesome,” Rays’ manager Kevin Cash said. “You know, he’s been playing for a long time and hasn’t had many opportunities. He’s getting one now, and he’s making the most of it. I think the entire dugout gets excited when he comes to the plate because we’re going to see a good at bat and most likely see a ball squared up.
“The stuff you guys don’t see is what he provides in the dugout. Everybody would say what a great addition, great teammate he’s been. We enjoy having him around.”
Oh, there are still doubts. Some say he cannot keep this average up for long, that the league will catch up to him. Of course, those are the same voices that said he wouldn’t make an impact to begin with. There are always doubters.
“Anything’s possible,” he said. “Of course, I would like it to continue. I’ll try to make it stay that way. But it’s a tough league. If it stays that way, I’ll love it. If not, I’ll still love it.”
Why is he still here. That love of the game. He talks about sticking around the game once his playing is done, simply because he loves going to the field and hanging around with the players.
Of course, if baseball was as much fun for most of us as it is for Butler right now, we’d never want to leave, either.
Take Friday night, when Butler led the Rays’ assault on the White Sox pitching staff. Tampa Bay had 14 hits, and it got the first-ever major league win by Mike Andriese, and Jake Elmore had a nifty slide into home, and Jake McGee shut down Chicago for the save.
A nice win. A lot of heroes.
Of course, there was Butler.
“More and more each time,” he said when asked if his success was validating his self-believe. “I get more comfortable. I feel I can do it more and more. You want to help the team win, and I feel like I do something to help the team win.”
Eight seasons, he waited. Fourteen at-bats, he got.
Now he has a legitimate shot. He’s had 117 at bats. If nothing else, he has earned himself a few more.
After all, he has more time to make up for.
The teams play again today at 4:10 p.m.