Cancer benches one of the grittiest players in the game, The Yankees lose an ace, Leiter's good fortune
With tears in their eyes the Dodgers talked of having to play without their centerfielder, Brett Butler, who last week was found to be suffering from throat cancer. "We can fold the tent or have this propel us forward," said pitcher Tom Candiotti, who has been Butler's teammate for seven years, first with the Indians and now in Los Angeles. "I know Brett wouldn't want us to feel sorry for ourselves. If he saw us sulking, he'd fly here [to St. Louis] and scream at us. If he couldn't yell, he'd yell at us through an interpreter. That's how he is."
Butler, his hoarse voice barely audible over the phone following the tonsillectomy that revealed the cancer, perked up last Friday when he was told that his courage had inspired his teammates. "I can't believe they'd lie like that," he said from his house in Duluth, Ga. Then he laughed. Typical Brett Butler. Nothing can get him down. "I've faced adversity before," said the 38-year-old Butler, whose cancer is life-threatening. (Statistically he has a 70% chance of survival.) "When I had an eye injury in '86, the doctors told me there was a 70 percent chance I wouldn't get my sight back. I was five feet, 89 pounds as a freshman in high school, everyone thought I was too small to play. I've met a lot of people with more ability than I have, but I've never met anyone with more drive and desire. God instilled that in me. I'm going to attack this cancer with the same vigor as I have everything else. It is etched in my soul."
The cause of the cancer is unclear. Doctors said that perhaps it resulted from secondhand smoke—Butler's parents were both heavy smokers—or from the chewing tobacco and snuff that Butler used for three years early in his career. Butler described his habit in a 1986 story in HouseCalls, a magazine produced by University Hospitals of Cleveland for the community. He said when he developed a sore in his mouth from snuff, he would just put a pinch in another part of his mouth.
Butler quit 15 years ago when he saw a 10-year-old boy dipping snuff. He told the kid he should stop, and the kid said he would stop when Butler did. So Butler quit. But his comments in HouseCalls have taken on an ironic cast now. "I wish I'd never used [smokeless tobacco]," he said in the article. "I'm just glad I haven't had any health repercussions from it. There's no doubt you're at greater risk for cancer or other problems if you use it. but people think it won't happen to them."
The news of Butler's illness shocked the baseball world, prompting several players, including Reds pitcher Jeff Brantley, Brewers outfielder Greg Vaughn and Orioles pitcher Kent Mercker and catcher Greg Zaun, to give up smokeless tobacco. Los Angeles first baseman Eric Karros, who learned the news when Butler telephoned him on May 7, was so choked up he couldn't speak. Rookie Roger Cedeno, who will replace Butler in centerfield. wept repeatedly when talking about his mentor.
The Dodgers are a shaken team, and it doesn't help that they've had one of the worst offenses in the National League in the first six weeks of the season, which explains why they were a disappointing 18-20 through Sunday. Los Angeles lost its first two games in the aftermath of the announcement about Butler but then held a players-only meeting before last Friday's game in St. Louis. The message: Play with more fire. The Dodgers won their next two games. Said L.A. closer Todd Worrell, "Brett's going to be missed. His outspoken leadership and his experience were huge. And he's one of the best leadoff men in baseball."
He has been since 1982. Only five players in this century—Ty Cobb, Eddie Collins, Honus Wagner, Tim Raines and Lou Brock—have exceeded the combination of batting average (.291) and stolen bases (542) that Butler has put together.
Butler still holds out slim hope of playing this year but says, "It's as if that chapter is done." Immediately after his cancer was diagnosed, he told one doctor that he would never play baseball again; he has since softened that stance. He'll know more after surgery on May 21, but he's prepared for the possibility that his career is over. "I was prepared two years ago," he says. "For a guy like me, to be 38 years old and have played 16 years in the major leagues, that is already a modern medical marvel."
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