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Tom Verducci
September 16, 1996
Brett Butler of the Dodgers gladdened hearts with his stirring return from throat cancer
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September 16, 1996

Back In Style

Brett Butler of the Dodgers gladdened hearts with his stirring return from throat cancer

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Brett Butler is heading home. It is 9:33 p.m. last Friday—eighth inning, one out, score 1-1—and before him lie the next 90 feet of a journey so torturous he has called it going "through hell and back." A play at the plate looms. There are 41,509 people at Dodger Stadium rooting for him to beat this damned thing...and for him to beat the throw from rightfield, too.

In the full flight of his sprint after tagging on a fly ball, the tiny man appears, even at 39, as childlike as ever. His feet, size 7�, and his hands, balled inside a pair of size-small batting gloves, pump like the wings of a hummingbird.

But look closer. He is pale. A hideous scar runs from the base of his right ear, down his neck and across half of his throat, forming a crooked letter L. There is also this: His mouth is dry because his saliva glands no longer work. His right shoulder is numb. His 161-pound body is fueled mostly by fruits, vegetables, regular injections of an experimental cancer-fighting drug called laetrile and 59 pills a day.

Just four months after his cancer of the tonsils was diagnosed, just 38 days after undergoing the last of 32 radiation treatments and just five emotionally charged hours after explaining at a news conference that "this means more to me than any game I've played in my life," Butler slides across the plate as the throw from Pittsburgh Pirates right-fielder Mike Kingery bounces on the infield grass. Butler has made it, safe and sound.

That run turns out to be the deciding one in a 2-1 Los Angeles victory that puts the Dodgers in a first-place tie with the San Diego Padres in the National League West. "Another miracle," Butler's wife, Eveline, said after this, his first game back as the Dodgers' centerfielder. "Miracles happen around us, you know."

Miracles? Rarely in the sport has the word rung with such resonance as it did last week. Four days before Butler's return, New York Yankees righthander David Cone made a stunning comeback from a career-threatening aneurysm—a ballooning of the artery—just below his pitching shoulder that had sidelined him four months earlier. With his father, Ed, watching from the stands at Oakland Coliseum, Cone no-hit the A's for seven innings before Yankees manager Joe Torre wisely decided not to risk Cone's health for the glory of a no-hitter. He pulled Cone. Reliever Mariano Rivera finished the game and allowed one hit, an infield single in the ninth inning, as Cone and the Yankees won 5-0.

Cone followed that with another strong outing, albeit a losing one, at Yankee Stadium last Saturday. He allowed the Toronto Blue Jays three runs on his first five pitches, then shut them down before departing after seven innings, giving him this sparkling post-op pitching line: 14 innings, five hits, three runs, six walks and 14 strikeouts.

"I haven't had a chance to talk to him recently," Butler says of Cone, whom he had befriended during the 1994-95 strike when they both assumed leadership roles in support of the union. "He's probably been as busy as I have. Plus, I think the doctors wanted to isolate me from baseball as much as possible the last four months." Butler, who chewed tobacco early in his career, says doctors told him that stress may have contributed to his cancer. "It came with the pressure from the strike, the Dodgers not re-signing me [after 1994], my mother dying [in 1995, of brain cancer], getting traded from the Mets back to the Dodgers and the whole replacement-player thing." (He was vilified in Los Angeles for shunning Mike Busch, a replacement player who was recalled by the Dodgers last season.)

One year later Butler is so beloved in L.A. that the day after his comeback his locker overflowed with gifts, flowers, telegrams and faxes. A bottle of wine wrapped in cellophane went untouched. "I can't drink alcohol," he said. "It burns my mouth."

It was on May 3 that Butler underwent what was expected to be a routine tonsillectomy. Doctors, however, extracted a plum-sized lump that turned out to be cancerous. His first thought was that he was going to die. Nearly three weeks later doctors removed 50 lymph nodes. On June 17 Butler began six weeks of radiation treatments that left him a withered 142 pounds. His throat was so sore from the treatments that it took him 15 minutes to swallow a strand of spaghetti when he visited Dodger Stadium on July 30.

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