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Baseball helps heal heartache

In one week, Rich Butler lost a friend, an uncle and very nearly his grandmother.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 1999

ST. PETERSBURG -- The blows came rapidly, one after another after another. Within three days, Rich Butler lost a dear friend, an uncle and nearly his grandmother.

"It was a lot to handle," Butler said. "It's one of those things you have to go through in life, and everyone has to go through it at some point, but it just happened all at once."

When you're 25, handsome and make your living playing baseball, real life can sometimes seem a long home run away. Frankly, Butler was staggered by the developments.

His former minor-league roommate and close friend, Ken Robinson, was killed in a Feb. 28 car wreck. His 53-year-old uncle, Johnny, died of a heart attack the next day. And his grandmother had a life-threatening surgery and a foot amputated. Mentally, emotionally, even physically, Butler was hurting. He figured the best thing was to be with his family and, with the Rays' permission, went home to Toronto.

After five days, his father told him to go back to Florida and refocus on baseball. His heart heavier from the trauma and his hands slower from the absence, Butler said his return to the field has been a healthy catharsis.

"It helped me a lot to come back down and be around the guys again and get my mind occupied," said Butler, one of 12 Canadians in the majors last season. "I'm still getting my strength back now. It took the wind out of me."

Manager Larry Rothschild says Butler seems to have handled it well. "I think as well as anyone could handle it, from what I've seen," he said. "There's no way to sugarcoat it. It buckles you for a while."

Already, this was going to be a tough spring for Butler. The Rays think highly of him but brought in enough outfielders that he was going to need an outstanding performance just to make the team and avoid starting another year in the minors.

After a disappointing and injury-marred 1998 season, that predicament alone could be troublesome. But it was nothing like what struck Butler early the morning of March 1.

"I was reading the paper, having breakfast at Bob Evans, sitting there reading, "Ex-major-leaguer dies in car crash.' I said, Hmmm, then I looked at the picture and there's Kenny," Butler said. "I'm going, "That can't be right,' and I look at the name and it said he's dead, not wearing a seat belt. I just walked out. I didn't even finish my meal. I just walked out. I could not believe it. It gives me the willies thinking about it right now."

Even though Butler is with the Rays and Robinson was in Arizona, the former Blue Jays minor-leaguers remained tight. "We were really close," Butler said. "We were there from Day oOne in spring training, lockermates from Day One. We lived together for a couple years on the road. It was tough, man. A shock. A lot of memories."

Butler went to the Rays' training complex that morning, but he didn't feel right and couldn't concentrate. He went home to seek peace, only to get a phone call from his mother with word about his uncle, a shocking blow to Rich and brother Rob, a minor-leaguer with the Blue Jays.

"I'm thinking, this can't be happening," Butler said. "I got on the next flight. I didn't even bring a toothbrush. I just ran out of the house and went to the airport, me and Rob."

Waiting for them in Toronto was more bad news about their grandmother, who was stricken by blood clots and a ruptured aneurysm. "They thought she was a goner," Butler said. "But she's a strong woman. She had a big family (10 daughters, three sons) and she got a lot of support. There were 75 people waiting in the (hospital) hallway for her."

The worst has passed for Butler, but the pain continues. And the memories always will be there.

"They say time's a healer and I feel a lot better now than last week," Butler said. "You keep your mind busy, stay occupied. Baseball's the best. It's not like I'm sitting in an office all day trying not to think about it. Here you get to go outside, mess around with your teammates, go out and play the games. It all helps."


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