I recently had the privilege of meeting Kansas City Royals’ first baseman Billy Butler during a recent Royals road trip to Oakland. As one of the primary users of Phoenix Bats, Butler has put up some very notable statistics this year, batting .308with 11 home runs and 63 RBIs. I asked the Royals’ slugger about debuting in the big leagues at a ripe age of 21 and being a baseball star in a smaller media market such as Kansas City.
This year you are batting .311 (at the time of the interview), a very impressive number. I’ve noticed that your batting average has seemed to increase each year. What has changed in your hitting approach compared to years previous?
BB: I think its just I’m getting older and being more mature. When you get to the big leagues and you’re 21 like I was, there was a lot to learn. I think I have figured out pitchers a little bit more. I think after a while you know it’s the big leagues, you get this intimidation factor that you’re like “Do I belong here?” Well last year I had a good year and I told myself this: “If you have a good year, you belong here,” and I pretty much go up to the plate every time and have this confidence factor now.
You said you were 21 when you went to the big leagues, which is a relatively young age compared to many players. How was that adjustment going into the big leagues when you were 21?
BB: I turned 21 the week before (Billy’s major league debut) so I was barely 21. I think I’m the eighth youngest or ninth youngest player in our franchise history. The adjustment is very hard. You’ve got big leagues full of older guys. They tend to prank you, the typical rookie stuff. It gets even worse when you’re so young, because they are just using that intimidation factor because they are older and they can. After a while, with any transition, they make it tougher for you to break in.
You’re in Kansas City, a small market compared to the Bostons or New Yorks. What is like being a baseball star in a small market?
BB: It’s good. I’ve played against the Bostons, I’ve played against the New Yorks, the bigger markets. I belong in Kansas City because I’m not a bigger market guy, I just want to go out there and play the game. Kansas City gives me that small-town feel but it also is a very big city, and the Midwest, the people are just very nice. They are the type of person I am, I’m from the South, but it’s the same type of culture so there was never any type of culture shock or anything like that.
In an interview with the Royal’s Gameday magazine, it says that you want to win in Kansas City. Some players go from a small market to a bigger market and win. You referenced to Johnny Damon, who went from Kansas City to Oakland and later won championships in Boston and New York. How do you see yourself as a part of getting the Royals to a championship caliber level?
BB: I hope, and I hope in the front office’s mind for us, that I’m in their future plans. I’d hate to go anywhere else. I know the business of baseball and I know the money situations for the smaller markets. You hate to bring money into your discussion of baseball, because frankly in my opinion, I think money has ruined baseball. You’ve got to make a living for your family, you have to do that. I love it in Kansas City. Obviously I’m going into arbitration next year and I’ve had a good year so your salary takes a jump. I just hope I don’t jump enough where the Royals can’t afford me or they don’t want to afford me. Hopefully they think I’m worth it and in their mind if I wasn’t worth it to them, they would have traded me by the trade deadline. I want something that would be fair for my family and fair for the team. I don’t want to be the guy that makes the most money, I want to be the guy that is just treated fairly and just play.
What is it like being the center of this young team, even though you are only 24 years old yourself?
BB: I’m happy to be one of the guys the young guys come up to. I mentor them and I show them how to the play the game and show them how to win in Kansas City. Just to be the guy the Royals build around, I feel like we’ve got some good young talent now and we just need to start building around it. What you really do is in house and through drafting. I feel like I have that certain value to me because I was drafted by the Royals and they want to keep as many Royals players as they can. I have that on my side--they want more Royals guys, they don’t want to go outside and get players from there. The Royals want to keep it in house, and I like the way that sounds.
Speaking of which, you were drafted by the Royals in the first round of the 2004 draft out of high school. At that time, you were also offered a baseball scholarship from the University of Florida. What was appealing to sign with the Royals straight out of high school instead of a Division I school with a prestigious sports program?
BB: Honestly, as a kid growing up, your dream is to go play in the big leagues. I had a full ride scholarship to the University of Florida and got drafted in the first round. Obviously I had a lot of leverage because of my full ride scholarship to the University of Florida. I had a really nice signing bonus with the Royals and it would have worked out that they would pay for my college scholarship even if I didn’t play baseball anymore. That made it a pretty easy choice for me to not go to college and go to Major League Baseball. I had my agent that I just hired and I had multiple scouts tell me I had nothing left to prove. I was used to swinging a wood bat as I’d already been using wood my whole senior year. It just wouldn’t have benefited me to just keep using metal.
You talk about using a wood bat. Do you feel your hitting would have gone down if you spent a few years using metal in college?
BB: I don’t think so. I debuted in the big leagues when I was 21, that’s usually when you’re a college junior. I definitely think if I did the college route, I wouldn’t have gotten to the big leagues as fast. There is nothing that can replace playing in the big leagues at a younger age. I would have gone to school and played with Matt LaPorta, and some good players at the University of Florida. Matt LaPorta made a great decision in going to the University of Florida: he was a fifth-rounder of out of high school and then became the fifth or sixth overall pick after he went to college. People seek different routes. I mean Stephen Strasburg went number one overall, and he didn’t get drafted out of high school. If he was drafted then, it wasn’t very high. You go from not even being on the map to the overall number one pick. I was the 14th overall pick, so pretty much the only thing I could do was work my way backwards not forwards. Obviously I could have gone to the college and the risk factor is always there. You could injure yourself and hurt your stock, but you could also help your stock so college is an option you just have to weigh.
On a different note, I noticed you did a national television advertisement with the Pepsi Refresh Project. How did that come about and how did you start becoming involved with the Pepsi Refresh Project?
BB: Every year there is a representative for the Royals, and I happened to be that guy this year and hope to be for the years to come since I really enjoyed it. For The Pepsi Refresh Project in Kansas City, we are renovating 37 baseball and softball fields. That was very appealing to me because I remember when I was playing little league. I want every kid to go out there and play on a good surface, have a good atmosphere and not have a bad playing experience. Great fields are hard to come by, especially at that level. Just my charitable donations and involvement in the community made it a no-brainer for Pepsi to want to use me for that.
In every interview, there is always a ton of behind the scenes work that needs to be arranged for the interview to occur I would like to thank Billy Butler for his time to give the interview. I would also like to thank Billy’s agent as well as Charles Trudeau and Seth Cramer of Phoenix Bats for getting the interview with Billy arranged.
-Eitan the Intern