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A Fan's Notes: Billy Butler's Back To Play The Royals

  The last time the Oakland A’s came to town, the result was one of the wildest come-from-behind victories in Kansas City sports history. Tonight’s rematch at the K marks an historic comeback of another sort, at least for one longtime fan favorite. Commentator Victor Wishna explains in “A Fan’s Notes.”

In the history of Kauffman Stadium, only a handful of men have stepped up to the plate more often than William Raymond Butler, Jr. His 2,422 appearances include seven home openers, one All-Star debut, and, of course, the bottom-of-the-ninth in Game Seven of the World Series. Tonight, he’ll be there again for the first time since. And, for the first time ever, this home plate won’t be home.

The Royals have started this year with the same intensity that electrified the city in October. It’s as if they don’t realize the season ever ended. Which makes it even harder to believe that Billy Butler, the man known as “Country Breakfast,” is now an Oakland Athletic. It’ll be tough to see him in that green-and-gold, only in part because no one looks good in those colors. The A’s will come in here looking to avenge their Wild-Card humiliation. But for Butler and fans, the sure-to-be-bittersweet reunion calls for a warmer brand of payback.

As sports divorces go, this one was particularly amicable. Billy Ray was keen to renew his vows, but when the A's came a courtin’, the Royals politely declined to match the proposal. It’s not that management didn’t want to keep him as much as they didn’t need to. Nothin’ personal—just business.

While free agents like James Shields and Nori Aoki were invaluable, they were always only on loan. Billy, on the other hand, grew up here, at least professionally. The Royals drafted him out of high school more than a decade ago.

Over the years, Royals fans have grown quite used to seeing their young stars return to Kansas City on other teams: Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran, Zach Greinke. But Billy’s legacy is so different—for what he achieved here, and how. He ranks among the top ten in team history for career average, hits, home runs, and RBI. And let’s not forget his six career stolen bases, including the one that inspired national headlines and hashtags during last year’s playoff run.

Fans, jerks that we are, would sometimes question his talent, his hustle, his habits, but never his class. His Hit-It-A-Ton barbecue sauce—with its magical, win-streak-producing powers that first rallied these Royals two summers ago—raised thousands for local food pantries. Only days after he split with the Royals, Billy took out a full-page ad in the Kansas City Star—the Thanksgiving edition—to express his gratitude to the team and their fans.

Even though the A’s are paying him more than he’s ever earned—$30 million over three years—Butler’s used words like “disappointing” and “unfortunate” to describe his departure from Kansas City. He’s joked that he’s renting his home in the Bay Area, not buying. And his career, whether as a player, coach, or scout, will definitely outlast his deal there. He’s not even 30—he turns 29 tomorrow.

So perhaps tonight’s visit isn’t just a reminder of the past. “I’d be more than happy to come back,” Butler told the Star in January. “That’s home for me.”

So when he does step up to the plate tonight, for the 2,423rd time, he's all but guaranteed to get a standing ovation. In fact, I bet a lot of fans wouldn't think it the worst thing to see Country Breakfast blast just one more bomb to Kauffman’s deep left-center field, maybe on his birthday. Let ’im have one more lap around the bases, one more celebration at home.

Just as long as the Royals still win, of course. Nothin’ personal—just baseball.

Victor Wishna is a contributing author and commentator for Up to Date.
As senior producer of Up To Date, I want our listeners to hear familiar and new voices that shine light on the issues and challenges facing the myriad communities KCUR serves, and to expose our audiences to the wonderful and the creative in the Kansas City area. Just as important to me is an obligation to mentor the next generation of producers to ensure that the important conversations continue. Reach me at alexanderdk@kcur.org.