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April 13, 2005

Talented High School Teammate to Stars Faded Away


IAMI, April 12 - Regret hangs on Steve Butler like a spare tire.

Butler repeats the word regret a dozen times when he talks about his high school baseball team, the one he played on with Alex Rodriguez, Doug Mientkiewicz, two additional major leaguers and three more players who graduated to the pros. The Westminster Christian Warriors won a Florida state championship in 1992, then USA Today's mythical national title. Mientkiewicz, who has earned an Olympic gold medal and a World Series ring, said the Warriors might have been the most talented team he ever played on.

Butler was Westminster Christian's best player that year. A left-handed pitcher and first baseman, he went 13-0 in 1992, his junior year. He was named the Dade County player of the year, edging Mientkiewicz and easily beating Rodriguez. He was also named an all-American.

"If you would have said anybody on that team would have gone on to the pros besides Alex, I would have thought Steve Butler," said Steve Owens, a reserve player in 1992 who now works as a financial analyst. "He had a great arm and more talent than anyone. I don't know what happened to him."

Butler faltered during his senior season at Westminster Christian, the year Rodriguez emerged as the top prospect in the nation. Butler pitched briefly for Florida State before finishing his college career at Northern Illinois. He was not drafted by a professional team. He is back in Miami now, working as an athletic director at an elementary school and running a suburban youth sports league.

As he watched his high school teammates sign lucrative contracts and win world championships, Butler has pondered why he did not join them in the major leagues. As best he can tell, as a member of a high school team on the vanguard of professionalism, Butler made the mistake - that is another word he favors - of acting and thinking like a teenager.

"I don't want to say I'm in pain," Butler said. "It's more regret. Obviously, if I had a chance to do it over again, I would do it differently. Without a doubt."

Westminster is a parochial school located in the upscale suburbs south of Miami. Rich Hofman, who was the head baseball coach in 1992 and 1993, had been at Westminster since the 1960's, overseeing a team that received little attention. The players he attracted to the small campus near Biscayne Bay were usually those who could not crack the starting lineup at bigger schools.

"My coach and I, we were getting tired of castoffs," said Hofman, who now runs the baseball program at a private school in Fort Lauderdale. "We wanted the best players. We didn't want to recruit from other teams, so we decided to go down to the Boys Club and establish relationships with players down there. We developed a rapport with people, and soon the top players started coming to our school."

By finding players like Rodriguez at the Boys Club, Hofman transformed Westminster into a state and then a national power. Top talent began recruiting itself. Mientkiewicz, who had attended another high school, transferred to Westminster before his senior year.

"Going to Westminster was the smartest decision I ever made," said Mientkiewicz, who is now playing for the Mets. "If I didn't go to Westminster my senior year, I'd probably be home working with my dad. That's the honest-to-God truth. We had 40 to 50 scouts at our practices. That in itself helped me get noticed, which helped me go on to play at Florida State, which helped me go on from there."

Scouts attended every practice because Mientkiewicz had joined a team loaded with talent. Mickey Lopez, who started at second base for Westminster, played for the Seattle Mariners last season and is now in the San Francisco Giants' organization. Dan Perkins eventually pitched for the Minnesota Twins. Rodriguez played shortstop. In all, seven Warriors played professionally at some level and 12 members of the team were offered Division I college scholarships.

"Alex was the rawest, let's put it that way," Mientkiewicz said. "Alex had the most potential, obviously. But at that given point, there were two guys who were better than the four guys that made the big leagues."

One of those was J. D. Arteaga, a pitcher who rose to Class AAA despite a bad knee and who now coaches at the University of Miami. The other, Mientkiewicz said, was Butler.

"I think the difference is that Alex and I had an extra gear," Mientkiewicz said when asked why Butler did not go on to a professional career. "I know I could deal with failure. Not very well, but it drove me. It pushed me to the point where I'm not going to listen to these people who tell me I'm not going to play in the big leagues. I don't listen to that. You have your heart set on something, you don't stop."

Butler had played on the Westminster varsity since he was an eighth grader, getting a hit off Chipper Jones in the state championship game that year. At 6 feet 4 inches, he towered over batters; he had a fastball that was clocked in the 90's, and he threw with the precision of Greg Maddux.

"I think what happened with Steve, he was too successful," said his father, Al. "I've heard some things Chipper Jones did in his high school career. Steve did those same type of things. In one Little League game, he pitched a no-hitter and hit three home runs. In another, as a pitcher, he struck out everybody, every single batter."

Because he was so talented, Butler did not share the precocious focus and professionalism of Mientkiewicz and Rodriguez. He acted more like a typical high school student.

"Everybody saw the big picture except for me," he recalled. "I was into partying and having fun. After a game, Alex and I would go to Subway together to get something to eat. When we were done eating, he'd go off and watch a game at the University of Miami while I'd go off on a date."

After his junior year, Butler asked his father if he could play on the Westminster basketball team. Al Butler said the choice was Steve's, but if he wanted to play in the major leagues, he needed to concentrate on only baseball.

"I made the biggest mistake of my life," Steve Butler said. "I played basketball. Toward the end of the season, I twisted my ankle pretty bad. When I took the mound to pitch, I was wearing an air brace. My fastball dropped from 89, 92 down to 87, 88."

Rodriguez did not stumble. In his senior year, he had a .505 batting average, with 9 homers, 36 runs batted in and 35 stolen bases. Like Rodriguez, Butler was again named an all-American, but Rodriguez unseated him as the Dade County player of the year. Rodriguez also became the first player selected in baseball's 1993 amateur draft.

Rodriguez remembers Butler well. "He was unbelievable in his junior year, and senior year he just didn't have it," Rodriguez said. "It's still a mystery to me as to what happened."

"So many scouts would come to watch him that it helped other guys on that team get noticed and get drafted," Rodriguez added. "He had an amazing feel for the game, a great changeup that I still remember."

Al Butler said Steve had found it hard to play in Rodriguez's shadow.

"I don't know if anybody could have handled it," Al Butler said. "So many scouts were there, it was like a circus. It was always Alex, Alex, Alex, Alex. Everything Alex."

The members of the Westminster team in 1992 were incredibly close. As many as 10 players slept over at the Mientkiewicz house before games. They often went out to eat together. They traveled to California to play in tournaments.

"There were 11 guys in my wedding, and I think six or seven of them were off that team, which should put things in perspective," Mientkiewicz said. "Every off-season it seemed like we all had a wedding to go to, and we all were in each other's wedding parties."

Butler skipped the wedding circuit. He did not attend a 60th birthday party for Hofman, even though many of his former teammates were there. He is not in touch with Rodriguez or Mientkiewicz.

"I've been in denial, honestly," he said. "It's hard not to go back and think about the choices I made then. When I see all the work I do for my job now, I say to myself, 'Man, if I would have just had this drive and focus then, my whole life would have turned out different.' "

Specifics haunt him. That decision to play basketball. Or the time, one day before he was scheduled to try out for the United States junior national team, when he jumped into a canal and cut his foot on a piece of glass.

"I was the No. 1 pitcher for the No. 1 team in baseball," he said. "I'm sure Doug and Alex would never have been there jumping in a canal."

These days Butler lives with his girlfriend in an apartment behind a shopping mall, next to railroad tracks and underneath the roaring traffic of a highway overpass. His body fills out a baggy white T-shirt. His face is fleshy.

He recently turned 29. If he were still playing, he would be entering his prime. His father has sent him a DVD of the movie "The Rookie," the true story of a high school coach who tries out for and makes the major leagues.

"I hope it doesn't sound like sour grapes, but it really hurts," Al Butler said. "It hurts. I'm getting ready to retire. It would have been nice to watch him play in the major leagues. He just kind of took the wrong turn somewhere and didn't get back on track."

Youngsters in his recreational leagues tell Steve Butler that, like the pitcher in "The Rookie," he probably still has the physical equipment to make a comeback.

"They tell me: 'You never hurt your arm,' " Butler said. " 'You could still do it.' "

Butler is not sure. He said he would need six months to train. He would have to lose a lot of weight. He would have to quit his job and neglect his youth league, which is just getting off the ground.

"The kids I coach, they'll come up to me and ask if I played with Alex Rodriguez, and I'll say, 'Yeah, I played with him,' " Butler said. "I tell them that those who are talented are in a special situation. They need to grasp it and take hold of it."