Not many baseball players can say they’ve won a World Series. Even fewer can say their sons have also won a World Series. However, Sal Butera is in that very small second group. His own season-ending victory came in 1987 with the Minnesota Twins, and his son Drew’s came in 2015 with the Kansas City Royals.
While the elder Butera has passed along many valuable baseball lessons to his son, the most important ones are related to being Catholic. In an uncertain world, both men find that being part of the Body of Christ provides reassurance that nothing else can.
Now, Sal Butera works for the Toronto Blue Jays as a scout during the season and an instructor in the offseason. He took time out of his busy schedule to speak of the Twins’ 1987 World Series victory over the St. Louis Cardinals as the start of this season’s finale between the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers on Oct. 24 approached.
Are you doing anything with the Twins to mark the 30th anniversary of your World Series victory?
Many of us got together in August to remember that close series against the Cardinals. There were lots of great things about that and the whole 1987 season, but the one I like the most is the progression of the guys who had been with the Twins in the early ’80s. I started out my own Major League career with them, so to be able to look back and see how Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti, Greg Gagne, Tom Brunansky and others had matured from that point is very satisfying. We developed our baseball skills and our camaraderie, which culminated in the ’87 victory.
Do you have any advice for Houston and L.A. as they face off in the World Series?
Well, both teams got there for a reason: They know how to play the game. They’ve endured many failures throughout the season — as even the best teams in baseball do — and they’ve persevered and played well at the right times. I don’t think there’s much I could say to them now that would help them.
Did you give your son, Drew, any advice that helped him and the Royals win the 2015 World Series?
Similar to advising this year’s World Series teams, I can’t really tell Drew much he doesn’t already know, since he’s been a Major Leaguer for years. His World Series win two years ago was his and his team’s, not mine. I was certainly happy for him, but I can’t take any credit for it.
Almost all the advice I gave to Drew was from very early on, when he started playing at age 4 or 5. That’s when you lay the foundation for the future, but you have to do it with joy rather than pressure. Anyone who plays a sport should enjoy it, but this is especially true for young kids. Then once the foundation is laid, it’s up to each athlete to take more and more ownership of his skills and work at perfecting them. That’s what Drew did. He put in the work and earned his way to the Majors.
As a former player yourself and now a scout and instructor, you would know what it takes to make the Majors.
There are many ways to get to the Majors, so it can’t really be put into one specific formula that you have to follow to the letter, but there are some basic qualities anyone would need. Talent, dedication and sacrifice are among the most important things for a player — and for anyone in any walk of life.
Maybe the most important thing in baseball is the humility to accept failure and move forward. One day you’re the star, and the next, you’re the goat, so you’ve got to take both with an almost equal mindset and then deal with the next game. Baseball is not a sprint; it’s a marathon, so whatever happens today shouldn’t ever get you too high or too low.
There are many Catholic catchers (such as your son Drew, Alex Avila, Rene Rivera, Tyler Flowers and Kyle Farmer) in the game today. Do you think being Catholic helps with the humility in baseball to take a position that is often overlooked?
For the average fan, catching might be overlooked, but people close to the game know how important the position is. Catchers have to call pitches and work with lots of different pitchers in all kinds of situations. Catchers end up being a friend, coach, father figure or psychologist, depending on what might be needed at a given time. That versatility requires humility. You have to be willing to set your ego aside and play whatever role the team needs.
Being Catholic certainly helps us get past ourselves and see the bigger picture, which is helpful, not only for catchers, but for all baseball players and all people. Anyone would benefit from being Catholic, right?
That’s interesting. I know all three of those guys well, and, yes, they’re all Catholic. Maybe you could say that, as Catholics, they’re well-equipped to deal with the stresses of their jobs in ways that they otherwise wouldn’t be.
People might think that as a scout you just get paid to watch baseball games all day, but there is a lot of work involved and a lot of time spent away from family. I work as a scout 10 hours a day, almost every day, for nine months out of the year. That’s in an effort to do as thorough a job as possible in selecting the best players for the Blue Jays.
A scout’s opinion is a highly prized commodity; what you think can determine how the team spends millions of dollars, so you have to be able to not only assess the statistics, but sometimes look beyond them, because they don’t always paint an accurate picture of what a player can do.
Baseball has always had stats, but today it’s unreal what is kept track of. All the stats can make it seem like players are robots that can be programmed, but players are people, and people have mental strengths and weaknesses that can’t be measured. That means a good portion of a scout’s work is assessing intangibles.
With all the uncertainties of baseball, do you find prayer helpful?
Prayer is very helpful in baseball and every other aspect of life. As very imperfect human beings, we are so limited in what we know and what we can do. God, on the other hand, is limited in no way whatsoever, so it’s always beneficial to communicate with him. This can happen in so many ways, such as the Eucharistic adoration, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, novenas, the Rosary and all kinds of spontaneous, silent prayers throughout the day.
One thing you can learn from prayer as a pro baseball player is how you were blessed with gifts to use; you did not give them to yourself. That should humble us, and so should the fact that, despite baseball being so much fun, it is, in the end, a relatively insignificant job. There are much more important things in life, like we learned recently with the hurricanes.
Your son spoke of the grandeur of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. In your travels around the country and in Canada, did a favorite church emerge?
I’ve been to so many cities and towns that I can’t even keep track of all the churches I’ve been to or give one specific favorite. I will say that, aside from the great basilicas and cathedrals in the big cities, some of the most beautiful churches are found in out-of-the-way places.
When traveling, creativity is involved in getting to Mass. I’ve been to English Masses, Latin Masses and Spanish Masses. Once I was in the Los Angeles area and went to what I was told was a Catholic church. When I got inside, it looked a little different and the liturgy was very different. There was singing throughout the entire thing, and I wasn’t sure if I was at a Catholic Mass. It turned out it was Catholic — Byzantine Catholic.
Do you have a patron saint?
St. Thomas the Apostle is someone I relate to and someone who helps me. He wanted to have sense-perceptible assurance of Our Lord rising from the dead, and I can be like that. “How do I know this, that or the other thing is true?” is a question that can go through my mind.
St. Thomas is in the New Testament, which, of course, has lots of good things in it. What many Christians don’t have as much appreciation for is the Old Testament. It can be less clear at times, but I’m an Old Testament fan. Moses and the burning bush is a great Old Testament story that, like others, I try to use in my own life today. God’s presence isn’t always going to be as dramatic as that of a burning bush, but God’s presence is always there, nonetheless. It’s up to us to be vigilant enough to see it.
Do you have a specific example of knowing God’s presence in your life in a dramatic way?
This is one that I’ll always remember: It was Sunday, Oct. 25, 1987, and we [the Twins] were tied three games apiece with the Cardinals in the World Series. We were scheduled to play the deciding game that night, and I was wondering how things would work out — or if they would work out. Life is challenging enough, but when you’re about to play in the seventh game of the World Series, your nerves can be frayed.
As I was walking into church — not my home parish — that Sunday morning, with my wife and two small children, I was wondering about the game. When we got inside, we saw that the church was packed, so we were left to stand in the back. Well, the Mass began, and the priest must have recognized me, because in his sermon he kind of pointed to the back of the church and half-jokingly said we should pray for divine intervention in the World Series.
That was a surreal moment. The fact that the priest could see me in the back of the church at all, and then, in essence, respond publicly to doubts I had privately was reassuring and funny all at the same time. I learned, in a very unexpected way, that things would be fine.
That’s a microcosm of what our Catholic faith is all about, really — the concept that, despite all the doubts, setbacks and sufferings, things will be fine if we place our active trust in God. He knows our concerns, even when we think we’ve been forgotten or set aside, and he provides for us better than any human father ever could.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.
His book, Fit for Heaven (Dynamic Catholic, 2015), contains numerous Catholic sports
interviews, most of which have appeared in the Register.