A former major league baseball player with family ties to Newfoundland and Labrador soon hopes to elevate the talent of players coming from the province.
Rich Butler, a Canadian outfielder who split 86 career games between his hometown Toronto Blue Jays and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the late 1990s, is moving with his family to Upper Island Cove. The 46-year-old former pro is the younger brother of fellow former Jay and World Series champion Rob Butler.
The Butler boys' connection to Newfoundland and Labrador became well known in the province after Rob helped the Blue Jays win a second Word Series in 1993. They're the sons of Frank Butler, who was from Butlerville in Bay Roberts. For Rich, those family ties extend to his wife Jackie, who is from Upper Island Cove. The Butler family will move to a house in the latter community next month.
"I'm really excited about this move to Newfoundland," Rich told The Compass in a recent phone interview. "I think it's a good opportunity. I'm just going to start out small and work my way up and grow the game. I just want to train the kids."
The concept for 709 Baseball is to teach fundamentals of the sport to players of all ages. Rich expects to focus on youth ages 6-14 for some camps toward the end of August, given he has limited time before kids head back to school. But beyond the summer, Rich intends to put in the work to find indoor facilities he can use for training young baseball players in Bay Roberts and the surrounding area. With enough interest, he hopes to offer a program that encompasses the entire province.
Had a great lesson with Ashlynn today. pic.twitter.com/OEFaYRXXO3— 709 BASEBALL (@709Baseball) July 15, 2019
"That's why I called it 709 Baseball — to encompass all of Newfoundland," he said. "Not just Rich Butler Baseball or something like that. I want to make it more personal to all of Newfoundland."
He's been back to the Conception Bay North area before to work with young athletes, but with a full family move Rich expects to make this venture something more substantial to benefit the sport in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Memories of the baseball explosion that rocked Canada following the Blue Jays' back-to-back World Series wins in 1992 and 1993 were recently resurrected when the Toronto Raptors accomplished a similar feat last month, becoming the first Canadian team to win an NBA championship. Expectations are the Raptors win will help basketball grow across Canada. Rich has witnessed what a professional team's success can do for a sport in Canada when it's not hockey.
"Baseball really exploded after the Blue Jays won the World Series," said Rich, who played in the Blue Jays farm system during that time before making his major league debut with the team in 1997. "Interest in baseball across Canada, the enrolment went up. Numbers were really high, and it really inspired a lot of young kids to become baseball players for sure."
There was a noticeable surge in interest at a youth level again a few years ago when Blue Jays teams, led by the likes of Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson, made noise in the playoffs, taking the Jays to the American League Championships Series in 2015 and 2016. That team is now in rebuild mode, hoping young players like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Cavan Biggio develop into stars that can lead the team to future glories.
"I'm just going to start out small and work my way up and grow the game. I just want to train the kids." — Rich Butler
Since the end of his playing days, Rich has been heavily involved in baseball as a coach and instructor. In Ontario he's regularly worked alongside his brother Rob, who currently owns the Butler Baseball Academy in Ajax.
"I've been coaching, instructing primarily baseball and softball – girls softball, boys baseball – for almost the last 20 years. That's pretty much been all my work. Just running camps, running lessons with small groups and large groups, travel teams, pretty much everything."
He's cognizant of the fact most kids he works with these days are not aware of his playing career, but feels he's built a solid reputation through his many years on the field helping youth excel at a sport he still loves.
"Well, I'm a baseballer for life," he said. "My playing days are so far gone, most kids today really don't make a connection to me and my professional career. But my reputation and my hard work keeps me connected with the game and allows me to have my camps. After they come to the camp, they realize who I am."