CHICAGO -- It was a rivalry game.
Greenbrier Christian Academy, in Virginia, was playing nearby Bishop Sullivan. Emotions were running high. Several pro scouts were in the stands to watch Greenbrier senior right-hander Eddie Butler. Instead of trying to impress those who had a say in his future, Butler wanted some revenge.
“This kid just kept running his mouth the whole time,” Butler recently recalled of the 2009 game. “He ran his mouth in the fall and ran his mouth all winter. He went to a rival school. So I hit him on purpose. We cleared benches. A couple guys got ejected.”
It wouldn’t be the first or last time emotion overcame Butler. Now a member of the Chicago Cubs bullpen, Butler admits he had -- or even has -- an “anger problem.” In fact, he’s still trying to overcome it -- or at least put it in its place.
“I did it this spring training,” Butler said. “I had a bad inning. Threw my glove against the bench then kicked it under the bench.”
The irony is Butler might be the last guy on the Cubs you would think has a short fuse. Usually there’s a smile on his face, but underneath it all, he has struggled to maintain control.
“He would get in trouble for doing stupid stuff,” Eddie’s dad, Tim Butler, said via a phone interview. “But he would give everything up just to go to baseball. We took everything else away from him. He lost his TV in his room. He would have to go to bed right after dinner and no friends. But he got to go to practice.”
Eddie summed it up: “I used to hold things in, hold things in, then explode.”
A day in middle school provided quite the scene.
“I got angry and yelled at a girl in the middle of class and got suspended,” Butler said. “That’s when my parents sat me down and said, ‘Look, you need to get this under control.’ It was either losing baseball or stop hanging out with friends and no TV and stuff. I chose baseball.”
It was a good choice, as Butler was eventually drafted in the first round by Colorado after attending Radford University. Before spring training in 2017, he was traded to the Cubs for James Farris, who has since retired.
Baseball should have been his release. Instead, it only fueled his anger, especially when things didn’t go his way. Fortunately, the thrown bats, kicked gloves and punched water coolers never resulted in real harm -- for himself or his teammates.
“You would see him do that stuff, but I think it was just a maturing thing,” said teammate Tyler Chatwood, who played with Butler in the Rockies system. “He was pretty young, getting called up. He’s been able to mature.”
"We were in a conference championship game, and he pitched two days earlier. He wanted to close out the championship game. His velocity was way up when he came in. He stepped it up a notch and blew them away. I saw him use his emotions to help himself." Gary Lavelle, Eddie Butler's high school coachWhile Butler has grown on the mound, his past actions earned him a reputation across baseball -- for better or worse.
“The Cubs were aware,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “The industry was aware.”
Maybe that’s because of those scouts in the stands the day Butler hit a high school kid on purpose, leading to that brawl. One of those scouts in attendance worked for the Cubs.
“There were three scouts there that day, and I was one of them,” Cubs area scout Billy Swoope said. “I don’t know how to say this, but it kind of perked me up a little bit. I was like, ‘OK, this guy doesn’t fool around.’ It kind of intrigued me about him to the point where I wanted to sign him out of high school.”
Yes, Butler’s anger problem actually made Swoope take notice of him, but taking out frustrations on equipment isn’t usually viewed as a positive.
“I’d throw a bat or helmet and accidentally hit a guy on my team, and I’d feel like an idiot,” Butler said. “I’d have to go apologize to them for getting mad and slamming something down and hitting someone else. ... Then I’d be yelling at umpires, doing all kinds of stupid stuff like throwing at the other team and punching coolers. I punched a wall once.”
Butler didn’t have to be reminded that the wall never loses in those battles. Epstein was quick to point out that many players show their anger in the moment; it can happen after a bad at-bat or poorly pitched ball -- or, in Epstein’s experience, in the office.
“There were times when you have to release a guy, and you want a big body in the room,” he said with a half-smile.
Fortunately, Butler was good enough to advance in baseball even as his anger got the best of him at times, but he didn’t exactly light the world on fire with the Rockies and is still finding his way with the Cubs. He surprised even himself with his performance in a 17-inning marathon in the second game of the season, when he threw seven stellar innings in relief -- all in extras.
“Pitching with your back against the wall was kind of cool,” Butler said. “I was surprised with how well I handled it. I didn’t let it get to me too much. I threw my best game I ever threw in the big leagues. ... I wasn’t sure how I would respond to one pitch forcing the game to be over. I didn’t think about it once I left the bullpen.”
He actually suffered the loss against the Marlins, but only after Brandon Morrow gave up the winning hit while Butler was looking on from the dugout. Did that infuriate him?
“No,” Butler said with a chuckle. “I wanted to win that game, but I pitched well. I wasn’t mad.”
His defenders -- such as his parents and perhaps even Swoope -- will say the anger comes from his being overly competitive. Butler allows for that notion but also understands that he has to stay in control.
“It actually fizzled out in baseball more than off the field,” Butler said. “Things would aggravate me and stay with me all day.”
His mom remembers one incident in particular.
“We had an unattached garage,” Monica recalled. “He was on his four-wheeler. Dad got on him about something, and he had a little bit of an attitude. When he came around the back of the garage, the door was closed, and he ran the four-wheeler right into the door and tore it all up. A brand new door. He told us he hit he garage door not because his attitude, but because the brakes weren’t working. He had to replace the cost with doing chores around the house.”
Somewhat amazingly, Butler didn’t get any formal anger therapy. Things slowly got better when he realized he was headed down a bad path. And, of course, he had help along the way. His coaches and parents were there for him.
“After years of working on it and being aware what gets me mad and how to react, I’ve gotten better,” Butler said. “When I was at Radford, the coaches took me out to dinner. They wanted to make sure I was all right.”
Butler's college coach at Radford, Joe Raccuia, didn’t mince words when talking about Butler’s issues. He and the other coaches saw the talent in the freshman, who turned down the Texas Rangers after being drafted out of high school, but also saw a player headed in the wrong direction.
“One of the things Eddie does is talk about how good he is before he performs,” Raccuia said. “He probably did it at the Cape [Cod League]. He probably did in the minors. He probably did in a big league clubhouse. He did it at Radford when he first got here. Then when you get hit around, it’s a humbling experience.”
The dinner with Raccuia helped, and though there are those negative stories about Butler, he garnered praise at every level of baseball for being a fierce competitor who used his emotions to help him.
“I think Eddie is a super competitor,” said Gary Lavelle, his high school coach. “We were in a conference championship game, and he pitched two days earlier. He wanted to close out the championship game. His velocity was way up when he came in. He stepped it up a notch and blew them away. I saw him use his emotions to help himself.”
How do the people closest to Butler know he’s getting better? They see little signs on the mound -- not the exaggerated emotions he used to portray.
“The worst thing he does now is twist the baseball trying to rub the major league emblem off,” Butler’s dad said. “If he’s having a great time, he doesn’t fidget with that baseball. If he’s struggling or someone makes a bad play, we know it’s because he rubs that baseball.”
Has the anger issue been conquered? Butler doesn’t think so, as he believes he might have to deal with it in one form or another for the rest of his life. But he’s getting there.
Realization is the word used to describe Butler’s progress. Realizing the problem is the first step to a solution.
“I just knew I had a short fuse,” Butler said. “When something didn’t go my way, I usually let it be known. Looking back, it wasn’t the greatest thing. I’ve had umpires miss calls, and the next thing you know, I’m trying to throw the ball 100 mph. I’m like, ‘What am I doing?’”