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The day Billy Butler became a Kansas City Royal

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13 years ago today, “Country Breakfast” started the beginning of a storied career in Kansas City.

Kansas City Royals Photo Day Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Around 6:00 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in May, Billy Butler and his soon-to-be wife, Katie, were asleep in his apartment in Omaha, Nebraska. The Royals’ 2004 first-round draft pick had just gone 1-for-3 with a walk in a 9-3 loss to the Memphis Redbirds roughly eight hours earlier. At just 21 years and 13 days old, he was hitting .337 in Triple-A for the Omaha Royals.

Suddenly, Butler’s phone rang. It was Mike Jirschele, his Triple-A manager at the time.

“Hey, where are you at?” Jirschele asked Butler. “You’re late. The game is about to start.”

Woken out of a cold sleep, Butler thought he’d overslept for game 2 of a four-game set with Memphis. But the Omaha Royals weren’t scheduled to play for another 12 hours. This call was for a different reason.

“I’m just messing with you,” Jirschele joked with Butler. “Pack your bags, you’re going to Kansas City.”

The Royals, who had won just eight of their first 26 games, were slated to play the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim that night. The previous evening, John Lackey out-dueled Odalis Pérez as the Angels claimed game one, 3-1. That lone run from Kansas City was produced by Ryan Shealy, who was slashing .113/.186/.208 at the time. There was a need for a spark, and general manager Dayton Moore believed Butler was the man for the job.

Excited for his first shot in the big leagues, Butler left Omaha for Kansas City in a hurry and hopped on Interstate 29. However, he met his first roadblock while venturing on his trip.

“I got freaking pulled over on the way to the stadium,” Butler said in a phone interview. “You know I was speeding a little bit and was excited to get to the stadium.”

After Butler pulled over, the officer approached his car.

“What’s your hurry?” He asked.

“I just got called up to the big leagues and I’m in a hurry to get to the stadium,” Butler responded.

The cop looked at Butler and then at his identification.

“Yeah, we’ve been excited for you to get here. Can you go a little faster?”

Though the exchange was comical, the officer had a valid point on Kansas City’s excitement for Butler’s arrival. At the time, Alex Gordon was the highly-coveted prospect in the organization. But Gordon made his debut a month earlier on Opening Day against Boston. Now the wait had been centered on Butler.

“It was a really big deal,” Sam Mellinger, sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, said on Butler’s debut. “{Butler} was just a savant as a hitter and you could see that right away.”

According to Baseball America, Kansas City’s farm system ranked 11th in baseball in 2007. The top names of the bunch included Gordon, Butler, and Luke Hochevar, who made his debut in September of that season. Outside of that, the Major League team had limited resources. Greinke (23), Joakim Soria (23), Mark Teahen (25), David DeJesus (27), and John Buck (26), were a few of the youthful members to build around on an eventual 93-loss team.

When Butler arrived at Kauffman Stadium around five o’clock, it had been announced that there would be a rain delay. There would be no batting practice, or warm-ups of any kind. Butler headed inside, but before he reached his locker, he was informed to meet with Buddy Bell immediately.

Bell was in his third season managing the Kansas City Royals. He was coming off his second 100-loss season as a manager and 2007 was not looking like a turnaround.

“{Bell} wanted me to play right away,” Butler said. “He just wanted to see how I was feeling. He just wanted to have a conversation, which I’m 20-years-old and ready to go. Then I found out I was facing Bartolo Colón.”

Colón, a.k.a “Big Sexy” was just two years removed from winning the Cy Young Award in 2005 with 21 wins in 222.2 innings.

“I’m coming out of the gates to one of the best to pitch,” Butler said with a laugh. “So yeah, that’s the way that went.”

For the first time, Butler would see his name on a major league lineup card just three years after playing for Wolfson High School in Jacksonville, Florida. Now he would be facing a Cy Young Award winner just 13 days after he became legally allowed to drink.

Here was the Kansas City Royals lineup on May 1st, 2007:

David DeJesus CF

Esteban Germán 2B

Mark Teahen RF

Mike Sweeney DH

Ross Gload 1B

Alex Gordon 3B

Billy Butler LF

John Buck C

Tony Peña SS

Zack Greinke P

Before his time handling first base and the designated hitter role, Butler was a corner outfielder in Kansas City - though, for a short period of time. After his debut, Butler would play left field just five more times for the Royals.

“It was a disaster,” Mellinger said with a laugh on Butler’s days in the outfield. “I remember when {the Royals} came up with that idea and I was like, ‘really’?”

While playing a game of “quarantine catch” with his old teammate in Teahen, Butler joked about a meeting he had with Bell about playing left field.

“I walked into {Bell’s} office, he rips my glove out of my hand and throws it in the trash can,” Butler said in the video. “He goes, ‘son, you can hit and this town is going to love you, but you cannot play left field’.”

As Butler trotted onto the field for the first time as a Major Leaguer, it would be a loud and active inning for the Halos in the top of the first. Facing Greinke, Los Angeles collected six hits from its first seven hitters. But none were as impressive as the ball hit from their clean-up man, Hall-of-Famer Vladimir Guerrero.

Coming into the game, Guerrero was slashing .366/.470/.695 with seven home runs and 23 RBIs. On Tuesday night, he approached the plate for the first time with the bases loaded. As Greinke fell behind 3-1 in the count with no where to put him, he grooved one to Guerrero, who unloaded.

“He hit it on top of the signs that are above the fountains,” Butler said with a laugh. “You don’t see balls hit like that. I mean, he crushed it off of Zack and you realize, ‘hey man, they don’t have these types of hitters in the minor leagues’. You see it hit and I didn’t even move.”

Down 5-0 in the bottom of the second inning, Butler stepped to the plate for the first time in front of 11,225 people in Kauffman Stadium. His family, who had flown in from Jacksonville that day, had barely arrived at their seats in time to see his first at-bat. On a 1-1 count, Butler swung on a sinker over the plate from Colón and guided it between Chone Figgins at third base and Orlando Cabrera at shortstop. The ball dribbled to Reggie Willits in left field for his first hit in the major leagues. The same ball that was tossed back to the dugout for safe-keeping 13 years ago resides in Butler’s home today.

“I have that {ball} and the bat,” Butler said. “I have it in my man cave downstairs at my house with the ball and case that my wife did for me.”

Kansas City would drop the game 7-5 after Francisco Rodriguez (K-Rod) slammed the door in the ninth and handed the Royals their 19th loss in 27 tries. However, Butler would notch one more single in the bottom of the eighth on a line drive to right field off right-hander Scot Shields. Going 2-for-4 on the night, Butler was one of three Royals to produce a multi-hit game.

“With really good hitters, there’s a sense that they’re in control and the pitchers not,” Mellinger said. “It’s just something about how they are, their body language in the {batter’s} box - they are completely and utterly both comfortable and confident. When I close my eyes and think about Billy playing, it’s the way he seemed in control in the box. He had that leg kick and when he took a pitch he’d scrape the dirt to get it perfectly with his cleats. He was just a really, really, great hitter. I think some people don’t appreciate just what a terrific hitter he was.”

Here are five pitchers Butler tormented throughout his career:

Justin Verlander (2-time Cy Young Award winner): 87 ABs

.402/.464/.540 with six doubles and 16 RBIs

Mark Buehrle (5-time All-Star): 72 ABs

.306/.346/.486 with three home runs and 17 RBIs

Rick Porcello (Cy Young Award winner): 55 ABs

.345/.345/.491 with five doubles and 10 RBIs

Chris Sale (7-time All-Star): 45 ABs

.378/.420/.689 with five doubles and 10 RBIs

Jake Peavy (Cy Young Award winner): 37 ABs

.432/.500/.703 with three home runs and 8 RBIs

Butler played 1,166 games in a Royals uniform. Though his first was played in front of less than 12,000 people, his last would come at the highest of stakes in Game 7 of the World Series. To get to that point, he’d suffered a losing season in six of his eight years with the organization.

“I was very fortunate to see it from the beginning and it took a long time. It took longer than expected,” Butler said. “It was good to be that guy that was kind of the starting block of what we were doing and building off that and building something special.”

The man they call “Country Breakfast” is currently a Top-10 Royal in 21 offensive categories. But more importantly, he remains an icon of one of the greatest sports revival stories in decades.

“You become a winning team with a mindset,” Butler said. “It’s the way your team is built. When you start believing that you’re going to win, then you actually do start winning. You develop a winning mentality and that’s what the biggest thing is for an organization. You develop a winning atmosphere.”