By: Michael Sullivan | Sports Editor
In the bayou of Louisiana lies a pocket of baseball fans lacking a major league identity. The state falls in a dead zone, where St. Louis, Atlanta, and Texas all sit hundreds of miles away. But that doesn’t mean they’re without hope. Down south, they love a part of the sport no one around Boston pays too much attention to: the college game.
So, when Blake Butera received a text during the fall of his freshman year from his head coach, Mike Gambino, saying Boston College would play at Louisiana State University’s Alex Box Stadium in 2015—Butera’s senior year—the Madisonville, La. native immediately texted all of his friends and family members the same message. “Hey, second week, my senior year, we’re coming to LSU.” And although Butera won’t admit it now, he had something to prove.
John Gorman allowed another walk in the second inning of last Saturday’s game. The entire pitching staff has struggled of late giving free passes to batters. He induced Clemson’s Chase Pinder to hit a ground ball on the left side of the infield. Shortstop Johnny Adams got to the ball as quickly as possible, tossing it to second. Given how slow the ball was hit off the bat, turning the double play seemed unlikely.
After receiving the feed, Butera quickly pivoted like a Gold Glove winner, whipping the ball to Joe Cronin at first to end the rally. In the box score, that may look like just another double play. For those watching the game, Butera just stifled a Clemson rally by stealing another out the Eagles didn’t think they would get.
Butera doesn’t profile as your typical baseball player. At only 5-foot-8, 161 pounds, his relatively diminutive stature saps much of his ability to drive the ball off the bat. He doesn’t have the speed to threaten on the basepaths. And a quick glance at his career statistics won’t show a player that seems to have many professional prospects. To date, Butera has amassed a .261 career batting average, five home runs, and 71 runs batted in—those aren’t numbers that make a scout leap to his feet. Most would even credit his lofty runs scored total of 109 to the man batting behind him for two and a half years: slugger Chris Shaw.
But Butera compiles numbers that would make Billy Beane tingle with excitement. The infielder gets on base at an impressive clip given his ordinary batting average—.377 over his first four years. A lot of that stems from his patience at the plate. Butera is BC’s all-time leader in walks with 104 (and counting) to go along with 24 hit by pitches. Unlike the current trend from many of his contemporaries, Butera makes productive outs by cutting down on strikeouts—for his career, he only failed to put the ball in play 91 times.
His value goes beyond the box score—Butera has developed superb instincts in the field, something he prides himself in the most. He routinely makes adjustments in between pitches, depending on the pitch count, the batter, and the score. One little move to his left or a step in makes the difference between a runner being safe or out. “I’ve seen so many games over my years that I’ve really come to understand what’s going on in each situation,” Butera said.
Shortstop Anthony Melchionda took repeated ground balls in practice from Gambino, fielding each with ease. He made the toss over to second for Butera to convert the mock double play. Butera couldn’t handle the ball, dropping it in the conversion to his hand or tripping on the pivot. With each miss, his face got fiery red in both anger and embarrassment. For the first time in his life, Butera had to adjust to looking at the middle of the infield from the opposite side.
The change from shortstop, his position heading into BC, to second base led him to make 14 errors at second in his freshman season. Each year he improved through intense practice. In 2013 he cut that total to 11. By 2014, he was down to only six. He works even harder during the offseason with his best friend, former teammate, and Vanderbilt senior, Dane Stubbs. “I caught more at first base this summer than I’ve ever caught before,” Stubbs said with a chuckle.
This season, Butera has a .963 fielding percentage with only four errors. And, according to Gambino, he’s now perfected the art of the double play. “Robbie Alomar had nothing on that turn,” Gambino said, referencing one he converted in the Wake Forest series this year.
When recruiting time rolled around in high school, the two schools he grew up idolizing—LSU and Tulane, his father’s alma mater—overlooked him. The only one who didn’t was Gambino.
As a scout with the Detroit Tigers, Gambino flew down to Louisiana to look at a teammate of Barry Butera Jr., who played second base for BC in 2009-10. He regularly stayed with the Butera family while on these trips, according to Barry Butera Sr., a former farmhand in the Boston Red Sox system. But when Gambino saw Barry Jr.’s skill, he immediately called then-BC coach Mik Aoki to give him the scouting tip.
As the assistant coach and scouting director for Virginia Tech, Gambino’s interest turned to Butera. Although he didn’t have much interest in VT as a school, Butera made the trip just because he loved the idea of playing for Gambino. When Gambino got the head coaching job at BC, Barry Sr. says his son’s mind was made up. “How can you not love Mike Gambino?” Barry Sr. said. “If my kid had come to BC and sat the bench and never got on the field for four years, he’d be a better man for having played with Mike Gambino.”
Butera desperately needed the Gambino’s guidance his freshman year. He already had trouble dealing with the adjustment to second base. Nothing prepared him for failing at the plate for the first time in his young career. Following an 0 for 3 day in the 2012 season, Butera slammed his helmet to the ground in frustration. Gambino was disgusted by the lack of maturity in his young starter. In no time, Butera found himself riding the pine for the rest of the game.
Butera has since matured, assuming the role of the captain of the Eagles along with Gorman. While Gorman acts as the “rah rah guy,” Butera serves as the lead-by-example guy, a huge growth from those freshman year outbursts. “Now you can’t tell if he’s 0 for 2, 0 for 10, 4 for 4,” Gambino said. “Look at him after the game and all you’ll be able to tell is whether we won or lost. That’s all he cares about.”
Barry Sr. checked to see if his wife was looking. As soon as she turned around, he tossed a football across the living room to his youngest son, Bryce, concealing the ball as his mom glanced toward him. Again, the matriarch of the Butera family turned her back. Bryce tossed the ball over to Butera, who wasn’t ready for the catch. The ball knocked over his mother’s vase, shattering it. Even when determining who would accept the blame, Butera’s competitive nature showed. “We both [got in trouble], but it was his fault,” Butera said with a sheepish smile.
That extends to video games as well, according to his teammate and freshman roommate Geoffrey Murphy. When he lost, Butera gave Murphy the silent treatment, just as he would to his brothers when they would fight as kids. Murphy believes that Butera more often channels his competitiveness into a positive on the field. “He’s a grinder,” Murphy said. “We were watching the Sox game last night and they were talking about guys who never give up at-bats. That’s how Blake is. We can be up by 10, down by 10, close game, anything.”
Murphy sees a lot of the same quality in Butera that he saw in Melchionda, Butera’s former double play partner. “Melch was a lot like Blake in that way: he took care of business, he would speak but only when he needed to,” Murphy said. “I think Blake has been able to follow and see a lot of these guys in a different way [as an everyday player] than someone who’s on the bench can.”
Heading into the third game of the Wake Forest series, one the Eagles desperately needed following two losses to the Demon Deacons, Butera dealt with a painful thumb injury. The pain brought him to the point where he could barely hold a bat—he could only offer a sacrifice bunt attempt. With the Eagles up one in the sixth, Cronin made his way to third with one out. Gambino drew up a plan for Butera to attempt a suicide squeeze.
With the game on the line, Butera wasn’t satisfied with the risk of a suicide squeeze. He knew he could drive in the run.
He assured Gambino he had one swing left in him, stepping to the plate with every intention to swing away and drive in the runner. With his hands shaking in pain, Butera drove home Cronin with a sacrifice fly to center. Everyone remembers Shaw’s three home runs and seven RBIs. Butera won that game with his sacrifice fly in the sixth.
“When you need a single to win the game, and Blake walks up to the plate,” Gambino said, “everybody on the bench is like, ‘Got it. Ballgame.’”
Butera doesn’t care at all about the walkoffs, the stats, or any of the praise. After three losing seasons, all he wants is to get an elusive postseason berth. Following his game-winning hit on Saturday—the 12th of his career—he barely stopped to soak in the moment. While sitting down at dinner with his family, all in attendance, Butera stayed glued to his phone. He ran through the scoreboards, checking to see how other conference teams did that day. The second baseman let a sad “doggone it” when he saw Notre Dame won again, further separating BC from the logjam in the middle of the conference. “All he was thinking about is getting into that ACC Tournament,” Barry Sr. said.
Given the resources at BC, there are only so many defensive gems Butera can make that will actually make a difference for the Eagles. Gambino’s team has had to recover from poor recruiting lasting from the Aoki era and the natural disadvantage of attempting to get big name recruits to come to a place with terrible conditions for baseball for a majority of the season. Injuries to Shaw and pitchers Jeff Burke and Bobby Skogsbergh make Birdball’s margin for error even slimmer.
In his first game against LSU, his first time playing in his home state since high school, Butera notched three hits and a stolen base. The Eagles lost and most of his friends still pulled for LSU. He catches himself at the thought of his friends rooting for the Tigers, laughing that they’d put their team over their friend. He swears that, deep down, they were rooting for BC.
But Butera has proved he deserved to receive this opportunity. And Stubbs believed everyone in Alex Box Stadium that night saw it. “Watching him made them regret not signing him, they all regret not pursuing him.”
Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Graphic
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