VIERA, Fla. — The Space Coast Stadium locker room is near its capacity this spring, each of more than 60 lockers of varying width packed with items of varying absurdity, such as cats that wave endlessly and statues of Yoda.
One of the least conspicuous cubbies is the locker in the middle of catchers’ row, the one in which Dan Butler’s No. 48 jersey hangs above a few catcher’s mitts, cleats and sneakers.
Butler sits in front of that locker most mornings before workouts, chatting with his fellow catchers, showing no boisterous demeanor or overt quirks.
Flash is not what got Butler to camp with the Washington Nationals as one of four catchers on the 40-man roster after being acquired from Boston. Never a starter at the University of Arizona, shuffled around summer leagues and not drafted, Butler is a reminder of how much must happen for a player to get one of those lockers at all.
At Greenway High in Phoenix, Butler was an all-state catcher, a regional player of the year who led the state in home runs and batting average as a senior. Then he got to the University of Arizona, where future Arizona Diamondback Konrad Schmidt was the catcher.
“When you’re in high school, you think you’ve made it already, you’re like, ‘I’m the man,’ ” Butler said. “Then you get to college, and everybody’s ‘the man’ in college.”
Butler, who is somewhat generously listed at 5 feet 10, said he was “a fat kid” then, weighing somewhere around 225 pounds. He had yet to understand the importance of conditioning when he injured his elbow as a redshirt freshman in 2007, underwent Tommy John surgery and lost the majority of another season.
“I realized it wasn’t going to last forever. [Surgery] was a jump-start,” Butler said. “I thought, ‘Hey, this arm isn’t going to hold up forever, these legs aren’t going to hold up forever. So I have to correct this and make the most of it.’ ”
The next summer, in between sessions of a summer baseball camp, Wildcats Coach Andy Lopez was sitting in the press box. He noticed a player who he remembers “looked like an Olympic athlete” running shirtless in the outfield, but did not recognize him. So when an assistant coach came in and asked him if he had seen Butler, Lopez said he had not. He did not realize until later that Butler was the player he saw working out in the outfield.
Butler kept up that work ethic through two more seasons, but it never yielded the starting role or much interest from major league scouts. “You look back on it, it was probably a blessing in disguise,” Butler said. “You sit there and you realize you have to work. It kept me working.”
After watching teammates like Jason Stoffel, Cory Burns, Preston Guilmet, Dillon Baird, Dwight Childs and Brad Glenn get selected in the 2009 draft, Butler headed to the Cape Cod League to try to earn a chance at a professional career. Even then, he was just a temporary player for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox, then bumped to Brewster’s roster when Y-D’s regular catcher returned from the College World Series. The Boston Red Sox signed him as an undrafted free agent and the real work began.
“At the time, I didn’t think so much about the major leagues, I just wanted to play pro ball,” Butler said. “I didn’t know what pro ball was, but you think everybody is a pro ballplayer, that’s where you want to be. Then you realize pro ball isn’t everything until you get to the major leagues.”
Getting there took time. Butler battled through parts of five minor league seasons before playing 80-plus games at Class AAA Pawtucket in the 2013 and 2014 seasons. He said he did not consider quitting.
“Never. Because I was always progressing,” Butler said. “When I got the opportunity to play every day, I was like, ‘Hey, let’s do this.’ I never thought about anything else but playing.”
When Butler established himself at Pawtucket, Lopez called a former player from his days at Florida, David Ross, who was the Red Sox’ backup catcher at the time. “I said the best way you can take care of Butler is retire so Butler can get the chance,” Lopez remembers saying.
Ross did not retire, but he did get injured. The Red Sox called up Butler in early August. He made his major league debut on Aug. 10.
“It’s every little kid’s dream,” Butler said. “You’re like holy crap, I’m here. Then you get there, you realize how much you’ve worked for it and how much you really, really want to stay. That keeps the grind easier because you understand what you’re working for.”
Washington acquired Butler in exchange for minor league pitcher Danny Rosenbaum this offseason. The roster will be whittled to two catchers by the start of the season. Wilson Ramos is the established starter and Jose Lobaton his proven backup. Sandy Leon is a homegrown talent who could get a chance should injuries require it.
Butler understands that situation as he lugs his gear from field to field, catches bullpens in the humidity and endures long days to get his lifts and swings in. Nationals Manager Matt Williams described him as a “good catch-and-throw guy” who “brings intensity,” no small feat in the grueling grind of a backup catcher.
“He’s used quite often in our program. I use him as an example of work ethic, a guy who didn’t get a lot of playing time but never, ever did anything but do it the right way or complain, he just kept working and working and working,” Lopez said. “He was the ultimate teammate and the ultimate team player in the program, and here he is with a chance to catch in the big leagues.”
Ramos got hurt on the first day of the season last year. Catchers get beat up incessantly. Butler’s next big league chance could come with the Nationals, but would likely be earned unexpectedly, if others falter. Perhaps that is only fitting. The unglamorous life of a backup catcher and the lessons it taught him are what got him his major league chance in the first place.