Peoria, Ariz. -- Just before spring training opened last year, MLB announced a 50 game suspension for Butler for a drug of abuse. By the middle of the season, when Butler still hadn't reported to the Peoria complex, it was clear that more was going on with the powerful righty from North Carolina.
It turned out that "more" was a full year of rehab trying to get clean and in a good spot, not just to resume his career, but to get back on track in life.
How things have changed in a year.
Butler reported to camp with other minor league pitchers at the start of this month, ready to fight for a spot on a full-season roster. It didn't take long to see the upper-90s velocity and nasty slider that had put Butler on the map as a prospect. He broke two bats in his first live bullpen session.
And most importantly, he seems to be in a good place. Butler took time to talk with us after his first outing against live hitters.
MadFriars: How does it feel to get back out?
Ryan Butler: That felt great. It was the first time I’ve faced hitters in 16 months. Two fall leagues ago was the last time I pitched, so it’s great being back out here again. I had a little fear about the welcoming I was going to receive, but I was met with open arms, so that was great. It’s been very laid back for me since I’ve been here and I’ve just been grinding, trying to get back to where I was.
That first appearance against batters, you broke a few bats. That had to be a good way to get back at it.
Ryan Butler: Yeah, I’m feeling pretty good. I mean, I had a year off, so my arm should feel pretty good. It’s coming back quicker than I thought, better than expected. My second bullpen, I thought I was pretty much ready to go. It’s good to face hitters. I don’t know who I face in my first game, but it doesn’t matter. So it’s exciting times. It’s starting from scratch again and proving what I did before.
In terms of your suspension, what was the timeline?
Ryan Butler: I got tested in the fall league, and then a second test at home. I found out that I failed right before spring training. I wound up doing 36 weeks of rehab – 45 days inpatient, then about 30 weeks of outpatient.
I started with 20 weeks of outpatient in North Carolina, but I wasn’t being me still – I was way depressed. It was weird. It was my first time being in trouble with the organization. I was embarrassed. I was avoiding calls and just wasn’t me still. So decided October first to go do six more weeks inpatient in Wickenburg, Arizona, and then after that, I did 12 more weeks outpatient, so I finished that February 15. So I went from last February to this February.
Now, I’m still going to meetings and things like that – three times a week. I want to get that extra and that’s still a focus, but I’m so pumped to be here, that I’m giving it all I’ve got, and then I take naps a lot when I get back. It’s still early, but I’m focused and ready to go.
You had to know after that first test that you were at real risk the second time around?
Ryan Butler: Yeah, that’s what everybody’s asked, and uh, I just have to say that I wasn’t being very smart. That’s as simple as I can put it. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some things that happened that I won’t say, but that’s not an excuse and not an excuse for why I used again. It’s almost like I was sabotaging my career. It wasn’t intentional, but when I look back at it – what were you thinking? I’m glad that part of my life’s over and I’m glad that’s gone and I can focus on playing again.
You said you weren’t sure what sort of welcome you were going to get. Is there anyone or anything that really stuck out in terms of the way people welcomed you?
Ryan Butler: Sam Geaney’s been behind me this whole time. He’s always been there calling me, checking in. At times, I didn’t want him to call, but times I did. And when I look back on it, I can only appreciate it. They weren’t always good conversations. More recently, they’ve been more and more positive, and we’ve come a long way. He’s been there the whole way and it’s exciting for me that he’s got my back.
When I got to the field for the first time, it was all hugs – they were like, ‘man, we’re glad to have you back.’ So there was no one who was questioning why I was back or still with the team. They were all excited to see me and there’s no better feeling than that, to have my teammates and my coaches be excited to see me.
Obviously, you had something of a journey through your college career. Is it fair to ask if using was part of what happened to you then too?
Ryan Butler: My freshman year – that wasn’t the reason I was released from Marshall. There were other things I needed to do and take care of there, it just wasn’t a good fit. I was clean from all drugs until, really, last offseason. I was getting tested in college and never failed.
It was just a rough – really, three months. It happened all in three months. Three months that led to a whole year of paying for it. It sucked and it was awful – there’s no other way to put it. But it was a good experience for me at the same time. It made me realize what I have here and that I’m still chasing a dream and they gave me an opportunity to do that.
You know, I’d rather it happened now than later, and if it helps me, then it helps me. And it has.
Did you bring any additional support with you for camp this year?
Ryan Butler: No. I wish I could. I have a sponsor and he’s out here, but my family, they work and it’s just not something that’s possible. My dad will be out here for like eight days. I’ve got a good group of guys that I surround myself with. And I try to plan my day. I’ll be in the outfield during BP and be like, ‘hey, what are you guys doing tonight, you want to get dinner?’ so that there’s no free time. I’m not worried – I’m really not – but it’s one of those things where, be smart. Be smart about things and have my mind on right. Pay attention to what’s going on and make sure you put yourself in good situations.
As you get back into the rhythm of life out here, are you working purely to ramp up for relief?
Ryan Butler: I have no idea. I’ll do whatever they want me to do. They’re taking their time with me – I missed a year, so they’re not going to rush me into anything. But I’d guess so. But I have no clue and I don’t ask. If they tell me they want me to start, I’ll start. If it’s relief, I’ll relief. I really couldn’t care less. I’m just excited to be here and step back on that mound and face hitters. That was amazing. Wherever they want me, I’m in.