OGDEN — Major League All-Star Billy Ray Butler picked up a baseball bat as a 6-year-old in Jacksonville, Fla., and every single day for 12 years his father J.D., took him out and threw balls so Billy could practice his swing.
“We hit every day of the year until I was 18,” Butler said with his dad smiling and nodding his head behind him on Friday night in Ogden. “Never took a day off; didn’t matter if it was a holiday or anything. It paid off.”
Did it ever. In the first round of the 2004 draft (14th overall) he was selected out of high school by the Kansas City Royals, signing for a $1.45 million bonus.
Butler says that work ethic, combined with the right coaching and training facilities helped him become one of the most feared hitters in Major League Baseball and this weekend he was in town to share his experience and know-how with area youth at the Wasatch Front Sports Academy, a place his dad is still helping kids with their swings on a daily basis.
Butler’s ties to the top of Utah began in 2004, when he signed a contract to play minor league baseball with the Idaho Chukars, who compete in the Pioneer League with the Ogden Raptors.
It was around this time he met his wife Katie, who was attending Idaho State University, and the two dated as Billy made his way through the Royals ranks before getting married a few years later.
The rest of the Butler family traveled west in 2008 when J.D. relocated with Boeing, moving from Florida to Clearfield.
J.D. spends plenty of time at the academy still working with kids on their game.
During this weekend’s Billy Butler Baseball Camp, kids from 7 to 18 worked with the major-leaguer on hitting, pitching, fielding, catching and every other facet of the game. Butler described the massive indoor facilities of the Wasatch Front Sports Academy as a huge asset to baseball players in the state that are serious about competing with kids from high-production states like Texas and his home of Florida.
“It’s a better facility than I had growing up,” Butler said. “There’s nothing you can’t do here. It’s got tremendous attributes and we wanted to get as many kids and their parents as we could to come out and see that this is a great place to train, especially when it gets cold.”
Something Butler and J.D. (who volunteers at the Academy on a regular basis) say is absolutely crucial if you’re going to compete with kids from states that are warm year-round.
No stranger to giving back, Butler is recognized for his off-the-field philanthropic endeavors. In 2008, Butler and his wife Katie started the Hit-It-A-Ton campaign to help feed the hungry in the Kansas City area. Through the program, $250 (the cost to purchase a ton of food) is donated for each home run Butler hits as well as $125 for each double.
The campaign has raised more than $215,000 and provided more than 960 tons of food for those in need.
In 2011, the Butlers expanded their efforts with Billy’s Doubles Club for Kids. This new club is designed to expose young children to the life-changing power of charity and encourage them to make a difference in their community.
Butler’s work with those organizations earned him the 2011 Hutch Award, given annually to an active MLB player who best exemplifies the fighting spirit and competitive desire of Fred Hutchinson, a former MLB pitcher and manager who died of cancer in 1964 at age 45.
Wasatch Front Sports Academy owner Monty Vorwaller says it’s a great opportunity for the kids to get one-on-one coaching from a current All-Star and in addition to having guest instructors like Billy come in, the academy boasts a full staff of minor league and ex-major league players that provide one-on-one and team instruction for every skill needed to develop players.
He also noted how tough it is to finance a facility like the academy and was extremely grateful to Billy for taking the time to come and help out.
“I met Billy’s dad and he’s been helping out here,” Vorwaller said. “He offered to have Billy come out and help us out to help raise some money to keep the place open.”
Butler added that he was happy to come help the kids and said “you don’t want to see a place like this get closed because of a financial situation. You want to keep it open because it really does wonders for these kids.”
“It’s awesome having him here,” 13-year-old Braydon Hutchinson from West Haven said on Friday night. Hutchinson said he had primarily focused on his hitting mechanics with Butler and when asked what he wanted to get out of the camp, came back with the same answer Butler probably had at that age: “I want to get to the major leagues.”
Braydon’s father, Nate Hutchinson, explained having assets like Billy and J.D. Butler in the area was something any parent serious about their kid’s development in the sport of baseball should take advantage of.
“I can see the difference and the value of the work he (Braydon) is putting in and the instruction he’s getting,” Hutchinson said.
Butler said for him, the most rewarding part of the two-day camp was getting to share his experiences and expertise with kids who are eager to learn.
“If we only affect one kid the whole time we’re here it’s worth everything we’re doing,” he said. “And if it gets one kid a college education or he makes a great life for himself through baseball, it’s worth everything we do.”
Having hit off several of the pitchers throwing in the World Series this year, Butler says he thinks the San Francisco Giants will prove too much to stop for the Detroit Lions.
“It’s hard to not pick San Fran,” he said smiling. “They’re just pitching too well.”