At this point, it’s sheer instinct.
Rick Butler can’t control it. Whenever he’s driving past McLennan Community College’s Bosque River Ballpark, he’s going to sneak a peek. It’s a given.
“MCC has been very special to me. My wife says that when we drive by the field, there’s not a time when my head doesn’t go left,” Butler said.
Butler will always be connected to MCC. The school gave him so much, including his first job, his first head coaching opportunity. In turn, Butler poured his heart and soul into developing one of the elite junior college baseball programs in the country.
It probably wouldn’t be standing in that position today had it not been for the foundation that Butler laid, starting 50 years ago.
Butler grew up in the Los Angeles area, but had family connections to Baylor. After a year in junior college in L.A., he moved to Waco and enrolled “back when Baylor was a lot cheaper,” he said.
He didn’t play baseball his freshman junior college year. Upon getting to Texas, though, the diamond tugged at his heart. He tried out for and made Dutch Schroeder’s Bear squad. However, an arm injury shortened his playing career, and Butler spent his final two years at Baylor as a volunteer assistant coach to Schroeder.
“I owe Dutch Schroeder so much,” Butler said. “He taught me everything.”
Though he flirted with the idea of becoming an architect, Butler had an epiphany one day after he’d spent hours at a drafting table. “I thought, ‘You’re not an inside person,’” Butler said.
Coaching was his way out. After finishing up at Baylor, he managed to land three job interviews in a single day in 1970 – one at Hill College, one at Richfield High School, and another at MCC. Butler figured if he could just bat 1-for-3, he’d be in good shape.
He managed to impress then-MCC president Jerry Walsh enough to land the job with the fledgling Highlanders.
“The guy asked me, ‘Look, we’re hiring you as the baseball coach and P.E. director, what happens if we drop baseball after next year?’ I said, ‘Well, the contract says I’ll be a P.E. teacher, that’s what I’ll do.’ Right answer,” Butler said. “So, I was hired. I was very fortunate, right time, right place.”
Still, this was like trying to make a five-tiered wedding cake from scratch. No cake mixes here. The Highlanders didn’t have a home field when Butler started. He had to beg, borrow and steal just to find a place to practice. His first team featured just 14 players. Naturally, almost everyone both pitched and played a position.
MCC went to work on a home field in time for Butler’s second season. In time, the Highlanders started piling up more wins. The young coach sought out ballplayers who were grinders, who were willing to devote plenty of time and effort to honing their crafts.
“Practice is boring enough as it is,” Butler said. “Baseball is boring enough as it is. If you stand around and don’t do anything in practice, it gets worse. So, we asked the players, if they weren’t assigned something to do at the time, find something.”
So, the Highlanders made the most of their workouts. They were constantly moving, working, tweaking. They put on such a show in practice that people started turning out to watch.
Yes, Allen Iverson, we’re talking about practice.
“People watched practices. It wasn’t boring, there was something going on all the time,” Butler said. “(In the games), we did things people didn’t expect. That’s what we told the players, ‘Look, you’re not just athletes. You’re show people.’ You get people in the stands. Sure, some of them are your relatives. But we want to show people that this is not a boring game. Baseball can be exciting.”
In 1977, MCC won its first of a collection that has grown to 23 conference baseball titles. The next year, Dub Kilgo joined MCC as Butler’s assistant. Butler gives Kilgo credit for injecting a swell of great ideas.
MCC won regional titles in ’77 and ’79, and reached the Junior College World Series for the first time in 1980.
Once they broke through, they remembered the way back. The 1980 season marked the first of four straight Juco World Series appearances for MCC, which finished third in ’80, eighth in ’81 and third again in ’82.
Butler, whose stories are inundated with impeccable details and a dry humor, remembers that ’82 World Series most for the weirdest game delay he’d ever experienced.
“We were playing Middle Georgia in the Memorial Day game,” Butler said. “We played five innings, then stopped the game and had fireworks. After five innings. We had our starting pitcher shutting them out, it’s 5-0. And we started the sixth inning, and it just changed. Middle Georgia just came roaring back.”
After the end of the ’82 season, Butler called a meeting for the players who would be returning sophomores in ’83. He was a little surprised when David Wrzesinski, who had been on the roster in both ’81 and ’82, showed up for the gathering.
“I said, ‘David, I thought you’d been here two years?’ And he said, ‘Coach, I didn’t play an inning that first year. I don’t know if you recall, but I didn’t swing the bat, never made the field. Wouldn’t I be eligible?’ We hadn’t dealt with redshirts at that time. I said, ‘Yeah, we’ll check,’” Butler said.
It turned out Wrzesinski was indeed eligible to return in ’83. Butler noted that it made him the rare college player to go to five straight World Series, as Wrzesinski made one more trip with the Highlanders in addition to two trips to the College World Series with the Texas Longhorns.
The ’83 season wasn’t without its pitfalls. The team experienced a rash of injuries – Butler called them a “M*A*S*H* unit” – spanning everything from heat stroke to broken ribs to a busted chin.
But, man, were they tough.
“Jerry Faught gets hit in the forehead with a line drive,” Butler said. “He shook his head, wanted to stay in the game. Doctor wouldn’t let him. Doctor said, ‘We need to get him to the hospital, find out what’s going on up there.’ Second baseman sticks his head in and says, ‘We know what’s going on up there, ain’t nothing going on up there. He ain’t going to find nothing.’”
Faught ended up pitching a complete-game victory the next day. MCC went on to win the NJCAA title. “They were special,” Butler said, uncurling a wistful smile.
He continued to coach the baseball program until 1988. At that point, he stepped away and focused on leading P.E. classes until 1997, when Stan Mitchell knocked on his door. Mitchell had been coaching both the MCC men’s and women’s golf teams, and wanted to see if Butler would pinch-hit for him at a men’s tournament.
“I said, ‘Why me?’ He said, ‘You love golf.’ – because he and I played. I’m a hack, but I love it. I said, ‘Why do you think I can coach these guys?’ He said, ‘If you can handle 30 guys, you can handle five.’ I said, ‘OK,’” said Butler, who was inducted into the Junior College Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame in 1998.
What started as one tournament turned into three the next year, and five the year after that. By year four, Butler took over as the full-time men’s coach. He said he was blessed to have “the best assistant coach in the world” for a second time in his career. On the baseball field, it was Kilgo. This time it was Vince Clark, who took over the program after Butler retired for good in 2007.
Butler has always juggled a lot of balls in his life. Some have seams, other have dimples, still others have finger holes. He’s still juggling in retirement. Mondays, he plays golf in a senior league at Cottonwood Creek. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he bowls in a couple of senior leagues, alongside his wife Sharon. Wednesdays are mostly reserved for appointments and errands, while Fridays and Saturdays usually involve some kind of gardening or yard work. Sunday is a “day of rest,” Butler said – unless he can squeeze in another bowling round.
Bowling has long been a deep passion, as he first joined the Waco Bowling Association in 1976. He had a two-year stint as president in the early ’80s, and just recently completed his first year as president of the Texas State Bowling Association. “That definitely keeps me busy,” said Butler, who has two years remaining on his presidential term.
You could say that Butler has forgotten more about coaching baseball than most men will ever know, but he really hasn’t forgotten anything.
He had a career record of 624-308 at MCC. But what he cherishes far more than the wins or even the national title are the people. The players, the coaches, the administrators who gave him his break.
When he looks over at that field as he drives by, he’s not just checking the grass. He knows that it’s the people who make the program.
“I hear people say they’re so blessed,” Butler said. “MCC has always been so good to me. I continue to support them. … Mitch (Thompson) is a great coach. I just enjoy this level of baseball.”