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If he wanted to, Tony Butler could call Milwaukee Brewers emerging right-hander Jimmy Nelson today for a chat. The same could be said for Baltimore Orioles starter Chris Tillman or San Diego Padres reliever Brandon Maurer. These are Butler’s friends.

And yet, he admits, it’s hard to go watch pro baseball games.

“There are certain lefties in the big leagues I watch and I think, ‘You’re not that great,’ ” Butler said. “It’s hard to see that and try not to be bitter about it. I had my opportunity and didn’t seize the moment, so I can’t really be bitter about it.

"I’m happy for the experiences and the connections. (I’ve been told) if I parachuted out of an airplane anywhere in the United States, I could pick up a phone and someone would be there to pick me up in half an hour. It’s nice having a good rapport with almost everyone I’ve met; it’s one thing I’m proud of.”

But Butler, who will turn 30 later this year, never got his shot in the big leagues. Perhaps the most uncommon talent ever to set foot on the pitching mound in a Wisconsin high-school uniform endured an experience that has befallen so many top prospects in baseball – the cruel fate of arm injuries.

Turning pro

Today, Butler bartends in Milwaukee while working toward his degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He’s got a slew of finance courses on the docket, with a double major in supply chain management. He’s mulled getting back into baseball in a number of capacities, from pitching lessons to youth coaching to finding a role with professional ball.

“I like baseball talk, analyzing numbers, looking at statistics and the analytical part of the game,” Butler said. “I like when things make sense.”

Few things make sense when it comes to injuries, and how a flat-out dominating high-school player who won three consecutive state championships before turning pro as a senior couldn’t make it to Double-A.

Butler was drafted in the third round of the 2006 Major League Baseball draft – behind eventual All-Stars Brandon Morrow and Tillman – by the Seattle Mariners. If he had been pitching today, with the increased awareness of top talents around the country, he very likely would have gone higher.

He signed June 14 and immediately flew to Phoenix. He threw only 14 innings in rookie ball before he got promoted to short-season Everett in Washington, where he posted a 2.46 ERA in 42 innings the rest of the year. He was feeling healthy and was expected to open the 2007 season in familiar territory with the Class A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, then still an affiliate of the Mariners.

“I was throwing bullpens and working on things (in the winter); that’s when things started unraveling,” Butler said. “I was helped by a pitching coach who wanted to change my delivery. He said I was dipping too much with my front shoulder, and he said he wanted me to stay taller. At Class A, I started like 0-6 or 0-7 with a 6-plus ERA. It wasn’t pretty.

“I just remember being so frustrated because I spent so much time trying to listen to this instructor, because I knew I didn’t know it all. I was 18 years old, and this coach had 10 years of experience coaching and playing and was a lefty. I was thinking, ‘This guy might be my ticket to the big leagues as quickly as I can get there.’ I like to think he had my best interests in mind, but I got away from myself and a delivery I was comfortable with, and a delivery that helped me stay healthy my whole life.”

Butler felt lost on the mound, so the organization allowed him to revert to his previous delivery for a handful of starts.

“I felt like a big weight had lifted off my shoulder," he said. "I was at a game in Burlington, Iowa, and I threw a complete-game four-hitter. I remember I had a chip on my shoulder and was proud of myself for trusting in my way. I remember that being a big moment for me. Once I showed signs of being myself, I felt like I got my chemistry back and trust back from my whole team.”

Over his final 33 innings, he posted an ERA below 1.00 and dropped his season ERA from the 7s to the upper 4s. But some inflammation had popped up in his bicep tendon along the way, an ailment he attributed to the discomfort with his prescribed pitching motion. Still, he finished the year in Appleton healthy.

RELATED: An oral history of the 2003 state-championship baseball game that launched the career of Wisconsin's greatest high-school pitcher

Traded to Orioles

His agent called that offseason and told him he thought Butler was about to become a member of the Baltimore Orioles organization.

“I thought he was joking around,” Butler said.

But Butler was being traded along with eventual All-Stars Tillman, Adam Jones and George Sherrill to the Baltimore organization in return for left-handed starter Erik Bedard. It was February 2008.

Pitching at Class A Delmarva, Butler found himself warming up to face off with the Brewers affiliate, the West Virginia Power.

“I felt like I had a little something to prove for them passing on me, and I remember throwing in the bullpen,” Butler said. “I was leaving everything up a little bit, and in Baltimore they were really preaching down in the strike zone and wanted me to get command of everything. I was upset with myself (for leaving pitches up in the bullpen), and pulled down on a fastball, and I felt something in my shoulder that was uncomfortable. There was no pain or anything. I threw the rest of my warmup pitches a little cautiously. Brett Brewer led off the game. I spotted a fastball at his knees, but it was not good. I felt what I felt in the bullpen. Eventually in the third inning, I said I can’t do this anymore.”

He spent the next 2½ years of his career with the Orioles trying to get healthy again. Rest, rehab and eventually a surgery followed to remove scar tissue around his labrum.

“I began the rehab process and could not complete the rehab in the time they wanted me to,” Butler said. “Come six weeks, I still couldn’t grab a plate out of the cabinet. I didn’t have the comfort I was hoping I’d have.”

His 2010 season was actually solid through the first handful of innings, but the arm discomfort returned thereafter. He was demoted to the bullpen, then released.

“The medical director kept telling me it’s all in my head, that I’m healthy,” Butler said. “ 'You had your surgery, you’re healed. You’re on a hamster wheel and need to get off the wheel.’ Once I got released I told myself maybe he’s right, maybe I’m playing a head game with myself, maybe it is all in my head. I was just mentally drained.”

Joining the Brewers

Butler called Cory Melvin, the son of then-Brewers general manager Doug Melvin. Cory was a scout with the Brewers and also happened to play on the 2003 Homestead baseball team that fell to Oak Creek in the state final, a game in which Butler announced his presence to the world with five no-hit innings as a freshman. Cory passed Butler’s name up the chain.

Butler spent the rest of 2010 with the Brewers, pitching in Helena and right back in Appleton with the Timber Rattlers, now an affiliate of the home-state team.

“And then I don’t know, I just had so much damage in my head; I just kind of lost who I was,” Butler said. “If I could do anything over, I wouldn’t have called Cory when I called him, I would have taken some time and gone home and been with my family a little bit, with a little strengthening just to be sure. I rushed into it, just being competitive, wanting to do what I enjoy.”

He was teammates with familiar names such as Tyler Cravy, Nelson, Hiram Burgos, Scooter Gennett, Khris Davis and Jake Odorizzi. He remembers vividly watching one dominant Odorizzi outing before the trade that sent Odorizzi and others to the Kansas City Royals for Zack Greinke.

“I just couldn’t throw strikes and command anything,” Butler said. “I felt like I was throwing right handed. Once that ball came out of my hand, I had no clue where it was going. I don’t think my shoulder was quite ready for the journey again.”

When Butler came back to Milwaukee in the offseason, it wasn’t to play baseball. He bartended and worked out, then jumped in his car and moved to Arizona without a particular course of action in mind. He connected with former Brewers first-round draft pick Mark Rogers, a right-hander from Maine who had also experienced arm troubles in his career.

“He said, ‘You need to get to a warm weather state, see what’s in your arm, rehab and strengthen it,’ ” Butler recalled. “I used some of the signing bonus money and drove out to Arizona, made phone calls, found where I as living and working out. When I left, I didn’t know much of anything (in advance).”

He wound up working out at the same facility as many pro athletes, including Justin Morneau, Roddy White and Darrelle Revis, for 13 weeks. When he felt he was in peak physical form, he called the Mariners’ minor-league coordinator.

“He was excited to hear from me,” Butler said. “I threw a bullpen for Seattle, live batting practice, and they liked me. I remember him saying, ‘All right, you’re a Mariner again.’ I remember losing my mind. I was just so happy, coming back from everything I had to deal with.”

End of the road

Butler was still just 24 years old, and he had a solid year in 2011. He reported to spring training, and with the Mariners looking to advance him as high as possible given his age, he faced a number of Triple-A hitters.

“My thought was ‘I don’t know if I’m ready for this’ instead of ‘I’ve got this,’ ” Butler said. “Even if I really wasn’t ready, that’s what I needed to be telling myself. I was a touch overwhelmed instead of taking it as a challenge.”

The Mariners didn’t see Butler having a starting job on the Double-A team. Seattle was going to move on.

Butler played independent ball, spent two months in Puerto Rico before his team folded, and even played Land O’ Lakes baseball with the Oconomowoc Five O’s. He can still be found giving batters fits at The Rock in Franklin on occasion.

“Part of me wants to go play again; being a lefty is the quickest way to the big leagues,” Butler said. “I topped at 91 last summer and part of me is like, ‘Give it a shot,’ but then there are kids that are 16 years old throwing 91. And 95 for that matter. Realistically, it’s not a good idea, but part of me is like, ‘Do what you like to do.’ It’s tough when that doesn’t pay the bills.”

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