With the rain falling, Oak Creek's Tony Butler makes his presence felt as a freshman in the WIAA state summer baseball championship game at Bukolt Park in Stevens Point. Butler set the tone in the Knights' 3-2 victory. NFHS/WhenWeWereYoung Productions
On July 31, 2003, the Oak Creek baseball team was looking for its first state championship at Bukolt Park in Stevens Point facing favored Homestead. Rainy conditions had shortened a quarterfinal win over New Holstein, and the circumstances enabled ace Tony Harper to possess two innings of remaining eligibility to pitch. The plan was for Harper to work the sixth and the seventh against Homestead.
The first five innings would belong to a freshman left-hander named Tony Butler.
Rain fell most of the game, and a bolt of lightning can be seen on the final Homestead swing that clinched a 3-2 victory for Oak Creek, the first of three consecutive state championships. It was a tense battle down to the last out and a moment that would serve as the breakout performance for one of the state’s most dominant high-school baseball players ever.
SCOTT HOLLER (Oak Creek head coach, 2005-present; assistant at Franklin in 2003-04): When I was in high school, I was reffing parks and rec basketball, and I remember going home and telling my girlfriend (now wife), you wouldn’t believe this fourth grader I just saw. Dribbling between his legs, behind his back passes, shooting three pointers in fourth grade. She remembers that story because when I got the job at Oak Creek, she said, ‘That’s the Tony Butler you used to talk about?’ The legend of Tony Butler goes back to when he was in elementary school because he was always that good, light years ahead of his peers not only because of his height but also his athletic ability.
PETER DOOLEY (Oak Creek head coach in 2003 and 2004; current assistant): He had grown up in Oak Creek, and a lot of the kids that played for us at that time knew of him because they knew a lot about the Little League and stuff. When Tony was 11 or 12, they won the state Little League championship and went and played in the Midwest championship. A bunch of our guys knew who those kids were.
TONY HARPER (Drafted out of high school in the 11th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers): We all knew that he was coming. We mixed him in a little during the season. Going into that state tournament, he had to be there. We got through all three games, after me and Mike Jacobson (exhausted our innings limits), we had to have him. For being a young kid thrown onto varsity like that, he did absolutely fine.
HOLLER: What a lot of people don’t remember about his freshman year was that he played most of that season on the JV. He didn’t pitch as much as a lot of people think. He hadn’t been in a ton of big games, and here he is going up against Homestead, ranked No. 1 pretty much all year long. Here’s this tall, skinny freshman, how’s he going to respond? He was just calm and collected, and it was amazing. I had seen him a couple times early in the year, and he didn’t get blasted or anything like that, but he wasn’t an unstoppable force, either. He wasn’t throwing 95 like he did as a senior. It was low 80s, if that. The difference was his big curveball. He always had the big curveball, and that’s what gave Homestead the most trouble.
ERNIE MILLARD (Homestead head baseball coach): My team was really good. We made it to the state championship game and have Freddie Hampe as my No. 3 (pitcher in the rotation) starting our game. Nobody can have a better No. 3 than us. I look over, and there’s this freshman, and where did this kid come from?
CORY MELVIN (Homestead third baseman in 2003, current professional scout for New York Yankees): We were feeling pretty confident going into the game. We pretty much handled every team we faced throughout the whole year. We found out a little before the game we were facing a freshman, so we’re thinking we have a pretty good chance here, and they must be out of pitching. He came out and you could tell right away he wasn’t your typical freshman, probably 6-foot-3, 6-4, one of the better fastballs we had faced all year. First inning, he struck out the side. He threw as hard as anyone we saw during the season, mid-80s, upper-80s. We had a very good, deep lineup, and Tony really mowed through us pretty easily. I don’t think I had heard of him until we faced him. He definitely put his name on the map.
MILLARD: He struck out my first three or four hitters, and two of them were All-State players.
TONY BUTLER: I remember their coach (in the newspaper) saying, ‘No one has ever struck out our first four hitters.’ I played a little travel ball with Blaine Ertl, and some of those guys were phenomenal athletes, but I had no clue about it until their coach made the comment. I actually framed (the article where he said it) and put it above my underwear and sock drawer. I took a thumbtack and put it on the wall, and my dad framed it for me. It was a little extra drive for me, especially when you get complimented about something no one else has ever done.
The first 13 in a row
The outing was more than a quick start, in which he fanned Mitch Huffman, Jason Adair, Ross Bennett and Alex Moroder to start his outing. Butler retired the first 13 batters he faced. He struck out seven batters in five innings and allowed one unearned run in the fifth, when he also hit a batter and walked two others, forcing in a run.
With the bases loaded and two down, Mitch Huffman stepped to the plate and hit a line drive down the left field line caught by a running Bryan Gitlewski to preserve a 3-1 lead. Butler left the game having not allowed a base hit.
MILLARD: We had opportunities. In the fifth with the bases loaded, at that moment, I thought we were going to beat them.
DOOLEY: If that ball gets down, it’s probably three runs, because they’re running with two outs. I remember getting through there and saying, ‘We’re going to Harper now.’
BUTLER: I remember losing it a little bit. I’m sure my heart was beating and the freshman showed in me a little bit in the first four innings. I remember being happy to get out of that inning.
DOOLEY: New Holstein was beating us (in the quarterfinal), but we came on late and had Mike Jacobson on the mound, and then went to Tony Harper after we got the lead. I was happy rain shortened the game (to six innings) because that would have been one more inning for Tony. Harper started the (semifinal) against Marquette, and after we scored all those runs to go up, we took him out and pitched somebody else so he had two innings left for the final. That’s why I pulled Tony Butler while he was throwing a no-hitter. We really used Tony Harper as much as we possibly could.
HOLLER: That tournament, if you can somehow get your No. 1 or No. 2 out of a game early and save him some innings, that’s huge. To be perfectly honest with you, that championship game may end differently. Coach Dooley might coach it differently if he doesn’t have Tony Harper available. Maybe he lets Tony Butler keep going. We’ve always said to win the state championship you have to be good but you need a little bit of luck. In this case, the luck came from the weather. That one game shortened played a huge role in us winning.
BUTLER: The game plan was always for me to go five and hand it off to Harper, but I didn’t think they were going to take me out. I had a no-hitter! But I was only a freshman, so I felt like I had done my job, and I was more than willing to give the ball to Tony (Harper). But as with any athlete, you don’t want to give that ball out of your hand. We won, and that’s all that matters.
HARPER: It was my final year and I just wanted to come in at the end there and close it out for my team. We played so hard all year, and I just didn’t want to let them down at the end.
MELVIN: Harper was kind of a high profile guy on the team, he was definitely the guy we had all heard of. He had just gotten drafted before the state tournament (by the Dodgers in the 11th around), so we all knew he was a big draft prospect. It was pick your poison scenario. Butler was pretty close to unhittable, and then Harper is out there throwing low 90s. It was definitely the hardest thrower we saw all year, not even close.
Harper threw a perfect sixth inning and struck out the first batter of the seventh. Cory Melvin stepped to the plate.
DOUG MELVIN (Former Brewers general manager and Cory’s father, who attended the 2003 game): My wife had gone over on a trip to England, so she missed the game, but I drove out to Stevens Point and watched him. I didn’t get to see my son a whole lot; being a GM, there’s a lot of games you don’t get to see. … Harper threw pretty hard, and Cory hit a fastball up in the zone and got the perfect follow through swing. Somebody had a picture of it, and it was in a shadow box in his bedroom back home in Mequon. It was amazing to capture that moment at the time.
CORY MELVIN: It’s probably the highlight of my high school career on a personal level. I went down an ounce in my bat and used Mitch Huffman’s bat. I used a 33-30 during the season, but I knew Harper threw harder, and I had to get the bat started quicker, so I think I went down to a 32-29, used a completely different bat than I had all year. I was just looking fastball and jumped on the fastball up at the letters. I knew it was a home run right when I hit it. When he’s providing that type of velocity, that ball is going to leave the yard.
Homestead cuts Oak Creek's lead to 3-2 after Cory Melvin hits a home run off Tony Harper in the 2003 state championship game. Oak Creek held off the Highlanders to claim the state title. NFHS/WhenWeWereYoung Productions
After another strikeout with a 3-2 game, Harper hit Blaine Erdahl with a pitch, and something wasn’t right.
DOOLEY: Harper hurt his arm with two outs. They had a runner on, and he threw it over the catcher’s head. We had to go to a kid that hadn’t pitched in a couple weeks (Joe Zielinski). … One of those weird things where his elbow hurt really bad and we had to pull him and go to somebody else.
HARPER: I felt fine the whole day, even the day before, I never felt anything wrong. It was just that one pitch and felt that pop. That didn’t really feel too good. I tried to shake it off and throw the next pitch, but I ended up throwing it not even close. I'm thinking, 'Well this sucks, I have to pull myself out here for the sake of my career.'
Quinn flags it down
Zielinski faced Garrett Shaw, who hit a fly ball toward centerfielder Tom Quinn.
BUTLER: Joe didn’t really pitch that much, but he came in once in a while when we needed him. Once that ball jumped off the bat, it was a coin flip. Tom Quinn’s a hell of an athlete, a speedster who’s into health and fitness, and we were just hoping he could track and ball down and mitt it. I remember him reaching over his head and heading toward the warning track. I don’t think anyone ever saw the ball go in his glove. It looked like he just reached back and what I remember seeing is him raising both arms in the air.
HOLLER: I remember seeing that ball off the bat and thinking he’s not going to get there. That’s over his head. It hung in the air forever, and Tom made a sensational catch.
DOOLEY: I couldn’t see it because our assistant coach was jumping in front of my face. The first time I remember seeing it caught was on video.
DOUG MELVIN: If he doesn’t make that catch, Homestead ties the game and has a chance to win. The centerfielder made a great catch. It was a pretty exciting game, and the kids were really disappointed after.
TOM QUINN (Oak Creek center fielder in 2003): It seemed like it was going a lot farther than it really did. Thankfully, I got a good jump on it. It was just one of those things where I got a good jump and got to it just in time. (The ball) is still at home; it’s made its way wherever I've resided. I got it in a plastic square case in my oldest son’s room right now. I don’t think I ever let go of it. I think I kept it in my glove that night. … You never really know when you take the first step (in the rain) if your foot is going to slide underneath you, and then you’ve lost however many feet to make it to that ball. Maybe it being damp, the ball didn’t carry. We’ll never know.
After Tony Harper leaves the seventh inning of the 2003 state title game, Joe Zielinski comes in to record the final out. Zielinski, Harper and Tony Butler combined to allow only one hit over seven innings. NFHS/WhenWeWereYoung Productions
Oak Creek finished 28-9, and Homestead finished 34-5. The journey was just beginning for the Knights, who went on a Cinderella run to win the 2004 state title with a 20-14 record and then added the 2005 crown at 34-6.
BUTLER: After we won my freshman year, we were loaded with seniors (who graduated). We had a lot of guys that made the trip to pinch run, be in the environment, mental experience, stuff like that. We had a bunch of guys that were great athletes, guys I played travel ball with. Our travel team finished top two or three in every tournament we played in. I can’t say I thought we were going to repeat. We had some experience, but it wasn’t experience from the varsity level; it was experience from our youth and knowing how to play the game and handle ourselves in situations and keep our cool and relax.
MILLARD: Next year we played them, in 2004 in the last game before the playoffs, and they were awful. Dooley was so frustrated, but they were just really talented and put it together, and off they went.
DOOLEY: We were 12-14 at one point and just had a lot of kids that hadn’t played and hadn’t experienced certain stuff. We always had the ability; they just weren’t used to it because the kids ahead of them the year before had played all the time. We still had great pitching: Jacobson was there, (freshman) Jake Endvick played with Butler growing up. Jacobson struck out 16 kids (in a state quarterfinal win over Somerset), and Endvick threw a really heavy ball that got a lot of ground ball outs. He was on top of his game at that point in his season. We made every play, and when you pitch and defend at the state tournament, you always have a chance.
Butler shut out Wauwatosa East in the semifinal, and with another freshman leading the way, Endvick and Oak Creek won the state title with an 8-1 win over Menomonee Falls for a second straight crown. A new tradition was born when Oak Creek players jumped into the Wisconsin River behind the complex at Bukolt Park.
BUTLER: There are other guys on the team that were the talkers, the pranksters; I just knew that wasn’t me (who started the dive in the Wisconsin River). I don’t even know who started that; my gut says Matt Gannon, our catcher. I believe that to be accurate. I think he just thought he had a great idea. Maybe we were hot. During the game, I didn’t even know there was a river back there. My freshman year, I was just trying to focus on the 60 feet between me and the catcher. Whenever one of the guys said something, we just all said, ‘OK.’ One of the keys to our success was that chemistry and that trust.
HOLLER: Junior year was when (Tony Butler) really started to get on the national scene. Even as a sophomore, he was in that 83-84 (mph) range, and now he was up to 87-88 as a junior and really starting to catch the attention of scouts, being 6-5, being left handed with a big curveball. Junior year, he had one of the single greatest seasons, and I’m not just being biased here, in Wisconsin baseball history. He had 50 RBIs, eight home runs as a hitter, he hit around .400, he went 11-0 on the mound and had 90 strikeouts and 53 innings. I remember just thinking every time he took the mound, as a coach, you honestly just sat back and watched it and enjoyed it because you knew you were seeing something special and watching it develop.
Holler had been hired as JV coach before the season, returning to Oak Creek after a two-year stretch at Franklin, and agreed to flip-flop roles with Dooley for the 2005 campaign, when Oak Creek finished 34-6 with a third consecutive state title. Butler, the state Player of the Year in 2005, pitched in parts of two games at state, including two innings in an 11-7 win over Ashland for the crown.
His magnum opus at Oak Creek came during his senior year.
The South Milwaukee game
HOLLER: We kind of knew he was going in the top 10 rounds (in the MLB Draft); we just didn’t know where. We’re at West Bend for a tournament, playing South Milwaukee, and I said, ‘OK, a lot of scouts here, we’re just taking it easy before the draft, maybe 3-4 innings. He goes out and strikes out the first nine guys he faces, and one of my friends comes over and he’s sitting 92-93. I called Tony over, it’s a 0-0 game, and said, ‘Let’s give you one more inning.’
BUTLER: It was our fifth game that year, early June. I knew the draft was right around the corner and my time was coming to go to college (at Arkansas) or sign pro. I knew I was going to be kind of on the fringe. I didn’t go into the game thinking I’m going to strike out 16, 17, 18; I was just thinking I still have something to prove.
HOLLER: He strikes out two of the next three, 11 of the first 12. He says, ‘Coach, it’s still a tie game, you mind if I go out for one more in the fifth?' He goes out in the fifth, strikes out the side. Tony runs off the field, and says, ‘I’m going back out there. I swear I just threw 95 miles an hour.’ My buddy comes over and says, ‘You might want to leave him out there, he just hit 96 miles an hour and every scout is going crazy. All 18 guns had 96 miles an hour.'
BUTLER: I was just cruising, and in the back of my mind and (Holler's) mind, we both thought it was going to be my last game in high school. I think it was after the fifth inning I said to Holler I’m pitching the whole game. My adrenaline going and it was pure dominance that night, 96 in the fifth inning on the gun. It was a game where I was in the zone and throwing every pitch harder than the last one.
HOLLER: As fate would have it, we can’t score a run, it’s still 0-0, and he basically tells me I’m going out there until I get a lead. We don’t score until the top of the seventh, and we win, 1-0. He gives up one hit in the seventh inning on a changeup to Sam Schaus. He finished the game striking out 19 of the 21 batters he faced, and he was sitting 94 to 96 in the sixth inning.
BUTLER: I remember giving up my first hit on a really good curveball that was at the guy’s ankles to Sam Schaus. Years later, I ran into him and he told me, ‘Quite honestly, I never saw the ball, I don’t know how I hit that.’ It was kind of fun to hear that.
HOLLER: I remember the Dodgers or Mariners scout came over after the game and say, ‘You know, coach, he just went from the top 10 rounds to the top five rounds in next week’s draft.’
BUTLER: In order to go high in the draft, first three rounds, first five rounds, you had to have velocity. You could be the best finesse pitcher in the world, but if you didn’t have projectability, you weren’t going to get drafted as high as you wanted to. I think I had (South Milwaukee) where I wanted them and was just reaching back for every ounce of velocity I had to win the game.
BUTLER: I never spoke to Seattle; I knew nothing about them. After that South Milwaukee game at West Bend, the one memory I have was talking to a Detroit Tigers scout for some time, but later on (the Mariners) asked for my medical history. Any time you’re a high school player and a team asks for your medical advice, they’re interested in you. Being on the computer waiting for my name to pop up, one of my friends from high school calls me and I answer, and he says, ‘Congrats, third round, you’re a Mariner.’ I knew the draft was in the third round but I hadn’t even seen the Mariners pick yet, maybe the internet speeds weren’t up to par. My adviser called me and let me know. It was an interesting way of finding out.
Butler spent parts of seven seasons in minor-league baseball with the Mariners, Orioles and even the Brewers for one season after he reconnected with Cory Melvin, who was a scout in the organization at the time.
CORY MELVIN: I moved down to Florida after college and coincidentally kind of ran into him quite a bit when he was down in spring training with the Orioles. I ran into him at the mall or something and got his phone number and exchanged texts every once in a while, went to lunch once. It wasn’t a super close friendship, more of an acquaintance to keep in touch every so often. When he got released, he reached out to me to get some advice what he wanted to do with his career. I basically passed his name on to our scouting director, Zack Minasian; they had some familiarly with him in the draft from high school with him being a local kid. They watched him throw a couple bullpens and ended up signing him and he went to Wisconsin (Timber Rattlers) for a year.
DOOLEY: He played in Appleton, so he had a Bobblehead day and we got a chance to go up and watch him. Scott had seen him throw a really good game in Appleton with my family. He moved around a little bit; we drove down to Clinton, Iowa, and watched him pitch a phenomenal game. He signed with the Brewers, and the last year he played, we were at a game sitting behind Craig Counsell and Chris Bosio just there watching a day game. Unfortunately, he did have the arm injury, and it cut short what could have been a promising career.
MILLARD: When you want to talk about careers like Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, you ask, ‘How many Super Bowl rings do they have?’ How many state-championship teams did Tony Butler play on? Three. If he hadn’t gotten drafted and left, it may have been four. It tells you how truly great his high-school career was. I think it might just be the greatest high-school career ever.
DOOLEY (on the decision to step away from head coach in 2005): My daughters were getting older, and they were doing so much stuff. There were plenty of times I remember sitting and coaching third base and thinking to myself, ‘If this game gets over, I can head out and still see an inning of my daughter’s games.’ It got the point where it was either me coaching other peoples’ kids or seeing my own kids grow up. We had hired Scott as my JV coach in 2005, and then he and I talked and I knew once he got back, we were in good hands. Scott was there as a senior my first year at Oak Creek on the JV, so I knew him pretty well, we were pretty good friends, and I knew he would do a great job.
DOOLEY: (Tony Butler's) mom and dad (Karen and Mark) are two of the best people. Every time we were there watching him play in the minors, his mom and dad were there. They had a big RV and would go hang out with him. They were there all the time. He had a great support system.
DOUG MELVIN (on noticing a potential draft prospect as a freshman): You have their names but it’s probably too early. Being local like that, Harvey Kuenn was our scout there, you do recognize the names, you follow them. You see so many through their careers, top freshmen and when they get to be seniors, they don’t show much improvement and then there are other kids that get better each year, and the arrow keeps pointing up. The developmental part of the game is so important, even at the professional level. The whole developmental curve even with young players in big leagues now, there are too many that get rushed to the big leagues. I’m more on the slow track; let them develop and play five years in the minor leagues, then they’re here to stay instead of being up and down. That’s just my philosophy. Tony was a good pitcher, good person, and I got to know him a little bit later on when we tried to revive his career a little later on and sent him to Appleton.
HOLLER (on leaving an unpaid position at Oak Creek to take a spot at Franklin for two years): It was a little bittersweet, because obviously I had been a lifelong Oak Creek resident and played at Oak Creek and coached at Oak Creek, but Peter understood I had to make a little money. A position opened at Franklin, and to work with Jim Hughes, a Hall of Fame coach, was intriguing, to get that experience. I didn’t foresee anything opening up, paid-position wise, at Oak Creek. Nathan Vance was the JV coach and taught at the high school, and I expected Peter to be at Oak Creek for quite some time. My head was at Franklin, but my heart was still in Oak Creek and always had been and still is. It was strange, and to be completely honest with you, uncomfortable putting the Franklin jersey on every day because all I knew was Oak Creek.
HOLLER (on attending the 2003 state tourney as a fan in the stands): I was so happy for Coach Dooley because he’s one of my best friends, and all those guys. Tom Quinn was on my freshman team, Mike Jacobson was on my freshman team. The only guy I hadn’t coached was Tony Butler. I had a good bond with and special bond with them because I had worked with them in youth camps.
HOLLER (on the weather in the 2003 final): I was thinking it would be a real shame, because you’ve got a guy who’s rolling like Tony, if he has to wind up sitting for 45 minutes (because of a rain delay) and it totally throws off his rhythm. It was almost too good to be true, and you’re waiting for the rain to come and put an end to it. This is before we’re checking our radar on our cell phones. We’re just sitting there waiting for it to hit.
HOLLER (on Butler’s status as a third-round draft pick): If Tony Butler is pitching in high school this year, he’s a first round pick. So much has changed with the internet and the number of showcases. He went to all the big showcases, he went to Perfect Game, he went to everything that was big back then. The difference is, scouts can see guys more now. The Mariners only saw him once or twice. The Brewers were actually the ones saying they might take him in the second round.
BUTLER (on being a third-round pick): I don’t think I knew any better then, but I definitely believe if I was a high-school player this year (I might go higher). Gavin Lux (of Kenosha Indian Trail) goes first round (in 2016) and hopefully sets the tone that we can have first rounders in Wisconsin. I feel I opened up some scouts’ eyes; I hope that I played a role in helping a guy like Gavin Lux go first round even though I never met the kid and maybe never will. I’m hoping somehow I kind of opened up scouts’ eyes to at least the southeastern part of Wisconsin and maybe that’s something I could be proud about whether it’s true or not.
MILLARD (on his 2003 Homestead team’s shaky play in a three-run third inning that gave Oak Creek all its runs): That team for me made 11 errors in the 16 conference games and we had three errors in one inning in that game. It was pouring during that inning, and two were on bunts that Cory Melvin lost picking up that slipped out of his hand. What can we do? Ross tried to turn that double play, and it slipped out of his hand.Looking back, Iwanted them to stop the game at that time. It was raining really hard, and you just don’t want (weather) in a state championship game to be a mitigating factor. Those guys were so prepped, because during that year we had a lot of thunderstorms. They were so pressed to get that game in. I wasn’t blaming anybody at the time and I don’t now.
MILLARD (on standouts Mitch Huffman and Ross Bennett): They were both really successful football players; they were just competitive athletes and they just hated – hated – to lose. There wasn’t a lot I had to do to motivate them on a daily basis. The only reason we lost a couple games late in the season was because Baline Ertl, my shortstop, had gotten hit in the foot with a pitch and was out, and we were really struggling at shortstop. Ross went on to have a great career at Wisconsin-Platteville. He was just so good. I remember we were playing at the Firecracker Invite at Waukesha West, playing on the Fourth of July in an extra inning-game against a Legion team from Big Foot who was really good. That was Greg Perlewitz’s breakout game as a sophomore. I know how great Tony Butler was, but he was great for us, too. He won two games at two different state tournaments. Ross Bennett hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth on a hit and run. He hit it so far that it went into the football stands at Waukehsa West. It was like 430 feet, 440 feet. Just destroyed. As he was rounding the bases, it was at night and late, fireworks are just exploding everywhere. It was surreal. That team just hated to lose and they were just so competitive. You add Cory Melvin to that mix; he had moved to Mequon, and his dad was in his first year as general manager. Cory was just a phenomenal third baseman and phenomenal pitcher. The team was already really good, and then you put a kid like him on it.
HARPER (on the injury aftermath): When I got to pro ball, my arm wasn't as strong. I felt pain again when I was playing pro ball and they did an MRI, and I had torn a ligament. I ended up having Tommy John surgery middle of the year of my rookie year, so then I missed a year and a half after that. I went to JUCO (after high school) in Texas and played through it for a year, but when I got to pro ball, it became too much. I got done with my recovery and had a really good year, and I was going to play in the Hawaiian league but had to have my arm scoped again. Once the first surgery happened, it kind of just went downhill from there. I didn't recover as well as I wanted to. I played as long as I could. Obviously, I wish I could have played more, but it just wasn't in the cards.