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Royals' Butler back after breakthrough year

SURPRISE, Ariz. (AP) — If Billy Butler's breakthrough season of 2009 had come in New York, Los Angeles or Boston, the barrel-chested first baseman would likely be one of baseball's most celebrated young hitters.

Fame is hard to come by in a major league backwater like Kansas City, which hasn't hosted a postseason game in 25 years — even for young athletes who achieve a level of excellence known only to an elite few.

Until Butler came along last season, just seven men who were 23 or younger had hit 50 or more doubles in a season. You may have heard of Hank Greenberg, Enos Slaughter, Stan Musial, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Grady Sizemore and Miguel Cabrera.

Toss in Butler's 21 home runs and the list drops to only five men in the modern era of the game who legged out 50 doubles and hit 20 homers before turning 24.

It was one of the finest seasons in Royals history. And to many people, even serious baseball fans, it went virtually unnoticed. Even many of those in Kansas City failed to appreciate what their hardworking young first baseman was doing because attention was riveted on Zack Greinke, who won a Cy Young Award with a major league-best 2.16 ERA.

The funny thing is, Butler doesn't seem to mind. He knows he's not playing in a major market, and he knows he's playing for a team that's long been out of the national spotlight.

Most of all, he knows that one great season is not the sum total of the career he envisions for one Billy Ray Butler of Idaho Falls, Idaho.

"I know what company I'm in there," he said. "By no means do I think I'm as good as those guys. They didn't do it just one year. They did it multiple years, consistently. A-Rod's done it for a decade. Stan Musial did it for a lifetime. I did it for one season. If I do it again this year, I'll take a little more credit. If I do it three seasons, I'll take a little more credit."

Last year was quite a season for the young man who averaged .336 in the minor leagues. Spraying the ball all over the field with his quick and powerful right-handed swing, he amassed 73 extra-base hits and a .301 average for 299 total bases — 10th-best in the majors. His 51 doubles were three short of Hal McRae's team record. Historians say he's the first player since the modern era began in 1900 to have four games with three doubles in one season.

"If I don't ever repeat anything close to that again, then it was just a fluke year," he said.

Looking fit and committed in the Royals spring complex, he seems determined to make sure nothing was flukish about 2009.

His attitude, which includes a keen interest in baseball history, is one more encouraging sign for an organization striving to escape mediocrity. The Royals have had one winning season in the past 15 years.

On Butler's strong back could be built a better future for baseball in Kansas City.

"I think he's going to be a really special hitter," said batting coach Kevin Seitzer. "He's got to make sure he maintains a discipline which he was able to do for the last several months of the season. He's pretty mentally tough."

Taken No. 14 in the first round of the 2004 amateur draft, Butler first came up as an outfielder. That didn't work out so he was tried as designated hitter. He detested it.

Finally, the Royals planted him at first base in a sink-or-swim, do-or-die attempt to find a position for this promising young batter. There were a few rough spots, and he admits he's still learning the position. Play was halted during an intrasquad game on Tuesday while manager Trey Hillman trotted onto the field to deliver some hands-on instruction.

But 2009 removed all doubt about his defensive ability as well. He's eager to stay in the fast, elite company he joined last year.

"The only way people will ever say I had that kind of ability is if I go out there and do it consistently, over time," he said. "But you can't get caught up in that kind of stuff or you'll lose track of what you're striving for. I don't even remember what I did last year. I mean, I do remember. But that's the mentality you've got to use. Last year's over with. We didn't win enough ball games."