SURPRISE, Ariz. — If doubt ever existed — and he insists it never did — those few magical nights last July for the All-Star Game festivities at Kauffman Stadium erased it for all time.
Designated hitter Billy Butler is right where he wants to be.
“There are guys who go through their whole career,” he said, “guys who play in a lot of All-Star Games but never get to play in their home ballpark. I got to do that, and the reception the people of Kansas City gave me was unreal.”
Butler paused to reflect on the memory before continuing.
“The Home Run Derby…,” he recalled. “The ovation I got in the line (after being introduced). It was all very, very, very humbling.”
Another pause underscores this is a rare moment.
Those who know him well can confirm Butler is rarely humble when it comes to hitting (and will add he doesn’t need to be). Those who know him at all can attest he isn’t often quiet.
“If I ever had any desire of wanting to go somewhere else,” he begins again before rushing to add, “and I never had any, but that would have changed.
“Really, I never had any to begin with but, the way the people of Kansas City treated me on those nights made me want to run through a brick wall for this city.”
It’s been a heck of a run for Butler since the end of the 2011 season.
He won the Hutch Award, an honor bestowed to one player each year for their charitable work. He was picked last season as an All-Star for the first time and as the club’s player of the year for the third time in four seasons.
Butler also became the Royals’ first Silver Slugger recipient in 14 years and their first player picked as the American League’s top designated hitter, now known as the Edgar Martinez Award, since Hal McRae in 1982.
“The two best pure hitters I’ve ever played with,” outfielder Jeff Francoeur said, “are Chipper (Jones) and Billy. Billy can just roll out of bed and hit. Not many guys can do that.”
This from a guy who zings Butler relentlessly. Example: A recent Butler lapse in practice prompted this booming query from Francoeur, who stood half a field away: “Billy! Have you taken your medicine today?”
The jokes stop when the topic turns to hitting.
“The least streakiest player I’ve ever seen in my life is Billy Butler,” manager Ned Yost said. “His streaks go from good, good, great back to good. He doesn’t have the bad streaks that everybody thinks of.
“Everyone else is going to have to deal with an 0-for-12 or an 0-for-15, Billy hits the ball. It doesn’t matter if it’s early or late or spring. It doesn’t matter. Billy just hits the ball.”
The numbers are already accumulating.
Only George Brett owns a higher average (.305) among players with at least 2,000 at-bats with the Royals than Butler’s .300.
He is the only player in club history to lead or share the club lead in RBIs for four straight seasons.
His 172 doubles since the start of the 2009 season are second to Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano (183) among all players.
Is one of five players in history to have a 50-double, 20-homer season prior to age 24. His 51-21 effort in 2009 is matched only by Hank Greenberg (1934), Alex Rodriguez (1996), Albert Pujols (2003) and Miguel Cabrera (2006).
And so on.
Butler set numerous career highs last season while leading the Royals in all Triple Crown categories.
His 29 homers were the most by a Royal since Jermaine Dye hit 33 in 2000; his 107 RBIs were also the most by a Royal since 2000, when Mike Sweeney had a franchise-record 144 and Dye had 118; and his .313 average ranked eighth in the league.
General manager Dayton Moore stood on the field early last season and discussed the question marks throughout the club’s youthful lineup before perking up.
“There’s one thing I do know,” Moore said. “I know Billy Butler is going to hit.”
His many awards over the last year or so make it hard to portray Butler as underrated or underappreciated. There are times, though, when it’s easy to take him for granted.
A question following a recent spring game suggested Butler had an off-day because, while he went three for four, two hits were loopers into short right field and another was a seeing-eye grounder through the right side.
“I would venture to say,” he allowed, “some people give me -- personally, what I can do -- unrealistic expectations of my ceiling some times. But I obviously expect more -- or I’m not getting better.”
Then Butler’s irrepressible confidence -- at once both jocularly boastful and stone truth -- bursts forth.
“I haven’t had too many people scratching their heads (about his hitting) since I’ve been in the big leagues,” he said. “That’s a good thing. With results come expectations, and those expectations continue to grow.
“You don’t know where the limitations are on those expectations. I think when you do it, and you’re consistent long enough, it gets to where it’s expected.
“You go a couple of games without a hit and people start to wonder what’s going on with this guy? It’s like, man, that might be just eight at-bats. Relax. At the end of the year, it’ll be what it is.
“I’m going to set myself every day to come in and get the job done. Not being satisfied. After every at-bat is done, I want to move on and do something better. It’s just not being satisfied.”
What comes next? Ask Butler what he expects entering the 2013 season, and the words come with no hesitation.
“It’s getting team awards and accolades,” he said. “It’s about having team results. Competing for the American League Central, first. Winning the American League Central. Going deep into the playoffs.
“Winning those types of team awards. That’s the only thing that matters to me anymore. I’m not saying that just because I won those (personal awards) that I want team awards now. I’ve always had my sights set on winning.
“For me, personally, I don’t care what my season dictates this year as long as it involves us winning a lot of games.”
Butler won’t turn 27 until April 18, but he’s entering his seventh big-league season. He is hardened to the reality that accompanies the expectations the Royals face after pushing their payroll into record territory.
“There’s no doubt about it,” he said. “This is the most talent I’ve ever been around in this clubhouse. And the depth the organization has, if somebody goes down...I feel we have a tremendous pool of guys who can fill in and do the job until that guy gets back healthy.
“It seems funny, even to me, to be saying this, but a lot of these guys are just babies. They’re growing. They’re getting better. They’re definitely ready to go. I feel like they’re right where they need to be.”
Another pause. Butler is seated in front of his locker, but he slowly turns his head to scan the Royals’ clubhouse before continuing.
“Other than Alex (Gordon) and Hoch (Luke Hochevar),” he said, “since I’ve come up, you can see how much the team is overhauled.
“The realistic way to look at it is to say the team we have now, if we don’t show some results, it’s going to happen again. That’s the reality.
“We had some expectations in 2009. We came off a great finish in ’08. Went 75-87, the best we had in a while. Then we added some guys — Mike Jacobs and Coco Crisp. We upgraded our team. In May, we had a pretty good record.
“But we kind of fell apart because of injuries and, by the trade deadline, we had a completely different team. I’m not saying that’s going to happen this year, but there are expectations.
“When expectations aren’t met, things happen. It’s our job to make sure that we meet the expectations — and that’s got to be competing for the Central.”
Those expectations include another big year from Butler, who is under contract through 2014 with a club option for 2015. He is where he wants to be, but the future, even for him, is far from certain.
Except for one thing: Expectations for Butler, after last year, are higher than ever and, fair or not, he is generally assumed to be the surest thing in the Royals’ arsenal.
“You have to establish yourself every single day,” he said. “Those awards from last year are last year. Yeah, they’re going to be up in my house. But, honestly, in baseball, nobody remembers what you did last year.
“It’s what have you done for me lately.”