Coach Vic Buttler and the Westchester Comets eye a return to baseball glory — and the lessons it can teach
By Gary Walker
For most of his life, a baseball diamond has been Vic Buttler’s second home. Now his job is to welcome others inside.
A standout player for the Westchester High School Comets in the 1990s, Buttler was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2000 and spent a decade as an outfielder in the minor leagues before returning to his alma mater (now Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnets) to coach.
The Comets baseball program of Buttler’s youth was a force of nature on the field and an engine of school pride. At the start of his first season as varsity head coach, Buttler’s seeks to revive such glory days by overcoming a foundational obstacle: dwindling interest in the sport — particularly among African-American youth, the high school’s majority demographic (73% of students in 2015-16).
Thirty years ago, nearly 20% of players on Major League Baseball opening day rosters identified as black or African-American. By 2014, that figure had dropped to just 8.3%, with fewer than 3% of college players identifying as black, according to MLB and Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport statistics.
Come Friday’s 3 p.m. home opener against the Granada Hills Charter Highlanders, Buttler will field a varsity roster of just 13 players — far fewer than many competing teams — with a third baseman and right fielder prepared to fill in at the pitching mound as the 21-game regular season continues.
Nevertheless, Buttler sees potential for greatness and anticipates a winning season.
“When I look at these kids it’s like looking at myself when I was in high school,” said Buttler, 36. “My father used to tell me that playing professional baseball was like getting a doctorate in baseball. So now I’m back here at Westchester, and I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
For Buttler, the road to success is paved with fundamentals. He plans to teach his boys “the right way” to play baseball — including respect for the game’s heritage and the ancillary character-building benefits he experienced from the game.
“They can run and they’re strong, but that’s not how you win baseball games,” Buttler said of his team. “In baseball, you have to be able to play error-free. As an outfielder, you have to know which base to throw to; you have to know how to bunt properly, how to play small ball. That’s how I learned to play, and that’s how I’m teaching them to play.”
With so few players, Buttler and assistant coaches Ron Perodin and Greg Ramos are relying on a core of experienced leaders to step up: right fielder Johnny Campbell, a senior; third baseman Damien “D.J.” Johnson, also a senior; and junior pitcher Aaron Eden.
Eden will have to carry the bulk of the season’s pitching load, supported by junior lefthander Adari Lesley. Because of the versatility, athleticism and leadership qualities of seniors Johnson and Campbell, Buttler is confident he can call on them as relievers if necessary.
“Damien is very passionate about the game and he can play anywhere, including catcher. Johnny Campbell is another guy that I lean on. He’s fast and has a really good arm and can play a lot of different positions,” Buttler said. “Aaron Eden is a hard-thrower who throws 90 miles an hour and has been recruited by San Diego State. So I have a good core.”
But the Comets are also counting on support off the field.
Jan. 21 was a sunny day with blue skies sandwiched in between two rain storms — one that brought record single-day rainfall to Westchester, anathema for baseball.
While most will remember that day for the massive Women’s March demonstrations in L.A. and around the world, a crowd of about 150 people showed up at the high school to watch what Buttler dubbed a “celebrity game,” with Westchester Comets alumni squaring off against the current squad.
It had all the trappings of a regular season baseball game: good-natured ribbing from the bleachers, an early innings pitching duel, a spirited announcer, the smell of grilled hot dogs and players renewing old acquaintances.
But there was also baseball royalty: Cleveland Indians centerfielder and Los Angeles native Covelli “Coco” Crisp, who sought to encourage players by signing autographs and reinforcing much of his friend Buttler’s philosophy: hard work, being the first player on the field and always being ready to play.
“There’s something about a player whose able to work harder and smarter than others that can push them past a guy that’s just as talented, because [coaches] are looking at you and they’re taking it all in,” said Crisp, who won a World Series with the Boston Red Sox in 2007 and returned to the Fall Classic last season. “There are certain things that you can’t teach — like hustle, doing the hard work — and those are the qualities that colleges and professional organizations look for.”
Buttler’s pro baseball connections brought 2013 National League MVP slugger Andrew McCutcheon to talk to the team last year, and he’s tapped other former teammates to act as informal advisors.
Brandon Watson, who played alongside Buttler as a Comet and went on to compete for the Washington Nationals and the Cincinnati Reds, said he’s all-in this year.
“I hope I can be a voice of somebody who’s been where they’re trying to go. Coming back home is always great. You might leave, but you never forget where you came from,” said Watson. “To see these kids trying to do the same things that we were trying to do is great, and now we’re in a position to help them because we understand what they’re going through.”
Antoine Moten, another former player who has a son and two nephews on the team (one of them is pitcher Aaron Eden) is 100% behind Buttler’s focus on fundamentals.
“He’s bringing back a solid brand of baseball. There’s lot of energy, and Vic is motivating them to get to the next level,” Moten said.
Moten is also excited that Buttler and his friends are stepping up as role models for African-American youth, as nine of the 13 varsity Comets are black.
While this isn’t Buttler’s primary mission — he’s equally committed to every player on his team — personal experience tells him it’s important.
“When I was first drafted by the Pirates, I saw a lot of dark-skinned players and I thought ‘I’m with a team that has a lot of black players.’ But then I heard them talk and I found out they were from the Dominican Republic and other countries,” Buttler said. “I want to show my players that it can happen — that I’ve lived this, and they can too if they play the right way, play with passion and work hard. Anything is possible.”
Crisp is also living proof. He’s a graduate of the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) Program, an initiative sponsored by Major League Baseball to encourage players from diverse communities to learn the game.
Crisp, Buttler, Watson and former Comet star Brian Barton also played in the Sportsman’s Little League in Inglewood, a little-known incubator for primarily African-American baseball talent. There, they all learned that baseball is not just about hitting, running and throwing.
Buttler agrees with the suggestion that baseball is something like playing chess on a large diamond-shaped field.
“I’m a thinker. In baseball, it’s not about your size or your stature. It’s about the size of your heart,” he said during last month’s alumni game.
“At the major league level, game preparation, film study and scouting are part of being a successful player. You have to do your homework. I’ve been in the league for 15 years, and I’m still learning,” Crisp added. “It really is a thinking man’s game. You’re constantly learning, and that’s what I wanted to let these kids know.”
Moten agrees with Buttler that the Comets show a lot of promise this year, and gives the team a strong chance to win the Western League championship.
Buttler also has his eye on the long view: “We’ve got a great support team and the community is behind us,” he said. “I’m excited about the future of Westchester baseball.”