Minooka center fielder Jon Butler can run.
He always could.
Until he grew bigger and stronger, however, he was underappreciated, at least by those who do not see him play on a daily basis.
That probably explains why he is planning to continue his baseball career on the junior college level, at Heartland Community College in Normal.
Any other explanation for lack of attention from four-year, Division I programs is difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend.
Butler is presented here as the Player of the Year on the Herald-News All-Area Baseball Team.
“Since Jon committed to Heartland, I have had several conversations with [four-year] schools that are interested in him,” Minooka coach Jeff Petrovic said. “It’s silly that colleges are always looking for those early commitments these days. Some kids, like John, have really not filled out until later in their high school career.”
“I have had a couple of offers from four-year schools, but mostly as a preferred walk-on, and they were pretty expensive schools,” Butler said.
Academics are no issue as Butler boasted a 4.1 grade-point average on a 4.0 system and a 27 on the ACT.
“I think I’m going to enjoy Heartland,” he said. “I’ll see if I really like it or if I get a good offer [from a Division I school].”
Petrovic has no doubt that time will come, perhaps earlier than later. He is accustomed to coaching Butlers who can play, as Jon’s older brothers, Jake and Joe, both starred at Minooka.
“Jake had a great college career [at USF] and pitched in professional baseball,” Petrovic said. “Joe is playing at ISU, and Jon is not behind those two at all. He has that kind of potential to play the game. I really think he could play professional baseball someday. He is so fast and has such great instincts. The sky is the limit for him.”
Butler hit .427 this season for Southwest Prairie Conference champion Minooka with nine doubles, one triple, two home runs and 23 RBIs. He had a .523 on-base percentage and .618 slugging percentage for a 1.141 OPS. He and Indians junior shortstop Hayden Laczynski were voted co-MVPs in the SPC after Minooka staged a late rush to win the title in a league deep with strong teams.
Butler is an instinctive, aggressive baserunner who stole eight bases and regularly recognized and acted on opportunities to take the next base. He also is excellent defensively in center field. He made one error all season, but that does not measure his true value. He gets to virtually everything.
“Jonny is a natural baserunner,” Petrovic said. “He always is looking to take the extra base and it comes natural to him when to make his move.
“When he’s in center field, when a ball is hit toward the gap, you think ‘Oh, no,’ and you just hope you can cut it off in the alley. Then you look out there, and Jon is right there. You can’t put the ball in the grass where he couldn’t find it, and it’s so effortless.”
“I suppose I can get good reads on the ball because I’ve been doing it so long,” Butler said. “I’ve always been one of the faster guys on the team, and that helps in center field.”
Laczynski and Butler batted 1-2 in Minooka’s lineup most of the season. Both are smart besides quick.
“Jon and Hayden created so much havoc all year,” Petrovic said. “A good example was the [regional championship] game against Neuqua. Hayden singled and stole second, Jon doubled him home and just like that we had a run and were threatening to get more. We started games like that all year.”
Butler throws right-handed and hits left-handed. He makes consistent contact, which helps him take advantage of that extra step toward first base that a left-handed hitter has.
“I hate striking out,” he said. “I try to hit the ball hard until there’s two strikes, and then I try to make contact. That’s worked out well for me. I have long arms and I stand close to the plate, so most of the time I am able to reach pitches and foul them off when I have two strikes until I can get something I can put in play.”
The quickness and baseball instincts Butler brings to the diamond are not unlike the attributes he employed during basketball season.
Early in his high school career, when he began playing varsity basketball as a freshman point guard, Butler was “maybe 5-11 and about 150 to 155 pounds.” He now is 6-2, about 180 or 185, and the quickness remains.
Last winter, with Joe Butler having graduated, Minooka basketball coach Scott Tanaka moved Jon into the post. He became a first-team all-area selection. He scored 37 points one night against Romeoville, which ranks among the highest one-game outbursts in Minooka history.
Late in the basketball season, Tanaka said he didn’t think it was possible Jon could be better than Joe at that position, “but he just might be.”
“I was pretty small in junior high and freshman year,” Jon Butler said. “Then I got a little bigger and stronger. It helps [playing inside] that I’m pretty quick in there. I watched Joe doing it for three or four years, and I thought I could follow him.
“We always played with older guys when we were growing up, and that helped, too. Coach [John] Placher [his coach in junior high who now is the girls basketball coach at Joliet West] still plays with us sometimes.”
Butler also has football on his résumé. He played the first three years at Minooka before giving it up as a senior.
“For the most part I wasn’t as into football as I was baseball and basketball,” he said. “I felt I had to be into football 100 percent or I shouldn’t be out there. Freshman and sophomore year I played a running back-slot receiver position and junior year I was at cornerback.”
Yes, baseball has won the battle, even over basketball, which he always has loved.
“My dream, of course, is to play professional baseball,” Butler said. “My goal is to go as far with it as I can.”