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Dodgers' Butler says he's returning

Dodgers centerfielder Brett Butler, barring unforeseen complications, said Saturday he will return for the 1997 season.

"Physically, I know now that I can do it," Butler said. "So the question is, "Mentally, do you want do it?'

"The answer is, "Yes, of course I do.' "

Butler has shown no ill effects this spring from his tonsil cancer of a year ago. He was examined Saturday by his personal physician, Robert Gadlage, and given a clean bill of health.

Butler, whose comeback ended Sept. 10 when he was hit by a pitch and sustained a broken left hand, even had his psyche tested Saturday during the Dodgers' B game against the Mets. Butler attempted to bunt, and was brushed off the plate by an inside pitch from Jason Isringhausen.

Butler stepped right back into the batter's box and laid down a perfect bunt for a single.

"I had to lay one down," Butler said, "or else you get the phobia."

IRABU TALKS: The pursuit of Hideki Irabu continued to run in place. Despite a belief in baseball circles that the Padres would trade negotiating rights to the Japanese pitcher by this weekend, they did not seem prepared to make that move.

The New York Times reported that the Mets and the Yankees appeared to be the most serious contenders for his rights, but that the Indians might have caught the Padres' attention with a new offer Friday that included young pitchers.

Irabu has said repeatedly that he will play only for the Yankees, and earlier in the week his agent, Don Nomura, sent a letter to all clubs reiterating that position. Nomura also said that if the Padres did not trade him to the Yankees by Tuesday, Irabu would return to Japan _ he has been staying with the agent in Los Angeles _ and sit out the 1997 season.