Fletcher enjoying broadcaster's life — even if it's only part time

CHICAGO – It's the top of the fifth inning at U.S. Cellular Field, and Darrin Fletcher has found his groove.

Toronto's Gregg Zaun has just laced a line drive into right field, and as Zaun first hesitates, then races to second base with a double, Fletcher – the analyst on the Blue Jays' TV broadcast – is all but jumping out of his seat.

"Believe in those wheels, Zaunie!" Fletcher shouts, a wide grin spreading under his brown goatee.

In the seat to his left, play-by-play man Jamie Campbell cracks a smile, too.

The relative rookie to Campbell's right has a veteran's swagger in the booth.

It's a warm April evening in the home of the world champion White Sox, and Fletcher, the former Illinois baseball star and 12-year major leaguer, is working his first game of the season as the Blue Jays' part-time "colour" commentator.

But he sounds like a guy who's been doing this for years.

"A lot of (Blue Jays fans) – especially the hardcore people – are very impressed with Darrin's ability to provide insight," Campbell says. "And a lot of them like the fact that he sometimes refers to the Blue Jays as 'we.' "

Blame his Midwestern upbringing, Fletcher says.

His tendency is to root, root, root for the home team.

But nobody seems to mind.

Over the course of the Jays' 3-hour, 15-minute win against the Sox on this Friday night, Fletcher will hear countless compliments in his ear from a producer and director.

He'll offer a player's perspective. He'll crack a few jokes. And he'll seem as comfortable behind the mic as he did behind the plate in college with the Illini and in the bigs with Toronto, Montreal, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.

In all, he'll seem pretty polished for a guy who had no broadcast experience until he did some radio analysis for the Expos in 2004, and who hadn't worked a televised game until he filled in for nine games last season with the Blue Jays' chief broadcaster, Rogers Sportsnet.

Not too shabby for the only major league analyst living in Oakwood.

"I just basically got off the mower yesterday, and now I'm working a big league game," Fletcher says. "This is the first shower I've had in about a week."

Take him out to the ballgame

Rewind to three hours before game time, though, and you'll really see Fletcher in his element.

Major league baseball is a reporter's dream sport, a league that offers almost unlimited access to its players before the game. So Fletcher is making the most of his time this evening, the first of 21 games he'll work for Rogers Sportsnet this year.

He visits with players on the field as the White Sox and Blue Jays shuffle about for batting and fielding practice. He stops for a handshake and a quick conversation with Jim Thome. He chats up Sox manager Ozzie Guillen for a few minutes.

And when Thome launches a bomb of a home run in batting practice, a towering shot that lands beyond the seats and on the concourse in right field, Fletcher, 39, behaves as any baseball veteran would.

He barely looks up from his conversation with Steve Stone.

When the Blue Jays' red-hot Vernon Wells – one of a few Jays who played with Fletcher in Toronto – steps out of the visitors' clubhouse, Fletcher goes to shake his hand and cracks, "You're scorching. I can feel the heat."

He'll tell the story later, during the broadcast.

"After retirement, I would never have a chance to meet up with Vernon Wells again," Fletcher says. "Before, I'm maybe 15 rows up trying to yell at these guys. It's 'Hey!' and that's it."

That's why Fletcher jumped at the chance last year to do some fill-in work on Blue Jays games.

The regular color analyst, Pat Tabler, does about 140 games. Fletcher filled in for nine last season, then on a trip to New York late last season to watch the Jays take on the Yankees, he was asked by a producer if he'd consider an expanded role this season.

They settled on 21 games. Seven series.

In addition to the three-game set in Chicago, Fletcher will have two series each in Toronto, Baltimore and Tampa.

And beyond this season?

"My children are very young," says Fletcher, father of three. "I really like the situation where I'm at, where I kind of pick and choose and they don't mind that I'm only here for 20 ballgames. I hope I can do 20 ballgames a year for a while."

O Canada

You won't hear Fletcher this baseball season. Not legally, anyway.

He still has 18 games left in this part-time gig, but Rogers Sportsnet broadcasts only in Canada – which requires an American-bred announcer to make a few adjustments.

"You get an ESPN broadcast down in the States and you've got three guys in the booth and they're talking all the way through," Campbell says. "In Canada, it's a very British-based sort of philosophy. We could sit here for three minutes, shut up and let the sounds of the game come through the television, and it's not only acceptable, it's encouraged."

To hear those Blue Jays broadcasts down here in America, Fletcher says, you'll need some sort of pirated cable box.

He doesn't have one.

So while he watches as many Blue Jays games as he can, it's always the opponents' announcers he's hearing on his Dish Network baseball package.

He makes up for his lack of hometown insight by watching as many Blue Jays games as he can, and by doing plenty of pregame research.

Still, with two hours to go before game time, Fletcher admits a case of nerves as he and Campbell settle into folding chairs in front of the Jays' dugout for a live news look-in to be broadcast on Rogers Sportsnet.

"I probably would say that I was more comfortable playing than I am in the booth," Fletcher says. "And I'm probably a little more nervous on something scripted than I am once the game starts."

Still, his live preview goes without a hitch, Campbell setting him up for what sounds like expert commentary on the Jays and their spot starter, Scott Downs, who's coming out of the bullpen for the first time this season.

Under a bright TV light – and sporting an orange-and-blue tie – Fletcher talks about the lefty Downs and looks ahead to his matchup against the Sox's Thome, one of the game's most dangerous left-handed hitters.

"Nice," Campbell says after the segment wraps, and Fletcher gives a little smile.

Behind them, the grounds crew buzzes with activity, but Fletcher is free until game time.

He has 2 hours, 20 minutes to kill.

Part time is enough time

Fletcher probably could do this full time.

As he chats with Campbell and scours the Blue Jays' pregame notes over dinner, it's apparent he's a pro.

But at heart, Fletcher still is a kid from East Central Illinois with no designs on moving elsewhere.

He's an Illinois fan and president of the Dugout Club, the Illini baseball team's booster club (he brought Thome in for an event this winter, and the two took in a basketball game at the Assembly Hall).

He's an outdoorsman and a golfer, and though he admits at times that he misses the pace of Los Angeles on those dreary central Illinois days in midwinter, he wouldn't trade.

"If you're a play-by-play guy or a regular color guy like Pat Tabler, you're looking at a weekend or two at home a month," Fletcher says. "I just want to be gone a few weekends. I'm a homebody. I like Vermilion County. That was something that was tearing at me a lot in the latter stages of my playing career. I was thinking a lot about getting back home."

So after retirement, he headed right back.

These days, he coaches a youth team, working with some of the best young players in the area. Mostly, though, he spends time with his wife and his own kids.

He has no aspirations to coach at any higher level. He has no interest even in doubling the 21 games he'll work for the Blue Jays this season. Fletcher is right where he wants to be.

But listening to Fletcher call a game, you get a sense he could handle it.

He professes himself a fan of the White Sox broadcast team of Ken "Hawk" Harrelson and Darrin Jackson, and says his goal when calling a Jays game is to give a viewer the sense that they're watching the game in his basement over appetizers.

"I don't try to impress anybody with the things that I know or the new verbiage I learned on the calendar today," Fletcher says. "I just try to be myself."

And that seems to work.

The comfort zone

Outside the broadcast booth, U.S. Cellular Field has come to life.

AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" blares from speakers. Fireworks erupt in the dimming Chicago sky. And a crowd later announced at 31,418 roars its approval as the defending world champs take the field.

Inside the booth, it's not quite as loud, but still, there's a palpable pulse to the place.

"You get a little rush when that camera goes on," Fletcher says, and seconds later, it does.

Campbell and Fletcher stand up, backs to the field, and give a brief live preview of the game.

Then, as a graphic appears on the TV broadcast breaking down the night's starting pitching matchup, the announcers quickly shed their suit coats and settle into their seats just in time for the first pitch.

The top of the first goes quickly, but in the bottom of the inning, Fletcher flexes some analyst muscle, providing good insight on Downs, the Blue Jays lefty.

Fletcher gives a catcher's breakdown of the ex-Cub, saying he'll run the ball inside on right-handers and left-handers, and discussing – right from the start – how he'll deal with Thome.

Downs makes short work of the White Sox in the first, and once the broadcast goes to commercial, Campbell turns to Fletcher, gives him a quick fist-bump and says, "Good start."

It gets better.

Though Fletcher betrays a touch of rust early in the broadcast – he mistakenly says left-center on a fly ball when he means right-center, but he quickly corrects himself – it doesn't take him long to settle in.

When he theorizes that having Troy Glaus in the lineup has been a big factor in Wells' hot start, he asks Campbell, "Do you agree?"

"I'm just the play-by-play guy," Campbell says. "You're the analyst. They want to hear it from you."

That kind of comfortable banter lasts all night, and Fletcher mixes in solid analysis.

When Shea Hillenbrand rockets a home run down the left field line, Fletcher calls it "about a 345-footer," and it's announced moments later as a 342-foot shot.

When the White Sox load the bases in the third inning, Fletcher says, "There's a point in every game where you say, 'This is where I won the game' or 'This is where I lost the game.' It's a shame that it's this early, but this is that point for Scott Downs."

Quickly, a producer is in Fletcher's earpiece.

"Nice," he says. "Well done, Darrin."

A solid opener

The rest of the night goes much the same way for Fletcher, who's on his game even in his season debut – unlike Downs, who doesn't record an out in the third inning.

In the fifth inning, he says Glaus "got paid the big bucks" to come to Toronto and deliver "big, two-out hits."

A few pitches later, Glaus delivers a two-out, two-run double to give the Blue Jays a 6-5 lead.

He mentions Cliff Politte's tendency to give up home runs, and Wells promptly hammers a 424-foot bomb to left. Lyle Overbay follows two batters later with a 412-footer.

Fletcher gets laughs, too. During one Thome at-bat, he tells the story of playing in a game in Toronto when Thome mauled a pitch at SkyDome.

"He hit it up into the restaurant and knocked the salad fork out of a lady's hand," he says.

And when the White Sox faithful start to boo the Jays' offensive explosion, Fletcher quips, "These Chicago fans haven't been reading the paper. These Jays are pretty good hitters."

The seventh inning comes and goes, and Fletcher never stands.

But in the eighth, he's still going strong. When rookie Aaron Hill makes a late-inning out, Fletcher jokes that Hill will be taking a ribbing in the dugout.

"As a veteran, you'd be telling him, 'Hey, somebody's got to make the outs,' " Fletcher says. "Right now, we'd be saying, 'Hey, if we didn't make 27 outs, we'd be here all night.' "

Fletcher even covers his gaffes with veteran savvy.

When he coughs on the air, Campbell turns it into a bit, pointing out that there's a cough button to hide such indiscretions.

Fletcher comes right back, saying, "I saw that button lit up, and I thought I was being cued to cough."

It's 10:52 when the White Sox's Brian Anderson lofts a lazy fly ball for the final out of the game, and 10 minutes later, Fletcher is out of U.S. Cellular Field and headed for his hotel room.

The next morning, he'll be back to do it all again.

But he doesn't mind.

Though Fletcher has no aspirations for a full-time announcing gig, it's clear that he's thrilled with the part-time work.

"I don't know how long they're going to keep doing the part-time thing, but if they'll let me keep doing 20 games a year, I'll keep doing it," he says. "I think it's great. It's a little taste of being back in the big leagues again."

Categories (3):Baseball, Illini Sports, Sports
Location (2):Chicago, State

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