Another Fletcher on the way
FITHIAN – Casey Fletcher's lifestyle has changed during the past decade, but one aspect remains untouched.
"Baseball was a part of my life as a kid," Fletcher said, "but it has gotten way more fun with the older I've gotten. Every year, I enjoy it more and I realize how much I love the game."
For many teen-agers, the game couldn't get better than it did for Fletcher as a youth.
His father, Darrin, was a major league catcher and that meant clubhouse visits and the chance for Casey Fletcher to run around the ballparks before he was 10.
An upclose view
When Darrin Fletcher was playing in Toronto, the family would arrive early for home weekend day games.
"He'd take me to center field, or right field, put up a tee 75 feet from the fence and see if I could hit it over," Casey Fletcher said.
Twice a year, Darrin Fletcher could take his family on road trips.
"My greatest experience," Casey Fletcher said, "was when I was 8 years old, hitting balls over the Green Monster (at Boston's Fenway Park)."
Though he says, "my Dad has been a very big part of my life," ask Casey Fletcher for the player whose hitting style he tried to emulate and you won't hear Darrin Fletche's name mentioned.
"Carlos Delgado," he said. "When he came to the Blue Jays, he was always friendly and I loved to watch him play."
It helped that Delgado – who entered this season with 473 career home runs – was a left-handed hitter like Casey Fletcher.
"I tried to do anything I could to make my swing look like his," Casey Fletcher said.
The now 17-year-old has done all right for himself.
Entering today's Class 2A regional baseball game against a 23-win Unity team at St. Thomas More, the junior leads Oakwood High School with a .528 batting average and ranks among the top five area leaders.
About the time Casey Fletcher started school is when he realized his father had a special profession.
"When I was in kindergarten, kids would say, 'Your dad is a pro baseball player,' and I would have to answer questions about it," he said.
Darrin Fletcher has worked with his son throughout the years – and is in his second season helping his former high school coach, Bob Sermak, as a volunteer with the Comets.
That influence, however, has had little affect on Casey Fletcher's passion for the game.
"I think if his life had taken a different path, I'd still have a love for baseball," he said.
There's a lot of work to be done, he insists, before he can even think about the possibility of becoming a third-generation major leaguer. His grandfather, Tom Fletcher, made an appearance with the Detroit Tigers as a pitcher in 1962.
"My goal is to be able to play the game I love in college," Casey Fletcher said. "That's all I want right now.
"People have to be realistic. The majors is the best of the best in the world. It's a step-by-step process. You have to have good high school seasons to see if you can play in college,
"Wherever baseball takes me, it takes me, but making it to the majors is a very distant thought."
Following the footsteps
Darrin Fletcher said he never had to urge his son to follow baseball.
"He grew up in big-league parks and was always asking about baseball," Darrin Fletcher said. "I didn't have to get him interested in doing it. At times, I needed to sit him on the couch and tell him to relax."
Darrin Fletcher retired from the Toronto organization in 2002.
"My wife was pregnant and I was wanting to be at home," he said, adding that one other factor hastened his decision.
"I was batting about .200," Fletcher added. "I was the oldest every day catcher in the league, but I was becoming a part-timer and was playing myself out of an every-day role.
"I could have hung on, but I knew I'd be missing a lot of good stuff at home."
The family returned to the Oakwood area, where Darrin spent much of his youth. He graduated from Oakwood in 1984 and went on to play for the University of Illinois.
Since returning to the area, Darrin Fletcher helped coach a traveling youth baseball team which featured some of the top current high schoolers. Among those who were members of the Champaign Dream, besides Casey Fletcher, were Joel Learnard (Salt Fork), Jason Ziegler (Mahomet-Seymour), Alex Smith (M-S), Tyler Namoff (Centennial), Zach Johnson (St. Thomas More) and Julian Boswell (St. Thomas More).
"We traveled around the Midwest from about 2003 to 2007," Darrin Fletcher said.
Coach catches on
Sermak, who is in his 28th year as Oakwood's head coach, said it wasn't a given that Darrin Fletcher would join the high school's baseball coaching staff as a volunteer.
"When I asked him, he said he'd like to, but he thought Casey would rather that he didn't," Sermak said. "I told him to take his (ACEP certification) test and I would take care of Casey."
When Sermak met with Casey Fletcher prior to his sophomore season in 2009, he heard the expected response.
"He said it's hard to play for your Dad," Sermak said.
"I asked him if he thought his Dad would make us a better program and he said, 'Absolutely.' Then I said, 'What's the real answer here?'"
The meeting lasted less than 2 minutes and Oakwood then had a former major leaguer on its coaching staff.
As for his duties, Darrin Fletcher said they encompass a little bit of everything.
"I'm the grounds crew or water boy, or whatever they need," he said.
A learning experience
More often than not, Sermak said, Darrin Fletcher is the person who soothes out potentially rough situations.
"I tend to be hard on them and Darrin will throw something in to loosen them up," Sermak said. "He made the statement the other day that we play the 'Good cop, Bad cop' role pretty well."
Truth is, it has been a learning process all the way around.
"I've educated Darrin some on how to handle high school kids," Sermak said. "He has been surprised by some of the things he has seen. He has educated me on a lot of things I hadn't thought about."
Sermak started at Oakwood when Darrin Fletcher was a junior and the coach was fresh out of college.
"I was 23," Sermak said, "and I had a lot of learning to do."
Ironically, one of the people who offered input was a former major league pitcher, Darrin's father, Tom.
"It was great having Tom around," Sermak said. "He made suggestions and helped me out on occasion."
The team leader
A year ago, long-time fans might have done a double-take at Oakwood baseball games. The catcher was a right-handed throwing, left-handed hitter named Fletcher. Darrin filled that role at Oakwood from 1982-84 and Casey filled it so well in 2009 that he was an all-Vermilion County selection as a backstop.
They weren't exactly mirror images.
"He's smaller than I was," Darrin said. "At 17, I was about 6-1 and 170. He's 5-11 and about 155."
Although Darrin Fletcher still holds Oakwood's career batting average mark (.486), he doesn't rate himself as the superior hitter in the family.
"Casey's swing is more fluid," Darrin Fletcher said. "Mine was more handsy. He doesn't have the power I did at that age, but he's a base hit guy. His swing is more polished."
Both father and son pitch and, in that endeavor, Darrin Fletcher said there can be no comparison.
"He's had a much better year than I ever did at Oakwood," Darrin Fletcher said.
Statistics support his opinion.
Casey Fletcher is 9-1, which ties the Comets' single-season record for wins set in 1988 by Phillip Huchel.
Casey has pitched so effectively (82 strikeouts in 55 1/3 innings) that Darrin is not sure what to think about the future.
"This year has gotten me questioning myself," he said. "I always felt he was a position player, but this year he is pitching so well that if he adds more velocity, he has a chance to pitch in college."
Tom Fletcher said he has offered a few pointers to his grandson, but he is careful not to interfere.
"You can overcoach," Tom Fletcher said. "I'm not messing with his motion."
Tom Fletcher, who graduated from Oakwood in 1960, particularly likes the way Casey Fletcher works hitters.
"He doesn't just get out there and throw," Tom Fletcher said. "He has an idea what to do. He throws fairly hard for his size and doesn't walk many."
At the plate, Tom Fletcher agrees that there is a comparison to be made.
"Where he's like Darrin is that he makes contact," Tom Fletcher said. "Darrin didn't strike out much either. He (Casey) is getting pretty quick with the bat."
Being part of an extended family where two men have played baseball professionally, Tom Fletcher said, has provided a goal for Casey Fletcher.
"I don't think the pressure is that intense," Tom Fletcher said, "but he's competitive enough that he wants to excel and he wants to be better than we were."