A Fletcher family tradition

A Fletcher family tradition

RURAL NEWTOWN

Casey Fletcher, cup of coffee in hand, greets a visitor at the front door of the family home on a sunny and rapidly warming morning.

It’s understandable that the 20-year-old might welcome a jolt of caffeine upon recently awakening after the latest in a series of late nights at the ballpark. As a member of the  Danville Dans, Fletcher’s summer is consumed by a baseball schedule about as grinding and travel-filled as his father Darrin experienced while climbing the minor league ladder to the majors during the late 1980s.

It’s apparent the wake-up beverage is doing the trick. With a strong voice, Casey yells toward the back of the house to alert his father that the visitor has arrived.

Turns out Darrin is mowing the lawn out back and, in the process, working up the kind of sweat worthy of the well-padded and hard-working catcher he was until retiring 11 years ago. After sitting down at the kitchen table with Casey, Darrin wipes his brow multiple times as the conversation begins.

Lately, Darrin has been spending plenty of time outside on his property just north of Newtown. After decades of useful service to multiple generations of Fletchers, an aging shed was torn down several weeks earlier by Darrin and his father, Tom.

“That was my dad’s equipment shed,” Tom says. “That was backhoes and bulldozers in there.”

Glen Fletcher’s shed found a new use early in Darrin’s major league career. In 1990, the former University of Illinois All-American decided to convert the 30- by 60-foot structure into a space to practice hitting. The heated, carpeted and insulated enclosure — complete with batting cage and pitching machine — allowed Darrin to work in the offseason on a swing that would end up yielding a .269 batting average, 124 home runs and 583 RBI during a 14-year major league career.

In the years following his retirement, the shed continued to served its purpose, with the Illini’s all-time leader in career and single-season batting average offering hitting lessons to area youngsters. From a young age, Casey and his buddies were drawn to it, too.

But everything has its time, and Darrin decided this old shed’s time had come.

“There was a moment of silence in Vermilion County when I tore it down,” Darrin says, only half-joking.

“I miss that thing already,” Casey adds.

Not to worry. A new shed already is in the works, evidence of which is plain to see to anyone driving onto the Fletcher property.

“There will be hitting here soon,” Darrin promises.

■ ■ ■

Just as that old shed was a constant in the history of the Fletcher family, the same can be said of baseball.

Glen Fletcher was 20 years old when he was signed to a professional contract by the St. Louis Browns in 1937 following a tryout camp in Terre Haute, Ind. During a 10-year minor league career, the right-handed pitcher rose to as high as the Class AAA level. “He was known for his curveball,” Tom Fletcher says.

Arm problems and a growing family ultimately convinced Glen to abandon pro ball following the 1948 season and to return to Vermilion County to work in his father’s and uncle’s coal mine. Before he did so, however, Glen could say he worked out alongside the likes of Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain one spring in a Boston Braves’ training camp.

Tom Fletcher followed his father into pro ball, signing with the Detroit Tigers in 1962 after earning All-America honors as a sophomore Illini pitcher. Then 20, Tom was called up to the big leagues that September and pitched in one game for the Tigers.

It would prove to be the left-hander’s only appearance on a major league mound.

That same month, a blood clot developed near Tom’s pitching shoulder that restricted blood flow to the arm. Sidelined for the entire following season, Tom returned to pro ball in 1964 and occasionally flashed the velocity that had first attracted Tigers scouts.

“At times it came back,” he says.

But Tom never again cracked Detroit’s then-pitching-rich roster — which included Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich — and he called it a career following the 1968 season.

A third generation of Fletchers entered pro baseball’s ranks when Darrin was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers following an All-America season in 1987. On Sept. 10, 1989, 22-year-old Darrin made his major league debut. Unlike his predecessors, this Fletcher caught pitches instead of throwing them during a career highlighted by an appearance in the 1994 All-Star Game and an 80-RBI season in 1999.

Now, another in a line of Fletchers is making a name in the game for himself. Soon, he’ll be following in the collegiate footsteps of his grandfather and father, too.

■ ■ ■

When the Illini baseball team reports for fall workouts in early September, Casey Fletcher will be among the newcomers. Following two All-America seasons at Kankakee Community College, the former Oakwood High School standout is joining the family alma mater as a preferred walk-on with a shot at earning playing time in a graduation- and draft-depleted UI outfield.

After hitting .381 last spring and ranking second nationally in RBI (69) among Division II junior college players, Casey had other options. Division I Morehead State in Kentucky and Division II St. Leo’s in Florida each offered scholarship aid.
Neither, however, had what Illinois could offer.

“Especially with all the history that Fletchers have had at the University of Illinois, I wanted to be a part of it, too,” Casey said.

To his father, the decision made sense once UI associate head coach Eric Snider indicated — after scouting Casey this spring — that the KCC sophomore had the ability to compete at the Big Ten level and would have an opportunity to get on the field.

“I did not want Casey to be taken as a charity case over there,” Darrin said. “That was my big concern. I wanted them to take him not because of his last name. I wanted them to take him because they felt like he’s a good player. I’ve always felt he was a good player and could handle that competition.”

Casey says he understands why the same opportunity wasn’t extended by the UI two years earlier. Coming out of high school, he weighed 150 pounds. His 5-foot-11 frame has since filled out to 165, and this spray hitter also has shown at times he can pack some wallop into his swing these days.

“I was very small (then),” Casey said. “I wasn’t ready yet physically, I think.”
Still, head coach Dan Hartleb and his Illini staff promised to keep tabs on Casey.

Junior college baseball would be a proving ground, and his statistics and awards attest that Casey passed with flying colors. A career .388 hitter at KCC, Casey left as the program’s No. 2 all-time RBI producer with 127.

“I think it was the best move for him to go up there,” Darrin said. “He got a little stronger and was playing against better competition. Got some good instruction, (was exposed to) competitive baseball, and he played well.”

Still, the bar has been set high in this family. Both previous Illini baseball Fletchers left Champaign with NCAA All-America plaques. It’s a legacy Tom and Darrin hope Casey — and others — will keep in perspective over the next two years.

“Darrin and I had good careers over there, and I don’t want him to put a lot of pressure on himself,” Tom said. “And I think Casey will do OK over there. He approaches the game maturely. Just go out and play ball. He’ll be OK.”

■ ■ ■

Darrin’s earliest recollection of his oldest son in baseball dates to the mid-1990s, when Dad played for the Montreal Expos. The occasion was the team’s annual Family Day, when the players’ children put on pint-sized uniforms and headed out to the field for a game of Wiffle ball with their dads. Casey, then 3 years old and a big fan of the movie “Little Big League,” hit a Darrin Fletcher-like line drive. With early-arriving Expos fans cheering him on, the hard-running youngster made it all the way to third base.

Then, following the example of the fictional preteen owner of the Minnesota Twins in his favorite movie, Casey took off his cap and waved it to the crowd.

“Same move,” Darrin said, the memory evoking a broad smile. “He tipped his hat to everybody.”

Casey’s first baseball remembrance also involved a mighty swat with his left-handed swing, when he was about 5 or 6 and participating in T-Ball. With the bases loaded and the winning run at third, Casey sent the ball over the fence for a grand slam.

“I think that was my first home run I ever had,” he said.

T-Ball was Casey’s introduction to organized baseball, but this was not the kind of T-Ball most U.S. parents and kids would recognize. In Canada, there are traveling T-Ball teams — Casey played for the Toronto-based High Park Braves — and players learn the game in this pitcherless environment until they are 7 or 8.

“It takes the walks out of it and teaches the kids situational baseball,” Darrin said. “And it also forces them to field the ball because there’s always a ball in play.”

To Darrin, the baseball stepping stones that Casey took from a young age were far different from his own.

There was no youth travel ball in Darrin’s background. At 12, when Casey already was playing about 50 games a summer, “I played maybe 15 (then),” his father said.

It wasn’t until Darrin’s mid-teens, when he graduated to American Legion, Eastern Illinois League and Twilight League baseball that he approached the busy playing schedule that was a part of Casey’s experience years earlier.

“Casey’s put a lot more work into baseball; a lot more work than I had ever did when I was that age,” Darrin said.

From Little League to Junior and Senior American Legion to travel ball with the Mahomet Diamond Dogs and later the Champaign Dream, Casey experienced an unbroken chain of baseball summers that prepared him for each succeeding step.

Along the way, says Darrin, his son was tested by high-stakes situations from a young age.

“With the travel teams especially, I thought they played some very meaningful games and some high-stress games as a kid,” Darrin said. “There’s a lot of yelling and screaming. Parents want to win. And you’ve got to make plays or you’ve got to come up with hits at a very early age, and I think you can’t overlook the fact he’s played in tight situations at an early age. I didn’t have that at all. The closest I came was the E.I. tournament, and (by then) I was already 16, 17 years old.”

Of course, Darrin always passed along his knowledge of the game and of hitting to his son. But just as his father Tom had done decades earlier, Darrin put a particular stress on the mental side of the game and on remaining positive in the inevitable face of failure.

“I think the mental approach to baseball is the most important,” Darrin said. “The old adage, it’s a game of failure (is true) because you’re always making outs no matter how good you are. So I had to constantly harp on him to keep his chin up when things weren’t going well because there should be always tomorrow.”

Those tomorrows continued, says Darrin, because Casey never showed any hint of burnout as the games and the seasons piled up.

“He always wanted more baseball,” Darrin said. “That’s why we continued to push him and find more and more teams and games for him because he just wanted to continue to play. If he was giving me signals that it was going to be too much for him, I would have backed him off. ... I always saw the enthusiasm so there wasn’t an issue.”

Apparently not.

“They’ve got to rip (the uniform) off me before I stop,” Casey said.

Like his father, Casey was involved in multiple sports at Oakwood High School. More so than Darrin, however, Casey made time for baseball no matter the season.

“I was always constantly hitting, always fine-tuning my game and getting ready,” he said. “Baseball season was important to me and I was always constantly trying to get ready for it.”

The next step in Casey’s baseball journey undoubtedly will be the most challenging, but Darrin knows this: No matter how it turns out, Casey has done all he can to be ready for his shot at Division I baseball.

“Going into his junior year, he’s played (all) the levels,” Darrin said. “I think he’s prepared for whatever comes his way. Now, does it mean that he sits on the bench? Does it mean that he struggles? I don’t know. But I think that he’s prepared for that shot-down.”

■ ■ ■

When Casey joins his new Illini teammates, the family name is likely to resonate with at least some of them.

Anyone who has walked through the small concourse area at Illinois Field has had the opportunity to see the list of major leaguers the program has produced — a list mounted on the back wall of the press box. Darrin also is among a select few ex-Illini big leaguers with his picture on the wall.

It’s been 11 years since Darrin played in his last MLB game, however — more than half the lifetimes of many college-age athletes — and it’s understandable if Casey’s baseball peers aren’t always aware of his dad’s background in the sport.

Still, word gets around through coaches, fans, townspeople. This summer, several of Casey’s Dans teammates have asked about the connection.

“I think it’s cool when guys come up and they go ‘Hey, do you remember anything; like who’d your dad catch?’ ” Casey said.

As they learn the details, Casey has discovered there seems to be a particular fascination with one of Darrin’s former batterymates with the Toronto Blue Jays.

“Your dad caught (Roger) Clemens?”

Indeed. But don’t expect Casey to bring up his dad’s baseball background first in conversation.

“I’ve always tried to blend in as best as possible, especially with my teammates,” the younger Fletcher said. “I’ve never really been a big boaster about anything.”

But Casey definitely has stories to tell about growing up as the son of a major leaguer and being in that environment. He remembers how Blue Jays slugger Carlos Delgado — whose swing Casey emulated as a youngster — would reverse roles and pitch to the kids on the team’s Family Days.

After Blue Jays’ victories, children of the players were allowed in the locker room and “I’d always go in and get popsicles,” Casey said.

When the Blue Jays opened the 2002 season in Boston, Toronto manager Buck Martinez took the opportunity to enrich young Casey’s grasp of baseball history.

Martinez took him to the famous Red Seat at Fenway Park — site of the landing of a Ted Williams home run in 1946 that traveled 502 feet, the longest ever in the storied stadium’s history.

“I got to sit on the seat,” Casey said.

Fenway also was the site of another treasured memory shared by Casey and Darrin. Taking note of all the line-drive-induced dents on the Green Monster in left field, Darrin wanted Casey to be able to say that he, too, had left his mark on the famed wall. The elder Fletcher set up a tee in the outfield and brought along a bucket of balls. With bat in hands, Casey took aim.

“Here you go; there’s your dent on the Green Monster,” Darrin said.

At the time, Casey admits, he did not fully comprehend his unique connection to the big leagues through his father. He knows better now.

“I just thought it was the norm,” Casey said. “I didn’t know the difference between what he was doing and a normal job. I really found the importance of it probably when he got out (of the game). ... I experienced a lot of things that kids have never experienced. It was awesome.”

■ ■ ■

There are times, Darrin admits, when he still wonders whether he called it a career too soon. He was 35 when he retired in July 2002, his heart no longer fully invested in the game and wanting to be more available to his growing family.

“I really was a part-time father for a lot of years,” Darrin said. “When I was in Toronto, other dads were raising Casey. He was riding in the car with other dads to go to (his own) game(s) because I wasn’t there.”

Still, Darrin never did realize his goal of playing in a World Series. And, barring serious injury, he’s confident he could have served a useful few more seasons as a backup catcher.

“Honestly, I had several years left,” Darrin said.

Then, Darrin considers the additional time he would have spent away from wife Sheila, 16-year-old daughter Preslie and 10-year-old son Koby. And, of course, Casey.

Then, any regrets about walking away from the game when he did vanish.

“If I would have kept playing until I was 40, I would have missed all that good stuff, and I didn’t want to miss it,” Darrin said. “When I shut it down, one of the main reasons was I wanted to raise my son in the game of baseball, like my father had.

“When I look back and see the progression of Casey, with him going to the UI, it’s kind of a reminder that ‘Darrin, you did the right thing staying home and being with him.’

“I wouldn’t take it back for anything.”

The third-generation Illini in this family is grateful he didn’t.

“Baseball’s always in this house,” Casey said. “Me and dad are always talking about it. If your dad has all this experience, why wouldn’t you want him to be around and tell you what you’re doing wrong and what you’re doing right?”

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