The Fletchers And Baseball: It Runs In The Family
By Jeff Bossert
Athletic families are nothing new – and one has been in the works in Vermilion County since the late 1930’s.
A late surge by the University of Illinois baseball team this season has been due in part to the success of Casey Fletcher, whose dad, grandpa, and great-grandfather all played pro baseball.
His next season with the team will determine if he has a shot in the major league draft, but this isn’t the first U of I team to include a Fletcher in the starting lineup.
Casey Fletcher, 21, a native of Oakwood, just finished his junior year, and first regular season at Illinois with a .302 batting average.
He hit 6 home runs this season, but half of them came in one game against Southern Illinois April 30th – and a couple more two games later against Michigan State.
But Casey wasn't finished, hitting two walk-off singles against the Big Ten Conference rival May 3rd and 4th.
He went 8-for-17 that week, good for a .471 batting average, earning him Big Ten player of the week honors during the Illini’s recent 7-game winning streak.
“My whole entire family’s happy for me, being able to carry on a family tradition here of U of I Fletchers," Casey said.
Casey’s dad and grandfather also played at Illinois, and they both went on to play pro ball. His great-grandfather also played in the minor leagues.
Casey came to the U of I last fall after putting up some big numbers at Kankakee Community College, and at Oakwood High School prior to that. He also excelled during the last couple of summers playing for the Danville Dans.
"For me, I think the litmus test if I would just look at him as a pro scout or college scout, would be how he performed in the summer time," said Casey's dad, Darrin Fletcher. "I felt that if he could in the summer time and Prospect League, I felt that he could hit about anywhere, and he had two all-star seasons with the Dans."
He’s gotten some advice from Darrin, a former Illini and major league catcher. Lately, though he hasn’t needed much.
“I’ve been able to find holes, and hit them where they’re not," Casey said. "So I think my approach and everything has been the same all year - it’s nothing that I really changed different. I think it was just the fact of sticking with it, and knowing that you can do it. Hey, you’ve hit some balls hard, but there’s nothing you can change.”
“I’m hoping that someone sees some potential in him, and gives him a chance to continue to play after his two seasons here," said Darrin, who spent 14 years behind the plate with the LA Dodgers, Philadelphia Phillies, Montreal Expos, and Toronto Blue Jays, collecting more than 1,000 hits.
And some of the numbers he compiled at Illinois include an unheard-of .497 batting average in 1987, Darrin’s senior year– a single-season record that still holds at the U of I.
He said Casey never needed encouragement to play.
“He has put in more work at effort into being a college player than I ever did," Darrin said. "I look back on my career, and I got away with a lot of just natural ability and strength. I was bigger, I was stronger – but I could have worked a little harder - I didn’t work as hard as Casey has worked.”
Darrin said Casey grew up around a big-league culture, and that only feeded his son’s desire to play.
More than 50 years ago, Darrin’s father, Tom Fletcher – a starting pitcher - signed with the Detroit Tigers after his sophomore year at U of I, and was brought to the big leagues at age 20.
But a freak condition involving a blot clot in his arm limited his big league experience to a single game - a-two inning relief appearance against the Boston Red Sox in 1962.
His highlight that day - retiring Hall of Famer Carl Yastrezmski on a ground ball to first.
“Detroit was getting beat about 7-0, and it was in the 7th or 8th inning – I think," Tom laughed. "And I think we were getting ready to leave for Los Angeles, so everybody’s ready to get packed, and get it out of there – it was getting ready to rain, it was in September. So I guess for the rest of the ballclub, it was just another day, but to me it was pretty big.”
Tom recovered from the arm problem, pitching six more years in the minors, but never got another big league call-up.
His dad, Glenn, was also a minor league pitcher in the late 30’s and 40’s, but never cracked the big leagues. His 11-year career included stints with teams in Birmingham and Indianapolis. Glen Fletcher passed away in 1994.
Both surviving elder Fletchers feel good about Casey’s chances in the major league draft a year from now. But Tom says there fewer big-league affiliated minor league teams. And he said those who don’t get called up in a short amount of time can get lost in the shuffle.
"You've got to make a decision," he said. "If you have a family, what’s best for your family. Because you could end up what we used to call a baseball bum. In other words, a guy’s good enough to play, but not regularly, and just go from team to team, and eke out a living. That gets kind of old.”
The Illini finished the regular season with an overall mark of 31-and 19, and are a number 3 seed entering Big Ten Conference tournament play versus Michigan State Wednesday morning. (UPDATE: Illinois lost the opening game to the Spartans, 2-1, and will play the winner of Nebraska and Ohio State Thursday morning.)
Casey Fletcher’s profile on the U of I website said he plans to pursue a career in coaching after graduating next year.
But three generations of Fletchers have played professional ball, and he’d like to be the 4th.
“I’m going to go as far as baseball can take me," Casey said. "I think, I feel like I still have some years left in me after my U of I career is over. I’m just going to see where it takes me - They’re going to have to rip off the jersey before I quit.”