Fletcher watches son play big-time baseball at Illinois
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — As he spent his second season at Kankakee Community College, Casey Fletcher was about a day away from accepting the best offer he had to keep playing baseball — at Morehead State in Kentucky.
At the last minute, an assistant coach from Illinois offered him a shot at making the roster. No scholarship, just a chance to walk on.
The son and grandson of Illinois graduates, Fletcher took it. And two seasons later, it couldn’t have worked out much better.
The senior outfielder is one of the top hitters on one of the top teams (47-8-1) in college baseball, one that won 27 games in a row and is set to host the first NCAA regional in school history.
As that first game on Friday closes in, Fletcher said he has found himself talking more with his father, former major league catcher Darrin Fletcher, about just how big a deal that is.
“He was never on a playoff team in the major leagues,” Casey Fletcher said. “He just kind of said, ‘Man, I would trade away some years in the big leagues to be on a team like you’re on right now.’”
If anyone was destined to play baseball and play it at Illinois, it’s the younger Fletcher.
He grew up in the small town of Oakwood, about 25 miles east of campus. Before Darrin Fletcher played 14 seasons for the Dodgers, Phillies, Expos and Blue Jays, he was one of the better players in Illini history. And Darrin Fletcher’s father, Tom Fletcher, played at Illinois before pitching for years in the minor leagues and briefly for the Detroit Tigers. Even Tom’s dad, Glen Fletcher, played pro ball, pitching in the minor leagues for a number of years in the 1930s and ’40s.
His baseball pedigree showed when he got to Illinois, teammate David Kerian said.
“We know that in the dugout, Casey has a fire about him,” said Kerian, a first baseman and the team’s top hitter with a .366 average, 14 home runs and 47 RBIs. “You can tell that he carries himself a little bit differently.”
Fletcher started developing that demeanor early by watching pro players up close while he followed his dad to spring training and on to Toronto every season for several years.
“Any time that he could, he was always taking me to the ball field, seeing if I could hit it over the fence from a tee that he set up like 50 feet away from the wall,” Fletcher said.
When Darrin Fletcher retired after the 2002 season, his son became his baseball focus. He helped coach his teams and worked with him every chance he could.
“I thought he had ability and I wanted to be there for him,” Darrin Fletcher said. “I’m doing the same thing that my dad did with me and his dad did with him.”
But where Darrin Fletcher played at 6-2 and almost 200 pounds, his son was a 5-11, 155-pound high school player.
That meant that he drew little interest coming out of little Oakwood High School. Its 300 students wouldn’t come close to filling Illinois Field, the smallish, 1,500-seat stadium where the Illini play.
“Not a lot of offers at all,” Darrin Fletcher said. “He was a little undersized.”
But at Kankakee CC and Illinois, the younger Fletcher has filled out. He weighs about 175 now. And he’s proven himself a strong outfielder and a good hitter.
This season, he’s batting .325 while driving in 32 runs and scoring 45.
Darrin Fletcher has spent this season watching his son do something he says he never really had the chance to do — play to win championships like the Big Ten regular season title Illinois claimed this spring. Fletcher was part of strong 1994 Expos team that was 34 games above .500 when the season was cut short by a players’ strike. That, he said, is about as close as he got.
“I longed as a player for those games in September that felt like a do-or-die situation,” Fletcher said. “I really didn’t play in many games like that.”
Trying to keep their winning streak alive, the Illini played in that kind of situation last weekend at the Big Ten Tournament. The streak died in a loss to Maryland, and Illinois’ tournament ended with another loss, to Michigan.
But the team gets another chance at high-stakes baseball starting Friday against Ohio.
“We have a very good ball club and we have a chance to go to Omaha,” Casey Fletcher said. “We’ve got bigger plans.”