Art Howe, hitting instructor for the Texas Rangers, was taking his turn as batting practice pitcher last week, spotting the ball in and out, up and down. Scott Fletcher's black bat flicked at each toss like a rattlesnake, methodically spraying outside pitches down the rightfield line, muscling inside pitches past third, lining fat pitches up the middle.
Tim Foli, an ex-major league shortstop and the Ranger infield coach, watched with awe. "That's the way I should have hit," Foli said to manager Bobby Valentine as the two leaned against the batting cage in Baltimore. "What discipline and concentration he has."
And what a year he's having. Fletcher, best known in Chicago as a utility infielder during parts of two seasons with the Cubs and the last three with the While Sox, has at last taken root as the Rangers' shortstop and is one of the major reasons the team is challenging the California Angels for the lead in the AL West.
Fletcher, 28, is hitting .324, fifth best in the American League. Since July 1 he has hit safely in 32 of 35 games for a .384 average. He is also in the top 10 in triples and multi-hit games. Heady numbers for a man whose previous best major league average was .256 last year in Chicago.
So how did a lifetime .245 hitter become an offensive force? Instead of sulking in his role as a utilityman, the 5'11", 173-pound Fletcher lifted weights, took extra batting practice, fielded ground balls endlessly and watched tapes of his batting stroke. "He has worked harder than the next guy to get himself to this level," says Valentine.
The key, says Fletcher, was never accepting the role of utility infielder. "I never thought of myself as one, and I wasn't going to let myself start thinking that way," he says. "I believed, really believed, that by doing everything I could to improve myself I would be totally ready once my chance came along."
That chance, never truly presented itself with the White Sox. He shared shortstop with Jerry Dybzinski in 1983, the year the Sox won the AL West, then hit .250 and was fourth in fielding percentage in his first regular stint (149 games) at short in 1984. But in 1985, the White Sox traded Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Lamarr Hoyt to San Diego for then minor league shortstop prospect Ozzie Guillen. The message was clear. Fletcher asked to be traded.
Last Nov. 25, Chicago vice-president Ken Harrelson accommodated Fletcher by packing him, minor leaguer Jose Mota and pitcher Ed Correa to Texas for infielder Wayne Tolleson and pitcher Dave Schmidt. At first, Valentine was skeptical. "I thought we were giving away an everyday infielder [Tolleson] for a part-timer," says Valentine. "But [Texas G.M.] Tom Grieve convinced me that Scott could step in and play every day."
Fletcher thought he had earned the starting shortstop job with a .424 batting average in spring training. But Valentine stayed with incumbent Curtis Wilkerson until Wilkerson fumbled and second baseman Toby Harrah suffered through a terrible slump. Wilkerson replaced Harrah at second, and Fletcher became the regular shortstop in May. He has not stopped his heavy hitting since.
"He's made my job a lot more restful," Valentine says. "Now I know every day I can just pencil him in at short and not have to worry."