1) Who is Scott Fletcher?
That's the question a lot of folks were asking last November when Fletcher, a free agent, became one of the most generously compensated shortstops in baseball when he re-signed with the Rangers for more than twice his 1988 salary of $575,000 after having been wooed by as many as nine other clubs. There are only four shortstops who have bigger contracts than Fletcher: the Baltimore Orioles' Cal Ripken ($2.5 million), the St. Louis Cardinals' Ozzie Smith ($2.3 million), the Toronto Blue Jays' Tony Fernandez ($1.4 million) and the Detroit Tigers' Alan Trammell, who signed a three-year, $6.5 million deal in March after just five minutes of negotiations.
"Scotty was in the right place at the right time," says Rangers general manager Tom Grieve, who admits that Fletcher has "a below-average arm, below-average power and average speed." Still, enough about Fletcher is above average that re-signing him was Grieve's No. 1 priority in a busy off-season that included signing Nolan Ryan and trading for second baseman Julio Franco and first baseman Rafael Palmeiro. "In the past five years shortstop has been one of the top positions in baseball in terms of quality," says Grieve. "But there isn't much in the way of quantity. This winter five teams were desperate for a shortstop, and Scotty was the best one available. The fact that he had five offers of more than a million shows there's a lot more to him than meets the eye."
The Philadelphia Phillies, Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates and Montreal Expos all tried hard to sign Fletcher after he became a free agent last fall, and Toronto made a million-dollar bid for him as a second baseman. The Phillies and the Indians each reportedly offered Fletcher a three-year, $4 million deal, more money than he accepted for re-signing with Texas. "People inside baseball know what he's worth," says Rangers manager Bobby Valentine. "Recognition by the media is the only thing that Scott is missing."
Fletcher is the kind of player whom managers love and sportswriters ignore, particularly when he plays for a team that finished 70-91, as Texas did in 1988. Fletcher is unspectacular but consistent, hardworking, religious and not particularly quotable. Indeed, after he had recently spent an afternoon with a reporter, his wife, Angela, came in and asked how the interview was going. Informed that it was going fine, she registered surprise and said, "That's nice. I usually can't get two words out of him."
In some respects Fletcher's statistics speak for themselves. He hit .300 one year (1986), a claim few shortstops can make. In fact, since coming over from the White Sox after the '85 season, he has led the Rangers in hitting all three seasons, averaging .288 with 74 runs scored and 53 RBIs. Even though his average fell to .276 last season, his on-base percentage rose to .364—third among shortstops behind Ripken and Trammell. "He's not afraid to let the count go deep," says Valentine, who bats Fletcher second. "And he's nearly perfect in situations: bunting guys over, moving them from second to third with no one out, hit-and-runs. Offensively, he's a manager's player."
Defensively, he is underrated. He made only 11 errors last year in 640 chances—three of those errors were in one game—for a fielding percentage of .983, second in the majors at his position, behind the California Angels' Dick Schofield. Says Valentine, "Scotty has outstanding range to his left, good range to his right, makes the difficult play look routine and the routine play look easy. A lot of the shortstops in our league that people jump up and down about make the routine play look difficult."
Fletcher studies hitting charts before every game to find out each batter's tendencies, then positions himself accordingly. And he makes a point to field at least 35 to 50 "quality" grounders. "That work ethic is part of his makeup," says Grieve, who was able to afford Fletcher's asking price because the Rangers brass, tired of the team's failed youth movement, gave Grieve an additional $4.5 million this year to rebuild the team. "It was important for us to show the fans and our other ballplayers that if you come here, work hard, uphold the sort of image the ball club wants to project and play well, you will be rewarded."
Fletcher is 30, with choirboy features, and when he broke into the majors with the Chicago Cubs in 1981 (he was traded to the White Sox two years later), Phillies pitcher Jim Kaat mistook him for a batboy. "Kaat told me to go get him some balls," recalls Fletcher, who was 22 at the time. "I thought, The cagey old veteran asks me to get balls, I better get them, even if he is on the other team." So he did.
Fletcher grew up in Wadsworth, Ohio, a small town west of Akron, and his father, Dick, taught health and physical education, and coached football and baseball. Dick had played eight years of minor league baseball, pitching in the Senator, Oriole and White Sox organizations. When Dick came home from school, Scott and his older brother, Rick, would beg him to pitch batting practice to them at the town park. "He wouldn't do it at first, and it would make us mad," Scott recalls. "Recently I asked him why, and he told me he wanted to see if we'd go out and do it ourselves. He wanted to see how committed we were."