10 REASONS WHY SCOTT FLETCHER SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN OFFERED A THREE-YEAR, $3.9 MILLION CONTRACT BY THE TEXAS RANGERS:
10) Answers to the nickname Scooter. Anyone called Scooter should get an allowance, not $1.3 million a year.
9) Has gone 600 at bats without hitting a home run, the fourth-longest string among every-day players in the American League.
8) Herschel Walker and Danny White have never earned as much a year in salary as Fletcher will be paid in 1989, and Texans actually care about football.
7) Doesn't smoke, drink or chew. Might pick up bad habits trying to spend $3.9 million.
6) Rangers will ruin their well-earned reputation as cheapskates.
5) No scoot in the Scooter. Has stolen 33 bases in last three years but also has been caught stealing 28 times.
4) Father is a high school football coach, and it is disrespectful to earn more money than your father.
3) Was ranked last of seven American League West shortstops a year ago by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Then again, SI also ranked Ruben Sierra ahead of Jose Canseco in rightfield.
2) Nice guy who signs autographs for free. Real stars like Canseco and Roger Clemens command fees as high as $10,000 to sign at card shows.
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."
"I never pushed them," says Dick, who is now the football coach at West Orange High in Winter Garden, Fla. "What finally convinced me was one January when it was 14 degrees outside, and those two boys went out to play a game of toss against a fence. People would come by and say, 'You're crazy.' And Scooter would say, 'Yeah, well, I gotta get ready for the season.' When he was 13 years old he made up his mind he was going to be a professional ballplayer, and when other kids were out partying or swimming at the beach. Scooter was working, taking ground balls or hitting."
Fletcher still works hard, which is one of the reasons why the Rangers had no compunction in signing him to a three-year contract. Since 1983 he has tried to lift weights four to five days a week all year long—a nearly impossible schedule to keep during road trips. With his shirt off, the 5'11", 180-pound Fletcher looks like a strapping wrestler, and he can bench-press 275 pounds. But none of that muscle translates into long-ball power, a failing that his teammates delight in reminding him about. "Way to go, Scoots—might hit a couple this year," slugger Pete Incavaglia can be heard saying when Fletcher has a good round in the batting cage. Valentine, who has been working with Fletcher this spring on keeping his weight back and waiting on the ball before driving it, feels that Fletcher is capable of more extra-base hits, especially doubles.
As a kid Fletcher was a pure power hitter. His father remembers that his 17 home runs was a Wadsworth Little League record at the time. One of Dick's favorite memories is of the time Rick and Scott hit back-to-back homers in a semipro game; Scott's blast cleared the fence and landed across the street, 430 feet from home plate.
Since arriving in the big leagues Fletcher has choked up on the bat and learned to spray the ball to all fields. He did hit five homers for Texas in 1987, but that was an aberration. In no other major league season has he hit more than three, and last season he actually came up with a goose egg. "I tell my teammates there's more to this game than home runs, just as there's more to football than the bomb," says Fletcher. "Still, I'd like to be able to jog around the bases just once next year."
"This Christmas, Scott told me, 'Dad, I'm tired of people saying I can't hit home runs,' " Dick says. " 'I'm going to come down on the bat this year and hit me some dingers.' "
The Rangers hope that Fletcher was kidding. "Sure, I'd love it if he hit with more power," says Grieve. "But he doesn't have the physical ability to hit we're paying him for."
The Rangers are paying him to play the way he has for the past three years—consistently in the field and intelligently at bat, in the tradition of infielders like Nellie Fox, another singles hitter who batted second in the order. "You're not always going to outslug the other team," says Fletcher. "Little things win games. Getting the man over when you're three runs ahead. Taking when the count is 2 and 0 instead of swinging away. Letting a guy steal a base. You give up quite a few at bats hitting second. I'm not complaining. I'm not the kind of guy who crosses first base and knows what his batting average is. I might know my home run total...."
Strangely, long-suffering Rangers fans seem to understand Fletcher's contributions, too. He is one of the team's most popular players. When the Rangers briefly made Fletcher the highest-paid athlete in Dallas history—that distinction now belongs to Ryan, who signed a one-year, $2 million contract—Grieve heard not one peep of protest. "The reaction in the community was, Great, he's earned it," said Grieve.
Whether the rest of the country ever gets around to appreciating Fletcher's subtle talents probably depends on his teammates. "Good players don't stand out on lousy teams," says Grieve. "If we finally put a decent team on the field, Scotty'll get noticed."