Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Column: ‘Fletch’ set for next chapter of baseball life

Daily Inter Lake | March 28, 2024 12:00 AM

As Major League Baseball gears up for Opening Day, it’s a good time to give the floor to the Glacier Range Riders’ newest skipper, Paul Fletcher.

The first thing you should know is that he rarely gets called Paul. 

“Most people call me ‘Fletch,’ “ he said. “And that’s fine.”

The next most important thing, if you’re a Kansas City Royals fan like me, is that after he was taken in the 24th round of the 1992 amateur draft out of the University of Tennessee, he pitched on a Eugene (Ore.) Emeralds squad that included Mike Sweeney and Jon Lieber.

“That was a pretty good team,” he said Wednesday, ticking off names of teammates like Larry Sutton and Sherard Clinkscales. 

Eight of those 1992 Emeralds eventually played in the majors, but the left-handed Fletcher did not (there is another Paul Fletcher, a righthander drafted by the Phillies in 1998, who did pitch 15 innings in The Show). 

After he went 2-6 with the Emeralds, the Royals released Fletcher in the spring of 1993. In 1994 he pitched well enough for Ohio Valley in the Frontier League to get picked up by the White Sox for 1995, and he pitched well for Class A South Bend that season — but was released again.

His last season pitching professionally was in Springfield, Ill. The Capitals were managed by Mal Fichman, who six years earlier had memorably been ejected from a Northwest League game, but put on Humphrey the Hawk’s mascot costume to get back on the field.

The team? The Boise Hawks, now a Pioneer League rival of the Range Riders.

All of this is to illustrate that Fletcher is a baseball lifer. When the pitching stopped, he got into coaching and scouting and he never got tired of it.  In eight years coaching pitchers in the Atlantic League, he counts 43 that were signed to major league contracts and 17 that made it to the big leagues — the most notable probably being Ross Detwiler and Micah Owings.

Part of his resume includes coaching in the wood bat Sun Belt League, which put him in contact with Marty Kelly, the owner of the Range Riders. Last summer, when Zach Stewart left his position at midseason for family reasons, the Riders needed a pitching coach.

“Marty asked me to come out here and I did,” Fletcher said. “And I ended up somehow being in charge.”

He is the club’s third manager in three seasons; under Stu Pederson, who has been retained as hitting/bench coach, Glacier ended up one game out of the Pioneer League playoffs. 

The 2023 Range Riders notably had a second-half pitching slump, though that wasn’t as much a factor in missing the postseason as the Billings Mustangs’ red-hot finish.

“I hated that we came a game short,” Fletcher said. “I liked that Jack White (Seattle Mariners) and Matt Clayton (Minnesota Twins) got to sign. Hope we can do that for some more guys.”

Some of those guys, Fletcher said, are starting to filter into town.

“By mid-April we’ll have a good number of the returners,” he added. “We’ve got enough guys under contract we could go play today, but we’re still looking for guys.”

Spring training just ended for the big league clubs and some independent leagues will fire up before the Pioneer League does, 54 days from today. Life continues on for Fletcher, who never seems to have a day without baseball.

He came back to the valley after a couple months at Gwinnett College in Georgia. Before that? The baseball lifer was Down Under.

“I spent the winter in Australia,” Fletcher said. “November to February. I had Koreans, Japanese, Americans. It’s a good brand of baseball. 

“I’m going to go back. I must have done OK.”

Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 758-4463 or at fneighbor@dailyinterlake.com