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Danny Fatheree: Committed to the Game

The minor leagues serve a developmental purpose, and it’s exciting to think that some of the players we cheer for in Lexington may achieve national renown someday. It’s important to remember, however, that every Legends game provides enjoyment in the here and now. Watching a well-played baseball game is one of America’s great pleasures. Not every Lexington Legend will become a major league star, but all of them do their best to put on a good show while they are here.

Like all of us, minor league players dream of success. They struggle with the physical, mental, and emotional demands of minor league life in the hope of attaining big-league fame and riches. But there isn’t room for everyone at the top of the pyramid, and the pro game would topple without a strong foundation of minor league veterans who stay in the game because they love it, knowing full well that they might make more money in another line of work.

Catcher Danny Fatheree is one of that elite. In 2002 Fatheree completed his sixth minor league season, his second as a Lexington Legend. He’s not on the fast track to the big leagues, and it is unlikely that baseball will ever make him rich. “The Astros are using me as a roving catcher,” he says. “When a catcher gets hurt, I join that team and play. The Astros know I’ll do a decent job, and I’m happy to have that job.”

At Grand Prairie (Texas) High School, Fatheree caught future big leaguers Kevin Walker and Kerry Wood. “We had 25 to 30 scouts out there a day, watching practice and games,” he recalls. “One of the Houston scouts noticed me and wanted to sign me. They heard through the grapevine that I wouldn't need a lot of money to sign, because I just wanted to get into an organization and play ball. I was tired of school and didn't want to go to college right then. The Astros didn’t draft me, but when they approached me with a free agent contract, I signed.”

Fatheree had plenty to learn about the pro game. “I had no idea how long it takes for guys to get to the majors. Coming out of high school, I thought the minor leagues were just a stopping point: one year or two, and you're in the big leagues. I didn't know that most guys have to try to earn their way through five or more years before they even get a shot.”

Fatheree’s character was tested immediately. He was one of several catchers the Astros assigned to their Gulf Coast League franchise, and he wasn’t at the top of the depth chart. After a few weeks on the bench he expressed his frustration to manager Julio Linares, who set the young Texan straight. After spelling out the reasons why Fatheree wasn’t playing, Linares advised him that it wouldn’t be smart to cast himself as a boat-rocker who challenged a manager’s judgment and authority.

Listening to Linares, Fatheree faced a crucial choice: to harden his head and pout, or cooperate. He decided he’d do what it took to be a team player. “Demeanor is important,” he points out. “A team is together for six months. If you’re griping and arguing, you can’t get in tune with what the team needs to do.”

“The Astros do their best to give a fair shot to everyone, but the tough lesson I had to learn was that players who are drafted high get more chances. That bothered me at first, and I had to come to grips with it. But there are some things you can’t control. You can only control what you do. Baseball is a business. If a team gives a guy a million dollars, they’re not going to sit that million dollars on the bench and let it rot. They’re going to get every penny out of that guy!  But if the Astros see a low-round pick is playing well, they move him up.”

Although Fatheree hasn’t compiled gaudy statistics in his six minor league seasons, stats don’t measure his value to the Astros. “I’ve got good experience, and I can catch a decent game. It’s not easy to put up good numbers as a backup, but I can do the job when they need me. I’m a mature player now, one who gets along well with the guys in the clubhouse and doesn’t complain.”

The Astros are happy to have Fatheree, and he likes playing in their system. “Houston is a class organization. The people in the front office have an open-door policy. They don’t act like bigwigs looking down on you. They’ll help you out with the things you need help with. If you want to talk to them about why they did this or that, they have no problem telling you. Other organizations might have a problem with you even asking!”

The Houston organization enforces a set of rules governing off-field conduct. Players, for instance, must wear collared shirts, at home or on the road, whenever they go out to dinner. They must wear shoes, not sandals. There’s a strict curfew on the road. The players have to be in their rooms two hours after returning to the team hotel.

Fatheree approves. “Kids like me who came out of high school might want to wear a T-shirt to the park. Most of them don’t know how to handle themselves. They need to learn about professionalism. They need to learn not to stay out at all times of the night. When I was younger and wilder, I didn't care if I got rest or not. At first I didn’t understand the purpose of all those rules, but they taught me how to live so I could do well the next day.”

On the field, Houston’s Class A teams work on fundamentals all season long. “The Astros want to drill it into your head how to play the game before you get to Double-A,” explains Fatheree. Before the fans arrive, the players are practicing bunt defenses, cutoffs and relays from the outfield, hit-and-run plays, baserunning techniques, tagging up at third. Pitchers, after a day off following a start, throw on the side, working on their mechanics.

“The Astros always find us good places to play,” says Fatheree. “Lexington is great. The field is well maintained, with no potholes. The playing surface is unbelievable, especially compared to what we find on the road. Down on the field taking batting practice, I’ve often heard guys on other teams say that they wish they played in Lexington.”

“In some cities we visit, there are a hundred people in the stands. That makes it hard for players to get up for a game. In Lexington the fan support is wonderful. You can’t ask for a better city to play in. I like to visit the horse farms. My wife and I have made some good friends in Lexington, people we’ll come back in the offseason to see.”

Like most minor league players, Fatheree must secure other employment in the offseason to make ends meet. He’s worked as an auto mechanic and substitute teacher, and after the 2002 season he was hoping to connect with a good-paying factory job.

He’d rather be playing ball, and he intends to keep playing as long as he can. Because he’d like to stay in the professional game, Fatheree hopes his playing career will last long enough for him to accumulate all the knowledge he’ll need to succeed as a manager or coach. If that doesn’t work out, he’ll probably go back to school to prepare himself for a coaching career at the high school or college level.

Fatheree has no regrets. “My dad has asked me if I think I should have gone to college instead of playing pro ball. My answer is no, because I wouldn’t trade this for anything. I’ve had the best times of my life in pro ball. I even met my wife through pro ball!”

That happened in 2000, when Fatheree was catching for the (Midwest League) Michigan Battle Cats. “Jennifer was working for the team in ticket sales. When we went to baseball clinics for kids, she drove us. That whole season I tried to get her number, but she wouldn’t give it to me. But I gave her mine, and she called me in the offseason.”  They were married in December 2001.

“I’ve grown up in baseball,” says Fatheree. “It’s different than what I thought it was. I understand the money issue now, and I understand what teams are looking for in terms of skills and ability and attitude. I understand a lot more about every aspect of baseball. But it's still a fun game, and I love the game still. I’ve never lost that little kid attitude I have toward the game.”

This article, commissioned by the Lexington Legends (South Atlantic League), was written in September 2002 for inclusion in the team’s 2003 souvenir program. It was never published.