Former relief pitcher Paul Fletcher, who spent time in the Phillies, A’s and Blue Jays systems, opened up about his struggle with alcoholism. (Getty Images)
By Paul Hagen
PALM BEACH, Fla. – Former big league pitcher Paul Fletcher was 42 years old in April 2009 and suffering from high blood pressure. Which, frankly, was the least of his problems.
He was one of the select few to make it to the Majors, getting time with the Phillies in 1993 and 1995 and the Athletics in 1996, but viewed his career as a failure. Because of his drinking.
His wife, Kathy, had kicked him out of their house two years earlier and then divorced him. Because of his drinking.
He’d held a series of unhappy jobs, getting fired from most of them. Because of his drinking.
Then one day he went to work drunk and was sent home from Siemens Energy after getting into an argument with a friend. He felt so badly about what happened that he drank the rest of the day and all night, too. By the following morning, he decided that enough was enough.
Among his prescribed medications was Metoprolol, a beta blocker to slow his heart beat. He was supposed to take it twice a day, one in the morning, one at night. He looked at the little plastic bottle and realized that he had a full month’s supply, 60 pills. He calculated that should be enough to stop his heart completely.
He washed all his medications down with vodka, then laid down to die.
Spoiler alert …
Fletcher, now 50, drove from his home in nearby Coconut Creek to The Breakers resort, where the quarterly Owners Meetings were being held in early February. Not only is he very much alive, he’s now working as a business development representative for The Treatment Center of the Palm Beaches. He’ll celebrate the fourth anniversary of his sobriety on April 29.
“I look forward every day to working with people who are struggling with what I struggled with,” he said during an interview that lasted well over an hour. “Trying to help and make a difference in somebody’s life. I have a passion for this like I did before for baseball.”
He’s proud of the innovative programs The Treatment Center is creating like the teen center, an in-house residential program for adolescents between 13 and 17 that allows them to keep up with their studies while rehabbing so they don’t fall behind. And, of course, he’s deeply committed to working with current and former athletes.
“I want to help everybody,” he said. “But the biggest thing is I also want to help other people in the baseball family. Because of my background and because I know how stubborn we are. And they’re willing to do whatever it takes to help. They’re going to put in batting cages. Somewhere they can work out while they’re getting treatment.”
Fletcher will tell his story to anybody who will listen. This spring, he’ll tour the Florida Spring Training camps, talking to Minor Leaguers on behalf of the Baseball Assistance Team. Last year, he spoke for B.A.T. at every big league camp in Arizona; the year before that he did the same in Florida. He addressed more than a dozen seminars at baseball’s Winter Meetings last December in National Harbor, Md.
He’s frank and candid, sometimes brutally so, because he believes it’s important to get the message out.
So, yeah, this is a story with a happy ending. But getting to that point was far from easy or simple. Crazy as it may sound, attempting suicide and being placed in a psychiatric ward wasn’t rock bottom. Within months, Fletcher was drinking again. Rock bottom wouldn’t come for another four years.
Rescue (Part 1)
Fletcher was lucky. After he swallowed the pills, he somehow still had enough presence of mind to call Kathy and ask her to come over in a couple days. He says now he liked the people he was renting his apartment from and didn’t want them to find his decaying corpse weeks later. Or maybe it was a subconscious cry for help.
He was also lucky that she was home, getting their daughter Brooke and son Matt ready for school. And that she lived only a mile away.
“I dropped the kids off with a friend and drove right over,” she said. “I got there very quickly. I had a key to the apartment. I walked in. Found him in the bedroom passed out. What I thought was passed out. I shook him and tried to wake him. I was in a panic.”
She tried carrying him to her car but he’s a big man, listed at 6-foot-1 and 193 pounds during his playing days, and she couldn’t lift him. She called 911.
At the hospital, she was directed to a small room with two chairs. Only later, after the doctor had told her that he would survive, did she realize why she wasn’t in the main waiting room. The doctors weren’t sure he was going to make it and the hospital wanted her to have some privacy if she had to be told that he’d passed away.
“They said they intubated him and filled him with a ton of charcoal and were able to revive him,” she recalled. “One thing I remember was how sad and lonely Paul was at that point. That when we finally got to his room, he had all these tubes going in. He was so swollen and battered-looking from everything he’d put himself through. I leaned over to him and I said, ‘You can’t do this. You either stay now and fight or you let go. One or the other. You can’t continue like this.’”
The tender moment didn’t last long.
“At that point, he spewed charcoal everywhere. Everywhere,” she continued. “I had to back away. At that moment, I had no idea if he’d heard me or not. It might just have been the timing. But I couldn’t believe this was happening.”
Even a near-death experience wasn’t enough to scare him straight, though.
“That was shocking,” Fletcher said. "I owe my life to her because she came and found me. She didn’t have to. I was very, very close to not being here. But even after being that close to dying, I was sober maybe three or four months and then I was drinking again.
“That was crazy. I was in the hospital for four days, then I had to go to a psych ward. I swore up and down that I didn’t belong there because the people who were there were actually severe cases of schizophrenia and real serious mental issues. And I’m an alcoholic and I don’t think I have as big an issue. I’m like, ‘I don’t belong here.’ Finally, years later, I realized, ‘What sane person attempts to take their own life?’ That was exactly where I needed to be.”
And yet, he still couldn’t stop.
“There were things,” he said. “Relationships. Failed relationships. Guilt. My son was old enough where it affected him a lot. A lot of times I just felt like a total failure, a total piece of crap. I’d call myself that every single day when I was looking in the mirror. That kept me drinking, too.”
June, 1988: Baseball
Drafted in the 40th round of West Virginia State University, Fletcher signed with the Phillies almost immediately and was assigned to Martinsville in the Appalachian (Rookie) League. The right-hander, used mostly in relief, began a steady progression up the organizational ladder.
He’d been a three-sport star at Ravenswood (W. Va.) High School, also making all-state in football and second team all-star in basketball.
He thinks he snuck his first beer in the eighth grade. It wasn’t until he got to college, though, that the first troubling signs began to appear. When he was a freshman, he got drunk, punched a tree and broke his hand. Another night, some of the older players took him out and bought him shots until he was completely blotto.
They drove him back to the dorm but he didn’t stay there. He decided to drive himself back to the bar to find a girl he’d been hitting on and was arrested for DUI. “It was 3 o’clock in the morning,” he recalled. “All common sense was gone. That could have been a good indication that I had a problem.”
The situation didn’t improve when he turned pro. “Beer was basically part of our life,” he said. “Any off day we had we were always golfing and drinking together. That went hand in hand. There was never any beer in the clubhouse in the low Minors. But everybody had some. It was just part of the game, I guess.”
He played his second season at Class-A Batavia. “The last week of the season we had a team party at a hotel somewhere. Of course, I got tore up,” he said. "Something happened in the parking lot where I was running after somebody and tripped and did a face plant on the cement. Scraped the whole left side of my face.
“And the next thing I know I’m telling everybody that I got in a fight. Somebody beat me up out there. I had half the team outside looking for somebody that didn’t exist. Finally my pitching coach told everybody he thought I fell and did a face plant.”
A couple of years later, Fletcher went home with a black eye after getting into a fight with a teammate at the end-of-the-year party. “So there were a couple indications early that my priorities weren’t always in the right place,” he said.
He made his Major League debut on July 11, 1993, pitching once in relief before being sent back down. He spent the entire 1994 season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, though, and he continued to act out.
“I pitched terrible [4.68 ERA] and was just totally out of character,” he said. “Just being an ass to my manager, George Culver. On the team bus, in the back of the bus, drunk and yelling at him.”
Culver is now 73, retired and living in Bakersfield, Calif. He said Fletcher’s behavior didn’t stand out to him at the time. “Because guys at that level have different agendas, you know?” he said. "Why am I in Triple-A? Why didn’t I get to go up? I dealt with a lot of those guys. Every time somebody was sent down you’d have to deal with somebody who was in a big funk for two or three days. Or longer.
“There were so many guys. I just remember him as a guy who worked hard. I don’t ever remember him being a wise guy. I thought he was always respectful. I just don’t recall the other stuff. But sometimes stuff like that, you just have to let it go in one ear and out the other. Because a lot of them were like that.”
Fletcher remembers the Phillies sending employee assistance professional Dickie Noles to speak to the Minor Leaguers every year. He didn’t really listen. He still didn’t believe he had a problem.
He made 10 relief appearances for the Phillies in 1995, became a free agent and signed with Oakland. He made one appearance for the Athletics in 1996, pitched at Triple-A for the Cubs in 1997 and Triple-A for the Blue Jays in 1998 and then was done.
“You don’t realize it then, but drinking takes away from your abilities,” he said. "I was handicapped from what I was doing to myself and my body. It also beats you up mentally. So my career was, in my opinion, a failed career.
“I expected myself to be making a lot of money in the big leagues for a long period of time. I played for 12 years and I should have done better than what I did. A cup of coffee here and there. It was a process that I went about the wrong way. I didn’t reach my potential.”
He was 31 years old when his career ended. That’s when his life really began to spin out of control.
September, 2007: Family
Alcoholics hurt themselves. They also hurt the people closest to them.
Fletcher was settling in at his Philadelphia area home to watch some Sunday football. Kathy said she and the kids were going out. He didn’t think much about it.
“Then later that afternoon, my parents are walking up my driveway,” he said. “They live eight hours away. I’m like, ‘Why are my parents here. What the hell is going on?’ I remember my mom coming in. She said, ‘Pack your stuff, Paul, your wife’s kicking you out.’”
Kathy compares that wrenching decision to dropping all the plates she’d been juggling. She’d kept their problems from her parents. They didn’t find out about the pending divorce until after she’d filed.
One day, she went to the liquor store to buy some wine as holiday gifts and was surprised to find him there. He made some fumbling excuse and left without making a purchase.
“That was not the man I knew,” she said. “That was someone who was consumed with a disease. You could always depend on Paul to tell you the truth. By the time his addiction came to the point where I had to do things to protect my children, he was lying to my face. He wasn’t cheating on me with women. It was the bottle.”
Brooke is now 14 years old, in eighth grade. Matt, who turns 20 in April, is a sophomore at Bloomsburg University. Kathy is engaged to be remarried.
Matt remembers hearing his parents fight downstairs while he was upstairs in his room and finding his dad’s hidden stashes of booze around the house and in the car.
“It wasn’t like he was a bad father,” Matt said. “You just didn’t know what kind of mood he was going to be in. Kind of like bi-polar, I guess. You could put it that way. It was just like an altered mindset. I don’t know if it was like an escape he needed or something like that. He went to all my baseball games and sporting events. There was never a lack of parenting. It was just the quality of parenting.”
Occasionally, there would be a scary road rage incident. Every once in awhile, Paul embarrassed Matt by yelling from the sidelines during one of his games or practices. There were family meetings, although Kathy did her best to shield Matt and his sister from the worst of it.
Now, though, he’s just proud of how his dad has turned his life around. “It was a long road, but I’m really happy it turned out good,” he said. “I’m really happy with his progress. He met [his current girlfriend] Tammy. I like her a lot and she’s helping him evolve. It’s a constant battle, but he’s doing a great job of taking care of it.”
Fletcher was stunned when he was asked to leave his home. He even quit drinking for more than two years, but not for the right reasons. “I did it just for spite,” he said. “I wasn’t doing anything to help myself learn coping skills, didn’t do anything to help my recovery. I just did it because I was pissed off that somebody had told me that I couldn’t stop drinking. I was like, ‘Well, I’ll show you.’”
Years later, he’d tried to make amends to the people he thought he’d hurt and wronged. “Especially my kids, to be honest,” he said. “Because every single day I lied about something. It’s the weight you carry when you feel like you have to lie about every single thing in your day. It’s enough to drive you to drink, anyway. So today it feels good not to have to lie about anything.”
That epiphany was still far in the future. After a failed reconciliation attempt with Kathy, he started drinking again.
April 28, 2013: Rock Bottom
By now, beer wasn’t getting it done. He slugged Crown Royal when he could afford it and guzzled the cheapest vodka he could find when he couldn’t. Drinking first thing in the morning, during the day, at night. Drinking to get drunk as quickly and completely as possible.
“After I retired, I was struggling with things,” he said. "I wasn’t happy. I didn’t adjust well to life after baseball. It sneaks up on you. You think you’re just doing something that’s normal. But then once you start using that as a coping mechanism, it takes over and you lose control.
“Then that’s the part where the athlete or the professional in us will not ask for help. Thinking we can beat this on our own and we can control this. Just the denial part of it is huge. I was in denial for 10 years. I see that now, too, with so many baseball and football guys that I work with. Nobody wants to admit they need help until it’s too late. It’s just part of our DNA, I guess. Our makeup. We don’t want to ever have to admit we need help with something like that.”
Fletcher burned through a series of jobs, none that he had his heart in. Managing a batting cage-driving range-miniature golf facility in the Philadelphia area. Warehouse manager for Raymour & Flanagan. Inside sales for Siemens Energy and a hydraulic manufacturing company. An outdoor archery and gun range. Tree service. Selling cars.
“One time, when I was selling cars, it was two in the afternoon and I hadn’t had any alcohol yet,” he said. "I couldn’t even write up the contract. I literally snuck out to my truck and drank because I had alcohol in my truck. And I drank out there just to get rid of the shakes so I could write up a contract to sell a car. That’s sad.
“Believe me, I asked myself why I felt like I needed to get drunk. No answer. It was a combination of things, but it was always that you hate yourself. You want to punish yourself. You feel like you’ve let so many people down. And in the end you’re letting yourself down.”
The tipping point came when he was supposed to drive from West Virginia to Philadelphia for a father-daughter dance with Brooke, who was nine at the time. He arranged to have Thursday through Sunday off.
“So Thursday I drank, of course, on the off day,” he said. "A large amount. I was supposed to go up Friday and I realized I was too drunk to drive. At seven in the morning I had to call my ex-wife and tell her I couldn’t do it.
“I disappointed my daughter and heard it from my ex-wife. ‘Don’t ever promise your daughter anything again because you can’t keep your promises.’ It was all stuff that she had every right to tell me. But then I just did it again. Felt guilty and ended up drinking some more.”
The following weekend, he drank too much again. He was on the floor of his bathroom for two days. He was hallucinating. He called his mother, Beverly, and his younger sister, Trish Saunders, and was talking about suicide again.
“But while I laid there, something just changed,” he said. “Something clicked that never clicked before. People always say they’ve hit bottom, they’ve hit bottom. But until you really do, you think this is it. Then this is it. It was just an overwhelming feeling. It was either time to get better or it was time to die. That’s how close I was to either giving up or giving everything I had to what needed to be done.”
Rescue (Part 2)
Trish raced to her brother’s house, a half hour away, and got him to the emergency room of the nearest hospital. She had suspected something was wrong. Her birthday had been a few days earlier and he hadn’t called. He always called on her birthday.
Getting him to the hospital was only a stopgap solution. But she couldn’t seem to find any place for him to go where he’d get the care he so desperately needed.
“I started calling around here in West Virginia, trying to find somewhere for him to go. And I couldn’t find anywhere. It was very frustrating,” she said. “You’d call people and they’d say, he’s got to be drunk before we can get him in. Then it’s, oh, no, he has to be already detoxed before we can get him in. Still then you’d talk to someone else and it was going to be a two to three month wait.”
Finally, she remembered that Kathy had mentioned the Baseball Assistance Team. She was worried about money. Even though he had insurance, it wouldn’t cover everything. She didn’t want concern about paying the bills to become his excuse for not going. She ended up talking to Sam McDowell, a former big league pitcher who long ago went public with his own alcoholism.
“Sam was like, ‘We’ll not only pay his bills. We’ll send him somewhere,’” she said. "So I worked with him on that and they also worked with a facility at the hospital. Planned for him to be able to get to Florida for his rehab. So that’s how it went for me. It was a hard struggle. But once I got hold of Mr. McDowell, it was great.
“B.A.T. saved his life.”
Said Fletcher: “You’re the recipient of a grant they give you. B.A.T. does all kinds of special things for any player or their family. It can be surgeries or any kind of thing. Mine happened to be addiction. But there were stipulations. Basically they took care of everything and said, ‘Do what you’ve got to do. We’ve got everything else covered for you. Now, if you mess up, it can quickly be taken away from you. But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.’”
B.A.T. paid for everything his insurance didn’t. A halfway house for six months. Covered all his bills plus $400 a month for meals. Nine months later he went to work for the clinic. And he’s been a tireless ambassador for the Baseball Assistance Team ever since.
Aug. 17, 1995: Postlude
The highlight of Paul Fletcher’s Major League career came in a mostly empty Houston Astrodome. He came in to relieve Tommy Greene with the Phillies down by one in the bottom of the seventh, bases loaded, one out and future Hall of Famer Craig Biggio stepping to the plate.
Against the odds, he got Biggio to ground into an inning-ending double play. The Phillies scored twice in the eighth. And he earned his first and only big league win.
Clearly, however, the biggest victory of his life came 18 years later.
Any current or former athlete seeking help can contact Paul Fletcher at firstname.lastname@example.org.