Big league arm with a small-town heart

Hatcher happy to spend offseason at home in Kinston

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Chris Hatcher will begin his eighth season as a major league baseball pitcher in a few weeks but that doesn’t mean he has an extravagant lifestyle with fancy cars and exotic vacations.

Nope, that’s not Chris Hatcher.

Each offseason, the Kinston native returns home and goes to his “second job” working for the city’s parks and recreation department or, most recently, at the Lenoir County landfill.

“I actually do a whole lot of different things,” the Oakland Athletics reliever said in a telephone interview Monday evening. Staying in shape is one of them as Hatcher works out four times a week in the offseason.

“The best way to get in shape is to never get out of shape,” he reminded.

Another thing he will be doing next week is speaking at the 43rd annual Wilson Hot Stove League banquet. Hatcher didn’t hesitate to say yes when asked to appear.

Bryan Hanks, formerly the sports editor and editor of The Kinston Free Press, described Hatcher as “super humble,” hardly the typical description of many professional athletes today.

“You’d see him out on a piece of big equipment doing something or he’d be hanging Christmas lights in downtown Kinston,” Hanks said. “Sometimes they (pro athletes) sign that contract and become a different person. Chris Hatcher has not done that. He’s a family guy, he takes care of his family and his community. Just a model dad.”

Hatcher, who will turn 33 on Friday, loves the home life with his wife, Jenny — who also works for Kinston Parks and Recreation during his offseason — and their nearly 2-year-old son, Jensen.

“He’s just down to earth. He doesn’t have an overinflated opinion of himself,” Hanks said. “I guarantee you there are people he works alongside out in the county who have no idea that he plays major league baseball.”

Hatcher’s demeanor was something he picked up from his coach at Kinston High, Ronnie Battle, who just passed away last week.

“The thing about Coach Battle is that he was a very even-keeled man and he really never had to change his tone to express what he was trying to teach you to get his point across,” Hatcher said. “His presence and the way he went about things demanded your attention and respect.”

That approach has served Hatcher well in the high-pressure job of major league relief pitcher.

When asked what was the toughest thing about playing in the majors, Hatcher chuckled and fired back: “Where do I start?”

“It’s a rigorous schedule,” he continued. “I think the toughest thing is the mental side of it. Knowing you have a game every night and being able to flush the bad and not get too high with the good.

“That’s the true grind. It’s not the physical part of it.”

Hatcher has been able to roll with the punches throughout his pro career, which strangely enough, began as a catcher. He was taken by then Florida Marlins in the fifth round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft in June 2006 as a catcher out of UNC Wilmington. By 2010, he made his big league debut with the Marlins. However, during a mop-up stint on the mound during a doubleheader in the minor leagues, Hatcher’s fastball caught some eyes.

“I was hitting 95 (mph), so they were thinking, what the heck is going on here?” Hatcher said. “The head of player development or the GM called me and said, ‘Have you ever thought about becoming a pitcher?’”

He agreed to try it for a season, starting at the Double-A level. Within a year he was back in Miami, this time as a pitcher. In parts of four seasons with the Marlins, Hatcher posted a 4.82 ERA with 85 strikeouts in 89 2/3 innings.

After the 2014 season, Hatcher was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who made him their closer when incumbent closer Kenley Jansen began the season on the disabled list. In 49 appearances with the Dodgers in 2015, Hatcher went 3-5 with a 3.69 ERA and 45 strikeouts. He followed that up by throwing 3 2/3 scoreless innings in the National League Division Series against the New York Mets.

However in 2016, Hatcher had two stints on the disabled list in Los Angeles and then another one in 2017. Last August, the Dodgers, in first place in the NL West, traded him to Oakland, in last place in the AL West.

“ I didn’t see it coming but I could see the writing on the wall,” Hatcher said of the trade, noting that everybody in the Dodgers bullpen was “throwing the ball really well.”

The trade worked in Hatcher’s favor as he went 1-1 with a 3.52 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 23 innings with Oakland. He’s looking forward to starting spring training with the Athletics.

“When you kind of have a set role and you’re the closer or the middle reliever, you know when you’re going to be in the game,” he said.

Hatcher played briefly for the Wilson Tobs summer collegiate team in 2004 and then for another short stint with another Coastal Plain League team, the Wilmington Sharks, the following summer.