By STEVE KRAH
Joe Thatcher didn’t see himself pitching in Major League Baseball.
But he did it.
He didn’t see himself coaching college baseball in his hometown.
But he’s doing it.
Thatcher grew up playing the game in Kokomo. There was UCT Little League and stints with Kokomo American Legion Post 6, Russiaville Cubs and Indiana Bulls in the summer and Kokomo High School in the spring.
Many games were played at Kokomo’s historic Highland Park, which was once home to Kokomo Giants, Kokomo Dodgers and Kokomo Highlanders.
“The short porch in right is what I remember most,” Thatcher said. “It was a cool place to play. There were a lot of stands and so it felt big at the time.”
After graduating from KHS in 2000, Thatcher became a legacy at Indiana State University. His father — Phil — played for the Bob Warn-coached Sycamores and so did Joe.
The Warns were family friends and the Thatchers spent many alumni weekends in Terre Haute. It was an easy decision for Joe to go to ISU and be a teammate of Barry Warn, son of Bob the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association and American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer.
“(Coach Warn) was great,” Thatcher said. “He really cared about his players. You felt you were part of a family.”
A 6-foot-2 left-hander, Joe started as a freshman then served as ISU’s closer as a sophomore and junior. When the Sycamores got off to a tough start in his senior year and there was not much call for someone to get the last few outs, he went back into the starting rotation.
When the 2004 MLB Draft came at the end of final college campaign, Thatcher’s named wasn’t called. Instead, the southpaw played part of two seasons in the independent Frontier League.
Thatcher joined the Milwaukee Brewers organization in 2005 and made his MLB debut came with the San Diego Padres in 2007.
By this point, he knew he was exclusively a reliever.
“In organized pro ball, hard-throwing guys are usually projected as closers,” Thatcher said. “I knew I was going to be a left-handed match-up guy (lefty on lefty). That’s what I tried to focus on.”
Sometimes called a LOOGY (Left-handed One-Out Guy charged with getting out the opponent’s big left-handed batters lat in games), Thatcher was also called upon to pitch full innings, worked with his low three-quarter delivery against left-hander and right-handers.
“I always had confidence in myself that I could get anybody out,” Thatcher said. “I ended up having pretty good numbers against righties in my career.
He also kept himself in shape and shared his off-season regiment along with Dr. Jamey Gordon of St. Vincent Sports Performance and USA Baseball at the recent IHSBCA State Clinic.
“I was around some of the best conditioning staffs in the world (in pro baseball),” Thatcher said. “I saw all the innovative stuff.”
Thatcher was with the Padres organization until being traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2013. He pitched for the D-backs and Los Angeles Angels in 2014 and the Houston Astros in 2015. His 2016 was spent with Triple-A clubs in the Los Angeles Dodgers, Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs organizations, but was not on the postseason roster during the World Series run. He decided to retire at the end of the season at age 35.
“I’m most proud of how long I was able to play,” Thatcher said. “It takes a lot to stay there and build up that trust with the coaches and front office people. To go from being un-drafted to someone who spent nine years in the big leagues, I’m pretty proud of that.”
Thatcher had studied insurance and risk management in college and planned to follow his father into that business (Phil works for Regions Bank Insurance) and even got his license and spent some off-seasons as an agent.
“I wasn’t planning on having a big league career,” Thatcher said.
Now, he is staying in baseball as associate head coach for a brand new program at Indiana University Kokomo (the IUK Cougars are scheduled to debut in 2017-18). He has been on the recruiting for about a month.
“We have a lot to offer — an IU degree, good coaching staff (including head coach Matt Howard and assistant coach Zach Hall) and (Kokomo Municipal Stadium) is a huge draw,” Thatcher said. “It gives us a leg up on the competition.
“(The school) wanted to make sure they did it right before they started the program so it wasn’t just thrown together. They do everything top level, first class. The only thing small school about what we’re doing is the actual school size (around 4,100 enrolled students, according to the IUK website).”
IU Kokomo has centrally-located campus and is up to nine sports in its athletic department. The Cougars are an NAIA program and member of the River States Conference.
Thatcher will share his experiences with his student-athletes.
“I played with a lot of good veterans and learned how to be a pro,” Thatcher said. “That meant being disciplined enough to take care of your business without being told to do it.”
And he almost didn’t do it at all.
Kokomo’s Joe Thatcher as a pitcher with the San Diego Padres.