"Baseball evolves. I’m trying to be nice about it.”
Here at BallNine, we’re all about the fairy tale aspect of baseball.
Sure, we like to chop down the bullshit analytic alphabet soup of things like SIERA, VORP or wRC+, but what we’re really looking for are real baseball stories from real baseball people.
When you talk with former pitcher Wayne Franklin, you’re getting exactly that and he’s our guest for this week’s edition of Spitballin’.
Many of Franklin’s stories are among the fairy tale type. He grew up in Maryland as an avid Yankee fan in the 1980s, which just about obligated him to be a huge Don Mattingly fan. So, when Franklin signed with the Yankees in 2005 and Mattingly was the hitting coach, yeah, I’d say that qualifies for a baseball fairy tale.
When Franklin made it to the Big Leagues after being a 36th round pick and Rule 5 draftee and after four and a half minor league seasons, the first batter he faced was Ken Griffey Jr. Getting him to roll over for a grounder in a one-run game in the late innings goes into that “baseball magic” folder as well.
Franklin was a kid who dreamed big from the first time he played catch, just like all of us. Only difference is that he got to live those dreams out as a Major Leaguer for seven seasons.
Franklin is the current pitching coach at NCAA Division II Holy Names University in Oakland, California and it’s a guarantee that those players are being taught the game the right way.
He’s also a dude who knows the game, is passionate about every aspect of it and of course, has baseball stories dating back to his youth, so let’s go Spitballin’ with Wayne Franklin.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Franklin. Your passion for baseball really shows on your social media, so I am looking forward to talking with you. Let’s start back in your childhood. What was baseball like for you as a kid?
I was born in Wilmington, Delaware and my mom’s family was from the Philadelphia area. Growing up, my mom’s whole family was a bunch of Italians who loved their baseball. I had a cousin and he and I were like brothers. He was three years older, and I remember the first time we played catch. He got me out there throwing and immediately, I was like, “This might be the coolest thing I’ve ever done!” It was 1982 and I was eight years old in second grade. He was a Yankees fan, and I pretty much idolized my cousin, so of course I was a Yankees fan too. That’s who I rooted for my whole life. My favorite player of all time is Don Mattingly and I loved Doc Gooden too.
“I was a little pissed. I was a little red-assed about being traded. If you’re motivated as a player, you’ll find out a lot about your character.”
Growing up was there a time when you thought you could be a professional baseball player?
That’s all I ever thought about. College was a means to an end. I wanted to do well in school. I took pride in doing well in school, but I always looked past college. I was always like, “Here’s my path. This is what I want to be.” Persistence was my biggest ally. It was a refusal to ever give up on doing it, even all the way through college. When I was drafted, I didn’t even know what I was drafted as. There was a chance I could have gotten drafted as an outfielder because I was a two-way player in college.
You were picked in the 36th round by the Dodgers in 1996. What was that like to set your mind to such a high a goal as a kid and then see that goal realized years later?
There’s a little side story to something that helped drive me to get drafted and that came in middle school. I’ll remember it for the rest of my life. I had a middle school advisor, and she was doing this exercise and one of the things she asked was what I wanted to be when I grew up. Of course, on the paper I put, “Major League Baseball player.” In seventh and eighth grade, it’s OK to have dreams. She put a note on my paper saying that I “needed to be more grounded in reality.” I still remember the words. I’m not allowed to play Major League Baseball? Is that what you’re saying? So, I’d like to thank her for giving me that motivation. You have these people who push you to that point. I’d bet that 95% of everyone who ever played Major League Baseball thrived on the naysayers. Please tell me I can’t do it, so I can show you how wrong you are.
Wayne Franklin #28 of the San Francisco Giants pitches during the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers on June 24, 2004 at SBC Park in San Francisco, California. The Giants defeated the Dodgers 9-3. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Can you talk about your experience playing in the minor leagues?
The minor leagues mold your character and your resolve. There are so many things that I can talk about with the minor leagues. I was drafted in the 36th round, so it wasn’t like they rolled out the red carpet for me. By the way — Nestor Cortes was a 36th rounder too! What a ride it was. What a horrible ride it was at times. I was drafted by the Dodgers and they had, by far, the biggest farm system. They had 360 players in the organization when I was drafted by them. After my third year, I was eating dinner one night and I got a call from the Astros saying they took me in the AAA Rule 5 Draft and that was the first big move in my professional career. That was December of 1998.
What was it like stepping on a Major League mound for the first time?
There’s a good story about that. I got called up the day before that. It was the final game at home for the Astros and was a day game. I got there three hours before the game. I met with the manager, Larry Dierker, at what was then Enron Field. He was giving me a breakdown of what to expect and you’ll know why these next words rang so funny in a minute. He said, “I don’t want to just put you in a tight game and throw you right into the fire.” I said I’d do whatever. I’d go out there and throw right-handed if he really wanted me to.
I didn’t get in that game then we flew to Cincinnati for a game the next night. I was in the bullpen and a call comes down and our bullpen coach says, “Wayne, get up. You’re facing Griffey in the seventh no matter what.” I looked up at the scoreboard and we were down 5-4. I was like, “Nah, I ain’t falling for that, man. [Dierker] told me yesterday he wasn’t throwing me in the fire.” The coach said, “Wayne, I swear to God. I would never kid about this.” Finally, he convinced me, and I was like, “Man, why did Larry tell me that yesterday then?” I was happy though. I thought, “This is awesome!”
Wayne Franklin of the Kansas City Royals poses for a portrait during Photo Day on February 25, 2007 at Surprise Stadium in Surprise, Arizona. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
What was it like being on the mound staring down Ken Griffey Jr?
We were at the old stadium in Cincinnati and it was so hot. That turf in July was blazing. You just sit there and you’re loose. I was just a kid and our bullpen coach was like, “Wayne, are you gonna throw?” I was like, “I need about five [pitches] man.” That’s all I threw, and they called me in to face Griffey. They didn’t lie about that! I was jogging in, and I didn’t feel the turf under my feet. There were two outs. I started with a fastball in and then threw a fastball away and he rolled over on it. Jeff Bagwell dove but missed it. Craig Biggio was there to make the play and I had to cover first, and we got the out. That was my, “Welcome to the Big Leagues” moment.
That’s great! Sounds like a veteran move. Then you had to gather yourself and face Dante Bichette leading off the eighth. Take us through that one.
I think the story of my debut is one of my funniest stories. I was going through it like an old salty vet. I got Griffey and then I blew a fastball right by Dante Bichette to strike him out. Sean Casey was up next. I threw him a fastball away and it was such a pretty pitch. I just dotted the outside corner and I remember thinking, “Whoa! Alright dude, I got this.” Painting that corner, I thought I was gonna blow by Casey. I started pumping myself up and the next pitch I hit him right in the back. I got booed in Cincinnati! I don’t blame them. I got all cocky and then I got humbled. I got him right in the belt.
The Astros then sent you away in a trade a couple of years later for Mark Loretta. Did that come as a surprise?
I was pretty proud of that trade because Mark Loretta was a really good player. I wasn’t mad about the trade. Baseball is a business, and they had a need. The guy they got for me was a great pickup. The coolest part of the trade was that I made one start against the Cardinals and then my next two starts were against the Astros, the team that had just traded me. They were five days apart and I pitched against Roy Oswalt both games. The first one was in Milwaukee. I left after six innings and gave up one run. We ended up winning that game and I got the win. That game actually knocked Houston out of the playoffs. Five days later, I beat Roy Oswalt in Houston. Roy ended up winning 19 games that year. He just missed out on 20 wins. Roy was a really great pitcher, but I was like, “Not on my watch.” I was a little pissed. I was a little red-assed about being traded. If you’re motivated as a player, you’ll find out a lot about your character.
Wayne Franklin #26 of the Milwaukee Brewers throws a pitch against the Anaheim Angels in a spring training game on March 7, 2003 at Tempe Diablo Stadium in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
I wanted to talk to you about the 2003 season in Milwaukee. That was the one time in your career you were just put in the rotation and left there for the year. You made 34 starts and were one of the more reliable lefties in the league. How satisfying was that experience for you?
I loved it. I absolutely fell in love with starting. Mike Maddux was my pitching coach, and we developed a really good rapport with one another. He taught me a lot and I started changing stuff about my game. When you’re going through changes, even for the better, you’re gonna hit bumps in the road and I hit a lot of bumps, especially early on. Things started to click though. I was learning how to be a Major League starter because I could see when teams were making adjustments on me. So, I thought, “OK, here comes the cat and mouse game.” I had to start making adjustments too. I really started to figure it out.
I remember I was pitching a day game against the Dodgers. We were in LA and I was watching ESPN. A stat flashed on the bottom of the screen that said, “Milwaukee has won 12 of Franklin’s last 13 starts.” I was like, “We have?!” I had no idea. I only had about four of five wins out of it with a bunch of no decisions. But that didn’t matter to me. That’s how I pitched. I was gonna get better just to give you a winner. If I got a six-run lead, I might give you back five runs, but I wasn’t gonna give you that sixth. I got 200 innings that year and I think I led all National League lefties in starts that year. Barry Zito was the only lefty in the Majors with more starts than me. It was a blast.
You had an incredible game against the Padres where you pitched a two-hit shutout. What do you remember about that game?
It was a day game against Jake Peavy. I might have saved the official scorekeeper in Milwaukee a lot of grief. The first hit of the game [in the second inning] came from Rondell White; there’s an old name for you. He hit a ground ball to short and we had a rookie playing there that day. It was a routine ground ball, but he was so deliberate that he double pumped on the play and Rondell beat it out. They gave it a hit and I was like, “Come on, man the first one has to be clean.” We got to the top of the ninth and I looked up and was like, “Oh man, they only have one hit!” I didn’t even know. I gave up a two-strike duck fart flare off the cup of the end of the bat for the second hit. Somebody had told me that if I hadn’t given up that second hit, there was a good possibility that they would have changed that first hit to an error.
New York Yankees' reliever Wayne Franklin delivers a pitch in the sixth inning of game against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium. The Yanks went on to win, 13-8. (Photo by Ron Antonelli/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
You mentioned earlier that your favorite team as a kid was the Yankees. You signed with them in 2005. I am sure you dreamt about wearing the pinstripes as a kid. What was it like to realize that dream?
That was the greatest. I never thought I would wear the pinstripes. The day I signed with them I was so happy. I went in there and my favorite all-time player, Don Mattingly, was the hitting coach. I thought, “This is the greatest day of all time.” I wasn’t embarrassed; I went right up to him and said, “Hey man, I had like 18 posters of you on my walls as a kid.” I just told him straight up and he was so nice about it. He was flattered. I was like, “Dude, you’re legend, bro!”
Looking at that 2005 roster, it was stocked with Hall of Famers, MVPs, Cy Young winners and just all kinds of legends. What was it like playing with those guys?
They were all cool and they all helped me out. I didn’t have any interactions with A-Rod. No reason why, I just didn’t interact with him. Derek Jeter was awesome. He and I were the same age and I thought he was a class act. I hung out with Bernie Williams. A few times on the road he would say, “Hey, let’s go hang out.” I would be like, “OK sure, dude.” That’s Bernie Williams. I was just like floating man. My locker was two lockers over from Mariano Rivera. I thought to myself, “OK, I am just going to get so much out of this experience.”
You pitched in the old ballpark. As you’re out there on the mound are you thinking, “Man, this is where Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Mickey Mantle played?” How did you process all those legends who came through there?
It was unbelievable. Some of those dudes are walking through the clubhouse like we were all one big happy family. I would be like, “Damn, that’s Whitey Ford walking right past me and there’s Yogi Berra right behind him!” I was waiting for someone to ruin my dream and wake me up to tell me it was time for school. It felt like I was dreaming. It was nuts. I’d see Whitey Ford and be like, “There goes the original Chairman of the Board!”
It must have been such an incredible experience. I just have a couple more questions. You’ve been out of baseball for 15 years, which really isn’t too long. The game has undergone a lot of change though. What are your thoughts on the game today?
Baseball evolves. I’m trying to be nice about it. There’s too much crap in the game though. They’re going off probabilities and shit like that. They’re just using different words for stuff we have been doing all along. They call it analytics, but we had spreadsheets with stats. It’s the same thing. We had spray charts too, but they use this common nerdy language to create something. They’re handing managers lineups. I’m like, “Wait a minute, isn’t that the manager’s job?” What happened to instinct and the eye test? Experience tells you so much. There’s too much that isn’t organic in the game today. What about feel? What about being in the damn dugout and having some feel for things?
I agree for sure and it’s great to see so many players speaking up about it. Hopefully things start to swing back the other way. This has been awesome. I loved hearing your stories. I always end these with an open-ended question. Do you have any final thoughts on your career you’d like to leave our readers with?
Character is destiny. That’s what you go on. Your character is who you are and hopefully you have done a good job building your character because that helps you through life. Who you are outside of those lines is the same guy you are inside those lines. I am a college baseball coach now and I tell my players that there are no exceptions to that rule. I tell all of my pitchers, if you have half-ass grades, I’m going to get a half-ass pitcher too. If you have those kinds of grades, you probably don’t have a good work ethic.
People always ask me one thing I would change about my career, and I say I would have worked harder. They’ll say, “What do you mean? You didn’t work hard?” I say, “Absolutely, I worked hard. But maybe I could have worked harder. I don’t know.” I kicked my own ass; I didn’t get to the Majors by accident. It’s an absolute privilege to play in the Majors and people need to respect that.