When the Mariners told Nick Franklin of their plans to include him as a participant in their annual FanFest event, the teenaged shortstop prospect reacted the way you might expect.
“Are you serious?” Franklin remembered wondering. “You really want me?”
Franklin is 19, less than two years removed from high school. In 2010, during his first full season as a professional ballplayer, his 23 home runs in the Single-A Midwest League broke a Clinton Lumber-Kings record that had stood since 1961. A switch-hitter whose intangible traits – confidence, poise, and a desire to excel – might be more impressive than his solid baseball skills, it isn’t unreasonable to envision Franklin culminating his fast track through the minors with a late-season promotion to the Mariners in 2012.
But still a kid with 146 minor-league games on his résumé signing autographs and taking questions from the crowd at Safeco Field?
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What’s that about?
What it’s about is grooming the next generation of Mariners for the major-league experience, part of the organization’s career development program that stresses interaction with fans and media.
“We have to eliminate as many interferences as possible before these guys get to the big leagues,” Pedro Grifol, the Mariners’ minor league director of operations, said Saturday. “I don’t want a kid who’s 0-for-3 in his first major-league game thinking about what he’s gonna tell the media when he’s got another at-bat in the ballgame. I want him to be focused on the field and have confidence knowing he’s been there before.
“You’re never going to get to the point where the experience is exactly the same, but we try to get as close as possible. This is a step in that direction.”
Three other minor leaguers – second baseman Dustin Ackley, pitcher Michael Pineda and third baseman Kyle Seager – also accepted FanFest invitations, which weren’t so much invitations as requests.
“When you become a Seattle Mariner, this is part of the program,” said Grifol. “It’s not negotiable. This is what we do, this is how we develop. You sign that contract and become a Mariner, this is what you’re going to go through. As they get older, obviously, you treat them a little differently – you give them a little slack here and there. But this is part of what it takes to put on a Mariners uniform. I’m not here to negotiate with these guys.”
It didn’t appear as though any arm-twisting was necessary to encourage Franklin’s participation. The Florida resident strolled around Safeco Field as if it were his second home, posing for photos with a conspicuously unforced smile. Whatever struggles await Franklin on his road to The Show, public relations won’t be among them.
“As the youngest guy here, I didn’t know what to expect,” said Franklin. “I’m looking at fans in the stands and thinking, wow, how am I going to take all this in? How are they going to perceive me as a person, or as a player?”
While only a few observers outside the Midwest League have seen enough of Franklin to form a perception of his playing ability, his people skills are off the charts. During a Q&A session narrated by Mariners broadcaster Dave Sims, Franklin, sitting alongside Grifol and Pineda, spoke in an agreeably upbeat tone balanced with a requisite measure of humility.
“I plan on going to spring training and play my heart out,” Franklin answered when asked about his expected assignment to a minor-league affiliate. (A logical destination is Jackson, Tenn., in the Double-A Southern League, although he could also take a less ambitious promotion to High Desert in the advanced Single-A California League.)
“Wherever I go, wherever I start out, I plan on playing like I’ve never played before,” continued Franklin, the 27th overall pick of the 2009 draft. “Wherever I start doesn’t matter. I’m just going to work my way to the big leagues.”
“That’s a good answer,” Sims said over a round of applause. “A very good answer.”
Moments later, a fan asked Franklin if there was a player who inspired him growing up.
“Craig Biggio is one of them,” Franklin answered. “Secondly, Chase Utley. Both were great middle infielders – and Craig Biggio also played third, and was a catcher. Great players, not only on the field but off the field.”
“A shortstop who’s a switch-hitter, you don’t see those guys very often,” Grifol told the gathering. “Chase Utley’s a good comparison, but he only hits left-handed. It’s nice to have a shortstop in this organization with power from both sides.”
A key to being media savvy is the ability to take questions from left field and formulate thoughtful responses.
Question to Franklin from deep left field: “What character in the movie ‘Sandlot’ would you compare yourself to?”
Franklin: “Uhh, I’m familiar with the movie but not the characters.”
He paused for a few seconds, then continued, “I think I was the guy ready to jump over the fence for the ball, but I didn’t go get it, so I let the other guy go.”
The Mariners’ front office finds itself in a delicate predicament following the team’s second 100-plus loss season in three years. Texas won the AL West in 2010 and then the pennant, and if the Rangers take a nosedive from first place, it’ll be a surprise. The Angels and Athletics have the pieces in place to contend.
Seattle’s quandary is to dignify the present while its obvious focus is on the future.
Nick Franklin, still a teenager, represents the future. While the FanFest appearance was an education for him, it also served as a reminder, for the rest of us, that spring is on the way.
Maybe not this year, but it’s on the way.