Path to major leagues began early for Mariners’ Nick Franklin
Mariners second baseman Nick Franklin worked on his swing for hours with his father in a backyard batting cage at their Florida home. Then there were countless hours with his AAU team, the Scorpions.
Seattle Times staff reporter
ALTAMONTE SPRINGS, Fla. – Terry Lombardo apologizes to a visitor as she shoves aside boxes strewn on a weight-room floor.
Tidying up the indoor training facility abandoned by the Orlando Scorpions summer travel baseball program after their season ended is no easy task. But Lombardo, affectionately referred to as “Miss Terry” by current and former Scorpions who train here, still tries to put the facility’s best face forward for anyone dropping by on short notice.
Since her husband, Sal, founded the Scorpions in 1994, “Miss Terry” has played unofficial den mother to Prince Fielder, Jason Varitek, Billy Butler, Zack Greinke, Jonny Venters, Drew Butera and a newer major-leaguer: Mariners rookie second baseman Nick Franklin.
“Nick’s such a great kid,” Lombardo said of Seattle’s youngest player, still only 22. “He still comes in here every day in the offseason.”
And coming here, to a northern suburb of Orlando, isn’t about organizing the weight room, keeping bat racks tidy or ensuring the loose-lying trophies from national tournaments are properly displayed. This facility, with no outdoor signage and one-way windows darkened from the street, isn’t some poseur gym with a latte bar; the baseball players are here to work, sweat, hurt and improve, until somebody tells them to stop.
“Nick never stops working,’’ Lombardo says.
Franklin has outworked most players his age since he was about 6 or 7, when his father, Steve, built a backyard batting cage. Nick Franklin could spend hours in it with his dad — about 300 nights per year — before he could start his homework. And the skills and self-confidence borne from those days enduring a baseball workload well beyond his years is something the Mariners hope can now help Franklin emerge from the first serious slump of his big-league career.
“I remember some nights when we would just go on and on,” Franklin said of the backyard sessions with his father. “One night in high school, there was a 17-inning game and after, I actually went in the cage until 2 a.m. on a school night. I was 1 for 7 and we went in the cage and hit for about two more hours.
“That night, I didn’t have much fun.”
Franklin’s fun came from playing baseball. As for the backyard stuff: “It was just hard work. It wasn’t fun doing it. Nothing comes to you through fun.”
The backyard sessions helped Franklin develop an almost pro-like mindset toward his training while instilling confidence he’d succeed. His year-round dedication to the sport was a major reason the Mariners wound up selecting him in the first round (27th overall) of the 2009 draft.
They were similarly impressed earlier this summer by how Franklin, who’d converted to second base from shortstop the past year, didn’t seem fazed by big-league pressure after his late-May promotion.
But now, that confidence is being tested.
On July 30, Franklin was hitting .277 with an on-base-plus-slugging mark of .832 and 10 home runs. But after doubling in his first plate appearance that night, Franklin as of Monday had hit just .111 his next 72 at-bats with one home run and 29 strikeouts.
Franklin hit his first August homer in Oakland last week, then drove in a tying run with a single before cutting his knee in a home plate collision. He returned this weekend after a two-game absence, but went 0 for 6 with four strikeouts.
Beyond the mere numbers, the Mariners are looking for signs the swagger for which Franklin has been known since his early days in the organization is still there. Mariners interim manager Robby Thompson suggested recently that Franklin’s seemingly unshakable confidence had taken a hit.
“This game will humble you in an instant,” Thompson said.
Franklin insists he isn’t panicking and will merely repeat the approach and process needed to get results.
Nobody has to tell Franklin he’s slumping. He learned to be accountable for his baseball in those backyard sessions with his dad.
He still got to date, play video games, hang at the beach and do other things his friends did. But it had to be earned on the field.
He got his first cellphone his sophomore year in high school — a late-model, walkie-talkie version too big for his pocket.
“It was a brick,” he said.
Franklin dated the same girl for four years, but she lived an hour away and he’d have to play well or his parents wouldn’t drive him to see her.
“There were times where, if I didn’t do well, I wouldn’t see her,” he said. “So, I had to do well in order to be rewarded.’’
But Franklin says he appreciates sacrifices his father made during his baseball-dominated upbringing, that they led to the “blessing” of him playing major-league ball. He was good enough at school that he could wake up early and complete assignments, something his mother, Debra, insisted on.
“She was the balance part of it all,” Franklin said.
Franklin continues to spend offseasons working out daily at the Scorpions’ facility. It’s near the subdivision where Franklin’s father moved the family — including Nick and his older, college-playing brother Clint — so they could live in the shadows of Lake Brantley High School.
The school ranked 79th on Newsweek Magazine’s 2005 list of the top 100 in the country and also has one of the best baseball programs in Florida.
Franklin played at another high school across town as a freshman. But his dad bought a 2,300-square foot house a few blocks from Lake Brantley and Franklin transferred there as a sophomore, playing AAU ball up the road for the Scorpions each summer.
“He was above reproach when it came to working to better himself,” said Scorpions founder Sal Lombardo, Terry’s husband. “Nick started at a very young age and by the time we got him, he certainly wasn’t short on swings and mastering his craft.”
Again, due largely to Franklin’s extra work with his father, who declined to be interviewed for this story.
Local legend has it his dad — a former high-school player whose career was shortened by injury — saw young Nick make a Little League play on a ground ball and knew right then his son had a gift. The nightly batting-cage sessions began shortly after.
In an interview two years ago with The Seattle Times, Franklin’s father alluded to the play.
“When he was 5, he was playing with 7- and 8-year-olds and playing shortstop, and the ball was hit to the other side of second base,” his father said. “Not only did he get to it, but he pivoted 360 degrees and made the play. I was just staring in disbelief.”
The pair kept working out nightly, and by age 12 Franklin taught himself to switch-hit. In high school, his father accompanied Franklin to additional nightly indoor hitting sessions at the Scorpions’ facility.
“Every batting practice he took, he took with a purpose,” Sal Lombardo said. “There was a routine he followed to the letter. There were no wasted swings.”
At the facility, Franklin and his dad got to know Jeff Higuera, an up-and-comer on the personal training scene, who’d hang out with the ballplayers.
Higuera ultimately teamed with former NFL linebacker Kawika Mitchell in opening Competitor Gym, a training facility geared toward elite athletes. Franklin began training with Higuera after his junior year of high school, taking two months off baseball to build strength on his unusually lanky frame.
“He doesn’t look it, but he’s probably the strongest baseball player we’ve ever trained,” Higuera said in a February interview.
Franklin went on to hit .528 with 11 home runs his senior season in 2009, being named the Orlando Sentinel’s Baseball Player of the Year.
Franklin, now 6 feet 1 and listed at a very slender-looking 195 pounds, still trains with Higuera each winter, engaging other clients like Milwaukee Brewers infielder Rickie Weeks in marathon sessions of the Madden football video game at Competitor Gym following workouts.
After finishing at Higuera’s facility, he’ll head to the Scorpions’ complex for hitting sessions. As always, Franklin’s father still goes to watch.
“Nick has a very regimented approach,” said Brian Martinez, a Scorpions vice-president who has thrown batting practice to Franklin the past two years. “He always has the same routine. Bunting, hit-and-run, two-strike approach. He’s very regimented and everything he does is with a purpose.”
Minnesota Twins catcher Butera, another former Scorpion, trains alongside Franklin at the complex and Higuera’s gym. Butera’s father, Sal, a former major-league catcher and current Toronto Blue Jays scout, has met Franklin and his family over the years.
“He’s always very polite and nice, very confident,” Sal Butera said. “That’s the one thing you could tell, that he’s a confident guy. Which I think aids his game when he plays it up here (in the majors).”
The confidence has occasionally been seen by some as cockiness, especially given Franklin’s penchant for deadpan humor. Upon joining the Mariners in May, he raised eyebrows by suggesting that playing second base would feel like “a vacation” compared to shortstop because of the shorter throws.
Butera shrugs that off.
“You’ve got to be cocky,” he said. “Because if you don’t know you’re a good player, you’re not going to exist out there. You’ve got to have a little bit of an edge. It’s good to have one, as long as you maintain it in the right direction.”
Butera added that it’s not unusual for “best of the best” players to have parents as hands-on as Franklin’s father was.
And for all the sacrifices Franklin made in his youth, his parents were there putting in the time alongside him.
When Franklin missed seven weeks of Class AA ball two years ago after a concussion, then subsequent food poisoning, his parents flew to Tennessee to stay with him. His father eventually returned to work, but his mother remained for the duration until Franklin was well enough to play.
Both parents were at Tropicana Field two weeks ago when Franklin returned to Florida to play the Tampa Bay Rays. His father stood silently, arms folded across his chest, staring intently at Franklin in the cage during batting practice from behind a roped-off family section at field level.
When the session was done, Franklin hustled over for a one-on-one chat with his father, just as he’s done since he was old enough to remember.
Franklin managed just one hit his first 12 at-bats of the series. But down 7-1 in the series finale, having struck out his first three times up that game, he lined a single in his last at-bat.
“I just didn’t want to give up my last AB,” Franklin said. “I didn’t want to shut it down. I still wanted to go and continue to play hard.”
And the Mariners hope that toughness prevails. He wasn’t allowed to quit those backyard sessions as a child and he isn’t about to give up now.
“It was hard work but it paid off,” Franklin said of those nights in the backyard. “It’s kind of like one of those things where you look back and even though I didn’t enjoy it, I wanted to continue to play. You just can’t get there by sitting around.”
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @gbakermariners. Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners.