Hanshin pinstripes a good fit for Franklin

by Wayne Graczyk

Micah Franklin shakes hands with Hanshin Tigers official Katsuyoshi Nozaki during a press conference Thursday at the club office in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture.

I’d like to think Micah Franklin took my advice.

The switch-hitting outfielder has been transferred from the Nippon Ham Fighters of the Pacific League to the Central League Hanshin Tigers, and I hope something I said to him back in March helped lead to his being wanted by the Tigers.

Despite hitting 30 home runs and marking 80 runs batted in for the Fighters in 1999, Franklin figured in the spring there was little chance he would play varsity ball for Nippon Ham this season because of the quota limiting two foreign position players to each club’s first-team roster. The F’s also had former PL home-run king Nigel Wilson and slugger Sherman Obando, and Franklin expected he would be the odd-man-out once the season began.

“Sherman’s got a swing just made for Japanese baseball,” said Franklin about Obando, who slammed 20 homers and hit .306 while filling in for the injured Wilson in 1999. “And Nigel is, well, Nigel,” he said about his friend and then-teammate who led the Pacific circuit with 37 homers in 1997 and 33 in 1998.

Actually, Franklin got to start the regular year on the Fighters top team, as Obando was out with an injury incurred during the exhibition season. But, a week into the regular schedule, Obando was ready, and Franklin was farmed as he had anticipated.

“I won’t play on the farm team, though,” he said, indicating he would practice but perhaps felt a tinge of frustration and possible embarrassment many former major leaguers have linked to demotion to Japan’s minors.

“Do (or don’t do) what you want,” I told him, “but I’d recommend you play if you get sent down, because there are two advantages: First, you’ll be in game condition, facing live pitching (albeit minor league), in case something happens to Nigel or Sherman.

“Second, should it get to be mid-June and another Japanese team wants to add a new foreign player but does not have time to start looking from scratch so close to the June 30 deadline for acquiring new non-Japanese players, they might look to the Eastern or Western League and see if somebody here is ‘rakin’ it.’ “

Franklin has been rakin’ it. After recovering from surgery to correct a fractured hand, he began playing for the Fighters EL club early in June following rumors the Yakult Swallows might want him. He only appeared in nine games but went 13-for-33 for a .394 average, with five homers and 14 RBIs. Some rakin’!

That record apparently attracted Hanshin scouts and, on June 27, the contract purchase deal was announced. The next day, Franklin was bullet-bound from Tokyo to Kobe to join the Tigers. Now we’ll see if he can help the last-place CL team.

It is rare but not unprecedented for a foreign player to move from one Japanese team to another in midseason. First baseman Dave Roberts was cast aside by the then-Yakult Atoms in 1973 in favor of Joe Pepitone but was immediately hired by the Kintetsu Buffaloes.

Then in 1988, the Buffaloes found themselves in a jam when, also in June, slugger Dick Davis was arrested and subsequently jailed and later deported on suspicion of drug use. With no time to begin searching for a replacement, Kintetsu took a chance on Chunichi Dragons farmhand Ralph Bryant and found a home-run king and league MVP.

Bryant went on to slam 34 homers in a little more than half a season, then led the Buffs into the 1989 Japan Series with 49 home runs and 121 RBIs, taking the Pacific League Most Valuable Player award. He won two more league HR crowns and another RBI title over a stellar eight-year Japan career.

It remains to be seen if Franklin can emerge as one of the Central League’s top sluggers, and if he can help the Hanshin Tigers out of the doldrums. But it makes sense to go with someone already here and acclimated to Japan, with a proven record, rather than start the process of looking for someone new and rushing to get him here within a week.

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I’m just back from a 10-day trip to the U.S., with time in northern New Jersey tossing and turning at night, trying to overcome jet lag and listening in bed to sports talk in the wee hours of the morning on “The Fan,” WFAN radio in New York.

Callers to that show are a mix of Mets and Yankees fans and, surprisingly, several Yankee supporters seem to have given up on their team. “They’re done,” said one guy, although at the time the Yanks were just a half-game behind the Toronto Blue Jays in the American League East pennant chase, and the trade negotiations involving Sammy Sosa and Juan Gonzalez were on the front burner.

Meanwhile, Mets rooters are upbeat, with many feeling their team will overcome the Atlanta Braves and win the NL East. This was when the Mets were four games behind the Braves and prior to a recent seven-game winning streak run off before the currently being played huge series against Atlanta and John Rocker at Shea Stadium.

Everyone seems to think the Mets will at least make the postseason again; if not as East champs, at least as the wildcard playoff entry. The general consensus is that, if the Mets do not make the playoffs, manager Bobby Valentine will surely be fired — and that could lead to a return to Japan for a second stint as field boss of a team here.

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For those going to today’s “American Ballpark Weekend” game at the Tokyo Dome: Please arrive early (by noon) if you have kids with you, so they can join on-field baserunning. Watch the scoreboard or listen to the P.A. announcement for the time and place to meet inside the Dome for baserunning participants.