Most Minor League Baseball players spend their time on the farm trying to move up. The same is true for coaches and managers. The idea is to toil in the lower levels of the game they love, proving their mettle along the way, until the big club calls and demands their services. Usually a supreme player can make the jump through an organization rapidly. Others have to wait it out a bit. If the talent and need is there, however, the call-up will happen. For managers things can be a bit trickier. There are only 30 managing spots in the Major Leagues, so even if one is winning on a consistent basis, it doesn’t necessarily mean a skipper seat in the show is a given. Even the coaching jobs on the highest level are coveted and hard to come by. There’s someone in the New York Yankees organization who understands this all very well.
Tony Franklin has served as manager of the Trenton Thunder, the Yankees AA affiliate since 2007. During that tenure he has enjoyed tremendous success. The club has finished first four times and they’ve captured
three Eastern League championships. Their latest title was just clinched this week as they rolled through Binghamton and Harrisburg, posting a perfect 6-0 post season mark. Five playoff appearances in seven seasons and three titles is quite a resume for the 63-year-old Franklin to hang his hat on. One may think it’s a body of work that deserves some consideration from Bronx Bomber brass. However, instead of being antsy about a potential opportunity in the future, Franklin is enjoying the ride, for now.
Franklin smiled ear to ear when reflecting on his time in Trenton thus far. “For me it’s been really, really great,” he beamed. “The fact being that I’ve had probably the best pitching in Minor League
Baseball, it just kind of helps the situation.” In fact he has had mounds of mound help with names like Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, and Jeff Karstens all donning the Thunder jersey at some
“A lot of guys have come through here and eventually ended up in the Major League level,” Franklin said. “Guys who were on the radar, guys who were not on the radar, and I had an opportunity to have them
on my ball club and it kind of made my job easy.” Some would say he’s being modest.
Franklin has been an integral part of the development of many of the players who eventually headed to the Big Apple. The California native has become a master of dealing with all types of men. From the blue
chippers to the “maybe some day” prospects to the career Minor Leaguers, Franklin has built a reputation of treating everyone fairly. “You give them all the benefit of your expertise that you have,” said Franklin. “You give them every bit of information that you’ve got. Once you do that, a lot of times it comes down to the talent level. Some guys kind of figure out early on where they might end up and where their career might end.
Other guys have a sense that they could go forever and end up at the Major League level. Eventually you will find out, but you don’t forsake any of the information and expertise that you have that’s going to inspire them to become the best player that they possibly can be.” In the end though, it comes down to production. Franklin drives that home emphatically with a rhetoric question. “It’s all about talent level because after all, what does it take to play in the Major Leagues?” asked Franklin. “You’ve got to be pretty good, and if you’re good enough, you’ll make it.”
Speaking of “pretty good,” the Thunder has been just that and then some during Franklin’s tenure. The victories have piled up these past seven campaigns and that has required a skilled balancing act. Minor League baseball is a different animal because teams are not just trying to win. Making prospects better is always put at a premium, especially in AA ball. Franklin has embraced that challenge.
“The thing I’ve always tried to remember, and I think it’s probably the best formula, is it’s about player development, and if you do that, if you develop the talent, making sure that everybody is progressing as they should, then I think the wins come,” Franklin said. “We all want to win ball games, that’s the thing we want to do each and every night. Why else play? We come to win the game, and developing talent within that realm of winning the game, they go hand and hand, but you never forsake the development for winning the ball game, unless maybe it’s the playoffs and you got one game to win. Then you’d probably say what’s best for the team at this point is to win a championship and you probably opt to win that game, but not at the expense of development. You only do that very few times during the course of the year.”
The balancing act has been met with rave reviews. The Thunder continues to churn out Major League talent to go along with back to back Eastern League championships in 2007 and 2008 and the still very fresh 2013 title.
Having managed the Thunder longer than anyone else in the team’s history, not many people know more about what baseball means in Trenton than Franklin. “It’s a tremendous city to play in, and to work
in,” Franklin said. “The franchise is a tremendous franchise. If you go back and look at the numbers and the people who were here, the former players who were here, the former managers who were here. I got a
chance to follow a lot of them, and now I’m the longest tenured manager here, and I feel good about that.” Fans seem to agree that Thunder baseball is striking.
Arm & Hammer Park continues to draw an eclectic group of baseball junkies game in and game out, season after season. It’s not often you find a place where folks decked out in Yankees, Mets, and Phillies gear respectively can come together so harmoniously, but because New Jersey’s capital city is so close in proximity to three big clubs that’s exactly what goes on in Trenton. The Thunder also continues to provide a complete entertainment experience for all ages. In-game promotions are creative and family friendly, the multiple mascots are likable and often hysterical, and the bat boy is all bark and bite. You see in Trenton, at least for the first inning of most games, a Golden Retriever serves as bat dog. Derby retrieves the bats of Thunder batters with his mouth, always leading to raucous cheers. He learned from the best. Derby is the son of Chase who passed away during the 2013 season. Mostly though, New Jerseyans, New Yorkers, and Pennsylvanians hit the turnstiles to see a winning product on the field. Something, Tony Franklin has helped provide for years.
Before catching fire and running away with the championship this year, Trenton served as a hot bed for rehabbing Major Leaguers. A slew of Yankees played for the Thunder this year, including Alex Rodriguez.
Franklin has seen plenty of pinstripers in The Garden State over the years. He points to a 2011 Derek Jeter rehab assignment as the most special.
“You know he was trying to get back as quickly as he possibly can and dedicated himself to do that, but he was not afraid to offer advice to any of our players. He made some suggestions to our pitchers
and other players, and that’s why he’s captain of the New York Yankees, and that’s what we hope we have in someone here in the Minor League level.” Players picked Jeter’s brain during his cameo in Trenton and
were able to take away some priceless advice from the man who’s done it all on the diamond. Franklin hopes for another Mr. November somewhere in the organization. “In the Minor Leagues here with the Yanks, there’s got to be another Derek Jeter,” Franklin said grinning. “If there’s another Derek Jeter in the Yankee organization, the Yankees are in pretty good shape.”
Maybe Tony Franklin speaks so highly of Minor League Baseball because he’s truly made his livelihood in it. Never reaching the Majors as a player, Franklin played six Minor League seasons in the Cincinnati Reds organization and one year with a Chicago Cubs farm team. After retiring from playing in 1976, Franklin stayed in tuned with America’s pastime, eventually landing a managerial gig with Geneva in the New York -Penn League in 1982. He was hooked then and there, and he’s now managed 18 seasons. He even had the chance to manage Bo Jackson while piloting the Birmingham Barons in the early 1990s. It became crystal clear that not unlike Bo, Tony knows baseball. In 1993 he captured the Midwest League championship, calling the shots for South Bend, a Class A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. That title, along with his Thunder trifecta gives the distinguished Franklin four Minor League championships.
So why so long in the Minors? The resume is chock full of proof that this man knows what it takes. Shouldn’t he be leading the charge on a big league bench by now? Franklin takes a pragmatic approach. He knows the with the Yankees there’s very little wiggle room. “Nobody’s going anywhere in this organization,” Franklin said acceptingly.”We’re pretty much in the same place which is not bad. People stay in place, we continue to have good players and we continue to have success at each level, and that’s not bad.” He does admit that he ponders about what’s down the road. “Naturally, I think we all would like to move forward, but if there’s nothing available, you know they’re not available, there’s not a whole lot you can do, but working here it ain’t bad as they say, you know, it’s pretty good and it’s great to have good players and productive players and that’s what makes the job interesting.”
As for what’s next for the married father of three, it’s a hurry up and wait approach. “Let’s see what happens,” said Franklin. “I don’t know. You know, there’s always something going on at the end of the year. I can’t quite say exactly what’s going to happen, but if they’d like to have me back, and there’s not another opportunity out there for me somewhere, I hope that I can come back.” Franklin’s won well over 400 games as Thunder manager. Only one other Trenton skipper has topped the 200 mark. Odds are the team will want him back. “This is a very good franchise to work with,” Franklin said. “I love being here and I’m glad that they keep welcoming me back.”
photo credit: Trenton Thunder