No one likes Williamsburg in the summer, but junior Cole Franklin has stuck around. It’s 2009 and he has an appointment with his head coach.
The last time he was in Frank Leoni’s office for something important was the winter of 2008. The skipper told him he had a shot at the starting centerfielder’s job.
“I had gotten myself to be in the best shape of my life,” Franklin said. “My work ethic really turned around and I put everything I had into baseball. I was hitting all the time, throwing all the time and working out whenever I could.”
After Franklin returned to campus in January, he began having abdominal cramps on a regular basis. He lost 20 to 30 pounds and had chronic nausea. But Franklin received a diagnosis later that spring that would change his life. He had Crohn’s disorder, an auto-immune disease that affects 400,000 to 600,000 North Americans a year, mainly people in their early twenties.
It was not the first setback in Franklin’s star-crossed baseball career. Ever since his days at Highland Park High School, a prestigious 2,000-student school in University Park, Texas, Franklin has seen just how unfair the game can be.
Franklin hit behind Clayton Kershaw at Highland Park. Currently the top starter for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Kershaw was a first-round draft pick by the Dodgers after high school, and together he and Franklin competed for a state title.
“My junior year, we reeked of talent. It was ridiculous,” Franklin said. “[Kershaw] could throw 96 [mph] from the left side. Every day he threw, there would be 40 radar guns sitting in the stands.”
With the scouts at his high school focusing mostly on Kershaw, Franklin was hoping his time to shine would come at the Jupiter Showcase Perfect Game, an event for potential recruits in Orlando, Fla.
But it was not to be. Hurricane Charley, the largest hurricane in years to hit the Orlando area, postponed the event. Franklin, hoping to be noticed by a big-name school at the showcase, was unable to show off his potential.
Limited in his options and searching for a school with a solid academic reputation, Franklin accepted a meager scholarship to Furman University in Greenville, S.C.
“The school was alright, but it was a little too much like a country club,” he said. “I grew up in a nice neighborhood, so it seemed a little too much like high school.”
Franklin started 18 games for Furman and hit well in limited opportunities as a starter. At the end of the season, Franklin noticed some scholarship money had freed up and asked for some help paying his Furman tuition. When no help was offered, he requested his release. The school granted it.
For the first time in his life, Franklin — who had been playing baseball since he was a three-year-old swinging a Mickey Mouse bat in his backyard — had no idea where, if anywhere, he would play.
“It was really scary actually being out on your own, not knowing if you’ll be able to play ball again,” Franklin said.
Franklin’s parents contacted a family friend who organizes baseball recruitment camps around the country. He found Franklin a summer job at a camp in Marietta, Ga. working with potential recruits.
“I was working in Atlanta summer heat, 17-hour days, five days a week, living out of a friend’s house, but having a blast doing it,” Franklin said. “I was knocking knuckles and shaking hands with Astros scouts, Yankees scouts that had been in the game for 30 years … which was just so cool. While I was there I was meeting a lot of the college coaches, so I was making contacts with some of the Ivy [League] coaches.”
One coach, Harvard’s Joe Walsh, suggested Franklin get in touch with a friend of his who ran the baseball program in Williamsburg, Frank Leoni.
“I called up [Leoni’s head assistant at the College] Adam Taylor, who was [at the camp] and he came and recruited me,” Franklin said. “We just hopped on board. This was all during the summer before my sophomore year. We had to make it happen real fast, but it worked out.”
Franklin fit in nicely as a sophomore at the College, playing in 20 games while batting .222 in nine at-bats. He went 2 for 3 versus VMI with two RBI, and gave up one run in four innings to end the year as a pitcher.
His most memorable appearance as a pitcher came in a 10-2 loss to No. 2 North Carolina. Franklin threw two scoreless innings in relief against the Tar Heels, setting down future major league draft picks Tim Federowicz and Kyle Seager.
“It was the best I have ever thrown. Everything was painting the black on the edges of the plate and right at the knees,” Franklin said. “I couldn’t miss.”
With the chance to win a starting job next season, Franklin put in extra hours at the weight room and on the field that fall and winter. But, when he returned that spring, he began suffering from the symptoms of Crohn’s.
The disease was difficult to diagnose because Franklin was simultaneously battling a bilateral kidney infection and a case of acute bronchitis that had put him in the hospital that spring.
“I was really worried. They thought it was a house case — some crazy disease that no one had ever heard of,” Franklin said. “It was probably the most terrifying time of my life … seeing me change in the locker room, the guys on the team were just like, ‘Why are you still here?’”
The support of his girlfriend, friends and teammates helped Franklin make it through the grind of the illness, but it was undeniable that something was wrong. Franklin’s muscles began to deteriorate.
“It was the most frustrating thing in the world when I’m taking [batting practice] and I had nothing left to where I couldn’t hit a ball out of the infield,” Franklin said. “It was absolutely frightening.”
During a game at Liberty in March, Franklin spiked a 102.4 degree fever. His coaches sat him up on a hill near the field and he slept for six hours. It would be the last time Franklin would travel with the team.
Franklin withdrew from two of his classes and returned home to Dallas. He went in for tests at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and, after reviewing his previous tests, the doctors finally diagnosed Franklin.
“I started feeling better instantly,” Franklin said, having received medication to keep his symptoms in check. “It was life changing. The drugs don’t cure it, but they can control it.”
Franklin returned on a last-minute flight back to Williamsburg April 6 to surprise his girlfriend for her birthday. He was able to take his exams and avoid forfeiting the entire academic semester. He also started attending baseball games again, and even though he was sitting in the stands, Franklin said he still felt wanted.
“Everyone on the team still considered me a part of the team,” Franklin said. “I was still on the roster. I’d watch from the stands or tailgate with friends in the outfield and then go into the locker room to say ‘hi’ to the guys.”
At the end of the season, Franklin was called in for another meeting with Leoni. To his surprise, and feeling healthy for the first time in months, Leoni told Franklin he would have to let him go.
“I felt really disappointed, because, you know, the previous semester I had put everything that I had into baseball,” Franklin said. “I wasn’t going out, you know, doing anything else but studying and working out and playing baseball for the love of the game. It was all baseball all the time. All the sudden, the next semester after I had been told, ‘You have a shot at the starting spot in center field at a D-1 program,’ it’s ‘Yeah, we’re going to cut you.’ It tore me apart that not only would I not be playing ball, but I wouldn’t have any closure with it.”
For the second time in his life, Franklin found himself without a team. Franklin took some time away from the game, time that allowed him to put things into perspective.
“After I got the disease and got off the team, it really showed me what was really important in life — my family, my friends, my girlfriend, my studies and all that,” Franklin said. “Baseball absolutely was a part of my life — a real big part. I guess until now I was really embarrassed because it brought back touchy memories.”
But the senior could not stay away from the game for long. As his health improved, he decided to join the College’s club baseball program.
“I decided I would go play club and just play for the love of the game,” Franklin said. “Baseball is like a religion, all the little rules combined. I love that and I miss that. It’s so fun to get in there. First day I came home from [club] practice, I was all smiles. I threw my arm out, my arm hurts … I don’t care.”
Franklin’s passion for the game is helpful since club baseball is a low budget operation. The squad practices on the intramural field across from the Units, a field with a rusted backstop, no baselines and no dirt.
How does a man who has played on the emerald green grass of a major league stadium, pitched against some of the best players in the country and started for a Division-I baseball program cope with such conditions? How does he deal with his kingdom being reduced to a patch of un-mowed, unkempt grass?
For Franklin, it’s about realizing that awards and honors are nothing compared to the spirit of the game.
“The most important thing for any baseball player is to remember why you play,” he said. “You play because you love the game. You play the game for the game.”