Francisco makes himself at home
NILES -- Ben Francisco is getting used to this small-town thing. He's also getting used to professional baseball.
Francisco grew up in Anaheim, Calif. He went to UCLA. The bright lights, heavy traffic and hustle and bustle were a part of his everyday life.
But now, the 20-year-old Francisco has made laid-back Niles his home for the summer as an outfielder with the Mahoning Valley Scrappers.
This isn't Los Angeles. This is far from Hollywood. The pace has slowed. That is, until Francisco steps into the batter's box.
New York-Penn League pitchers, beware.
Francisco is doing something special in his first year of pro ball. Going into Saturday night's game against Tri-City, he led the league with a .407 batting average and showed no signs of slowing down.
Scrappers manager Chris Bando trusts Francisco so much that he has the youngster batting leadoff to ignite the team's offense.
"He's the key to our whole offense," Bando said. "When Ben gets on base, he makes things happen. He's got great intensity at the plate, and he doesn't throw away any at-bats."
That Francisco has dominated the league's pitching is impressive considering the events that transpired during his final season at UCLA.
A broken collarbone he suffered while diving for a ball kept Francisco sidelined for the second half of the college season.
"It was a broken bone; they heal," he said, nonchalantly. "I knew I was going to come back and be myself again. It was just a matter of time."
A wanted man
When the Cleveland Indians selected Francisco in the fifth round of the June draft, he knew he had to perform at an even higher level.
"I expected to come in here and feel my way through the first couple of weeks. I started off better than I expected," he said. "I was expecting to get my timing down for a while, but I came in right away feeling comfortable."
So comfortable, in fact, that he went 4-for-4 in his first game as a Scrapper.
"That's as good as it gets right there," he said.
Maybe Francisco's level of play should come as no surprise. After all, he spent the past two summers in wooden bat leagues, including one in Alaska last summer.
"I've always thought I could hit," Francisco said. "I don't think I've reached my potential. I still think I can improve. You just try to get better every day."
Francisco is learning to trust himself in professional baseball. He has successfully adopted the routine required of all players, and he steps into the batter's box each day with a great deal of confidence.
"In college you get those couple of days off. Here, it's the everyday grind," he said. "I come to the field expecting to play every day. It's tough on you mentally, but I'm getting used to it."
Indeed, Francisco is one of the lucky ones. The adjustment period to professional baseball has been rather smooth.
Sure, there will be days when Francisco questions himself, days when it becomes harder than he can remember. That's guaranteed.
But right now, he's just enjoying the ride.
"Good things happen," Francisco said, "when you go out there and play hard every day."
XBrian Richesson is a sportswriter for The Vindicator. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.