Before his six home runs in nine games and back-to-back Big Ten Freshman of the Week awards, Jesse Franklin sat quietly in the dugout of Jet Blue Park in Fort Myers, Florida, waiting for a passing thunderstorm to subside. He was coming off a disappointing junior year and needed to make the most of the summer showcase circuit to impress college coaches.
The coach Franklin wanted to impress most was 1300 miles away. As he waited for play to resume, his phone buzzed with a call from an unknown number and only one clue—the location, ‘Ann Arbor, Michigan.’
On the other end of the phone was Michigan coach Erik Bakich. By the time the storm abated and Franklin returned to the field, he had found his school.
“Honestly, I had never really thought about Michigan (until then),” Franklin said.
"From that point on, (Bakich) was really honest and really straightforward with me and believed in me. And that’s the main reason that I picked Michigan.”
Across the country, Max Engel, Franklin’s high school coach at Seattle Prep, was working in his driveway when he received the call from Bakich.
The two talked for an hour and a half, about everything from baseball to schoolwork to Franklin’s work ethic and relationship with his teammates and family. Much like his star outfielder, Engel left the conversation sold on the Wolverines.
“I thought he asked all the right questions,” Engel said.
"I walked away from that phone call feeling like that would be a great place for Jesse.”
A former first baseman at Santa Clara University, Engel knows the importance that coaching has on a college player’s development. So when big name schools in California and the SEC came calling during Franklin’s dominant senior season, Engel continued to push Franklin toward Ann Arbor.
While he felt coaches at those programs merely had Franklin’s name on a list of equally talented outfielders, Bakich showed both the coach and player a unique sense of caring about the individual.
“In all of my interactions with Coach Bakich, you walk away feeling that he really has the best interest of these players in mind and that he’s gonna build a program around caring for the person," Engel said.
“And I think to Jesse, that’s something that really appealed to him.”
Just a month into his college career, that mindset began to reap benefits for Franklin. 14 games into the Wolverines’ season, the freshman’s batting average sat below .100, with four times as many strikeouts as hits.
Bakich reduced Franklin’s role, and he saw just eight at-bats over an eleven-game stretch in early March. But unlike other coaches, Bakich had the faith in his freshman to give him another shot.
Four years earlier, Franklin made his high school debut when Engel needed a player and the JV coach recommended him. That afternoon, he started for varsity against Andrew Summerville, a Stanford-bound senior at the time. Franklin, a freshman who had been on JV that morning, notched two base hits.
The next year, he broke out with a .532 average as a sophomore and was named to the Seattle Times’ all-area team. His performance dipped a little his junior year, which Engel attributes to increased expectations, before winning Gatorade Player of the Year in the state as a senior with a .557 batting average, 20 extra-base hits and just two strikeouts.
“We probably knew (he was special) that day when we called him up,” Engel said. “And he cemented his spot in the lineup but it sure was a thrill watching him develop and get better and better and better each year.”
His performance was so dominant that by the end of his senior year, he personally knew most Major League Baseball area scouts in the Pacific Northwest. Engel estimates six to 12 showed up to every game, often requiring Franklin to take special batting practice.
Once, Engel took his seat on a ferry ride to a game and was approached by two scouts, swarming him with questions until the boat reached shore. Franklin never felt the pressure.
“I didn’t care what they thought because I was just gonna come here,” Franklin said. “But the day Bakich came to see me, I was kinda messed up.”
Last year, Seattle Prep did a service event with an agency called Bridge of Promise to play baseball with youths and adults with disabilities. Franklin dedicated his day to a kid named Dillon, who could not hold a bat at the beginning of the afternoon. By the end of the day, he was able to hit soft-toss pitches.
Franklin later won Gatorade Player of the Year and made the accompanying donation to Bridge of Promise. He then chose to write an optional essay describing his experiences with Dillon and ultimately won Gatorade’s essay contest, earning the charity an additional 10,000 dollars.
Whether it was his attitude or work ethic that caused his turnaround, Franklin quickly flipped the switch.
“He really showed us — myself, the coaches, his teammates — a lot when he started off the season very poorly,” Bakich said. “He had adversity for the first time and that’s where you find out a little bit about yourself.
“He was not only working on his swing and his defense, but he’s working on his speed, he’s out pushing sleds, he’s just very driven, very driven kid to succeed. He showed everybody a lot with that work ethic and that consistency, and he just has a drive to be great.”
Franklin's drive is not just a simple ploy to win more playing time. Engel describes Franklin as the rare star who is also the team’s most coachable player. Even in high school when he was hitting over .500, Franklin was always the one grabbing gear and hustling on and off the field.
So when he was confronted with a slump that may have derailed many freshmen seasons, nobody close to him was surprised when Franklin remained unfazed.
“I knew that little slump wasn’t going to hold up,” Engel said. “And then when he got hot, it was like, ‘There it is, he’s figured it out.’
“Everyone back home, we all kind of knew, that’s not gonna last.”
After not appearing at all in a weekend series against Bowling Green in mid-March, Franklin established himself in Michigan’s lineup the following Tuesday against Oakland in fitting fashion. He blasted his first career home run the opposite way to left field — something he and Engel had worked on together every batting practice.
“I’m sure if (Engel) was here, he’d like that,” Franklin said.
Since then, Franklin is hitting .369 with eight home runs. Seven of those shots, along with 27 runs batted-in, came in just a 16-game stretch. He has been named Big Ten Player of the Week, won three of the last four Freshman of the Week awards, and is the front-runner to be crowned the conference’s Freshman of the Year.
Franklin’s ultimate goals, though, extend far beyond personal accolades. For the first-year, putting his team on the map is paramount— not just in collegiate baseball circles, but in Ann Arbor as well.
“I really want to go to Omaha … because we want people to take Michigan baseball seriously.”
If the slugger keeps up his tremendous play, Franklin's wish just may become reality.