Ben Francisco was inducted into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame on July 30 along with fellow Bisons legends Bob Patterson and Jhonny Peralta. Francisco spoke with The Herd Chronicles about his days starring for the Bisons, playing in the major leagues, and what he’s up to today.
Francisco first came to Buffalo when he was promoted from Cleveland's Double-A affiliate, the Akron Aeros, at the tail end of the 2005 season. He'd had a huge season at Akron, slashing .307/.357/.474 and joined a Bisons team completing its second consecutive campaign atop the International League North standings and looking to win back-to-back Governors’ Cup Championships.
“I had gotten hurt about two weeks earlier in Akron,” Francisco remembered. “I was supposed to go up a little earlier and I had gotten hurt. I was trying to come back because I think somebody got called up to the big leagues from Triple-A and they needed a spot. So I was trying to come back to play in Triple-A. Finally I was healthy enough to play in Akron and after a few days they sent me up to Triple-A.”
“Just getting here (Buffalo) and being like – wow – that team and realizing how good it was. They won the regular season. They had multiple players that probably should have been playing in Cleveland – but Cleveland was really good too, so they just didn’t have a spot for them. I remember seeing all this and just trying to fit in and not screw anything up during the playoff push.”
The 23-year-old outfielder certainly fit right in to a Bisons lineup that featured the likes of Brandon Phillips, Ernie Young, Ryan Garko, Andy Abad, and Dusty Wathan. In four regular season games in 2005, Francisco went 8-for-16 with a double. He continued his hot hitting in Buffalo's best-of-five playoff series against Indianapolis, going 6-for-17 (.353) with three doubles. Unfortunately, the Herd lost the decisive fifth game.
“All these veteran guys are mid-20s, low-30s – all these guys are expecting you to come out here and produce,” he said. “They don’t care if it’s your first game in Triple-A or not. So I had to deal with those expectations and pressures – but it was a good experience for me and I handled it well right off the bat. Obviously it was a heartbreaking series but I was proud of myself going into the offseason that I had performed at Triple-A. It gave me confidence going into the next season.”
Francisco won the 2007 International League batting title. Photo Courtesy of the Buffalo Bisons Baseball Club.
Francisco had a big year for the 2006 Bisons, slashing .278/.345/.454 with 17 home runs and 59 RBI. He led the team with 143 hits, 32 doubles, and 25 stolen bases, had a 25-game hitting streak, and was voted the team’s co-MVP along with Jason Dubois.
“I just remember waking up and going to the ballpark and thinking I’ve got to get a hit today," he said of his hitting streak. "I’ve got to find a way to get a hit, just find a way to get one. That’s all my focus was. There were days I was a little banged up and Torey (Lovullo) kept putting me in the lineup and he told me – your teammates expect you to play. You’re one of the best players, you’ve got to play. He put that on me and I took ownership of it. It was a pretty cool experience. There were a couple times I went into my last at bat having to get a hit and I was able to do it.”
In 2007, Francisco slashed .318/.382/.496, won the International League batting title, and was voted a post-season I.L. All-Star.
“It was a special year,” he said. “I felt like every time out I was getting a hit or two. I stayed consistent. It really put me on the map in the Indians eyes and all over baseball. There were a couple rumors of me getting traded – people wanted to come get me. The hitting streak and the batting title were pretty big factors in me getting to the big leagues.”
His manager during most of his time in Buffalo was current Arizona Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo.
“Torey was amazing,” Francisco said. “I had him at Double-A and then he followed me to Triple-A. We were both UCLA Bruins, so we had that relationship already. He’s such a an even keel guy and such a positive influence. He knew what it took to be a big leaguer and he saw a lot in me and he challenged me every day to get the best out of me. He’s obviously gone on to even greater success since he left here, coaching in the big leagues with Boston and Toronto and now managing Arizona. One of the biggest factors of me having the career I had and being a big leaguer was due to Torey.”
“I live in Arizona, so I see him around every now and then and talk to him a little bit. He coached me in Toronto for a year when I was there, so I’ve had a lot of experience with him. Player development wise, he’s probably one of the biggest influences on me in my career.”
Francisco made his major-league debut with Cleveland in 2007. He collected his first major-league hit in a game against Tampa Bay – but incredibly, that wasn’t even his biggest moment inthat game.
“I got my first hit in the fourth or fifth inning – a groundball single into right field off a good friend of mine, Evan Jackson. Then in the bottom of the ninth – Shawn Camp was on the mound and I had faced him before so I knew kind of what he threw and how he threw it. I got a slider I could handle and just tried to put a good swing on it and I kind of just did what I’d been doing all season down here – just kind of put a good swing on it and I hit one over the fence.”
The home run not only gave Cleveland a 2-1 walk-off win, but it also moved them into first place in the American League Central, a half game ahead of the Detroit Tigers, who lost that day.
“I blacked out,” he chuckled about the moment. “I just went around the bases with pure joy and emotion. My dad was in the stands so it was a cool moment for him. My best friend and his dad were there too.”
Francisco went on to play 563 games over seven major-league seasons with six different organizations – Cleveland, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, the New York Yankees, Houston, and Toronto. He played in the World Series for the 2009 Phillies and made it back to the NLCS with the 2010 Phillies. His biggest postseason highlight came in Game 3 of the 2011 NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals, when he hit a pinch-hit three-run home run in the eighth inning of a scoreless game that the Phillies went on to win 3-2.
“One of our last series of the regular season we played the Cardinals and Jaime García pitched,” he recalled. “I played that game and he threw me a sinker up that I just missed. I hit it to the warning track. I was really upset – like man, I want that pitch back, you know? It was one of those at-bats. I thought about it all night that night."
"Then, here we are (in the NLDS), I’m on deck and I know Jaime’s in and I was like – you know what he’s going to throw you. You know what’s going to happen. Now go and execute. And he did, he threw me that sinker, two-seamer away. I was kind of looking for it out over the plate. I reached out and got the big part of the bat on it and I hit the home run. Once again I kind of blacked out. I sprinted around the bases. I just remember how happy my teammates were for me in that moment. That moment was pretty cool to come through for them. These guys had all won the World Series and done a lot of great things. They all tell me to this day that was the loudest the dugout had ever been in all their postseason runs. Seeing how happy they were for me was pretty special.”
Francisco's dramatic home run in the 2011 NLDS.
Today, Francisco is a special assistant to Los Angeles Angels general manager Perry Minasian. He's involved with player development, working with the organization's young outfielders and baserunners. He even had the opportunity to scout Shohei Ohtani in Japan in 2017 when the Angels sent him to see if the phenom lived up to his immense hype – and he did.
“I watched him twice,” he smiled. “The first time I watched him he just hit, because he was hurt. The last time I saw him, he pitched and hit in the same game. He was throwing a hundred miles an hour. We all knew how good he was going to be on the mound. That’s what everybody wanted him for – but he could hit. He won the MVP there and led the league in homers. He’s definitely surpassed our expectations. I mean this guy is probably the best player to ever play baseball. It’s pretty special to watch him play and to say I had a little part of it is pretty cool.”
The Bisons held a special induction dinner before their game on July 30 to honor Francisco, Patterson, and Peralta’s entry into the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Fame. Francisco was able to share the special moment with his wife and two young children.
“It’s almost surreal just being back here,” he said. “I haven’t been back here since I left in ’08. It’s been really cool being back in this park and city, walking the same grounds I walked when I was aspiring to be a big leaguer. I was just a young kid at twenty-two years old, now I’m bringing my family back here. It’s been pretty cool seeing familiar faces like Bucz (President of Rich Baseball Operations Mike Buczkowski) and Brad (Bisons Assistant General Manager Brad Bisbing) – all those guys. It’s been an honor and a privilege and definitely a blessing – and to do it with my family here is pretty special.”
Patterson and Francisco on the evening of their induction. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles