Franco reunites with old neighbor ... Ramírez

July 6th, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- Growing up in Baní, Dominican Republic, Wander Franco had plenty of good examples to follow along the path to a professional baseball career: his father, his older brothers and a neighbor by the name of José Ramírez.

Cleveland’s All-Star infielder and Tampa Bay’s top prospect lived in the same neighborhood, trained together and respected each other’s games. They met when Franco was 7 years old and Ramírez was 15, with Franco calling Ramírez his idol and Ramírez later returning the favor by telling’s Jesse Sanchez in 2018, “He’s good. Better than me.”

“Since the first time I saw him back in my neighborhood,” Ramírez said Monday through interpreter Agustin Rivero, “I knew he was going to be a good player.”

On Monday night at Tropicana Field, they were reunited in the big leagues, as Ramírez started at third base for Cleveland and Franco took the field as Tampa Bay’s starting shortstop, with both switch-hitters batting third.

“It’s going to be great. It’s going to be special, I think,” Franco said Friday through interpreter Manny Navarro. “We grew up in the same neighborhood, so we were able to come up together and play baseball together. But to play in a professional setting is going to be special.”

Franco said the two “always stay in touch” and chatted after Franco was called up to the big leagues two weeks ago. The two have somewhat similar profiles as gifted switch-hitters who don’t strike out much and play the left side of the infield.

Ramírez has grown into one of the game’s best hitters over the last six years, batting .288/.364/.530 with 137 homers and 207 doubles in 724 games since 2016. During that time, he’s earned three All-Star nods, won three Silver Slugger Awards and finished in the top three of the American League MVP voting three times.

Franco followed up his memorable Major League debut with an uncharacteristically quiet stretch at the plate, but he’s shown signs of his ability lately. The 20-year-old entered Monday’s series opener having hit safely in six straight games, a stretch capped by a double and a game-tying solo homer in the Rays’ win over the Blue Jays on Sunday in Buffalo, N.Y.

“He worked out with me, and I know he’s a great ballplayer,” Ramírez said. “He works hard, and that’s how we know that he’s a good player.”

Around the horn

• A day after being named an All-Star for the first time in his nine-year career, catcher Mike Zunino said he was grateful for all the support he received following the announcement. He was particularly touched by the response from former teammates, coaches and front office personnel in Seattle, where he spent the first six seasons of his big league career with the Mariners.

“It's awesome. I mean, it just shows how full-circle this thing comes,” Zunino said. “It's all about having good relationships with people throughout the way, and it's cool to hear from those people as something like this happens.”

• The Rays on Monday named outfielder Niko Hulsizer as the organization’s Minor League Hitter of the Month for June and right-hander Shane Baz as their Minor League Pitcher of the Month. Hulsizer hit .325/.441/.779 with 10 homers, five doubles and 30 RBIs in 22 games for High-A Bowling Green, while Baz -- recently named to the AL Futures Game roster and the U.S. Olympic team -- went 3-0 with a 0.93 ERA and 42 strikeouts in six starts between Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham last month.

• With the Rays and Indians meeting for the first time since Sept. 1, 2019, this series is a reunion for managers Kevin Cash and Terry Francona. Cash was Cleveland’s bullpen coach under Francona in 2013-14, and the two frequently trade barbs and pranks when their clubs meet. They’re about to see a lot of each other, too: A week after this series, Francona will serve on Cash’s AL All-Star team coaching staff, then the two clubs will meet again July 22-25 in Cleveland.

“Going to get a lot of time to spend with him. We'll probably both -- I'll definitely be sick of him by the time it's over,” Cash said, smiling. “Tito's always had a knack, and the Indians have always had a knack for getting the most out of their roster. And you see by their record, they're doing things that they always, consistently do, so it'll be a challenging three days.”