Goss: Mentor makes Slammers GM Chris Franklin a winner
December 6, 2012 10:56PM
Chris Franklin, new general manager of the Slammers, at Silver Cross Field in Joliet, Illinois, Tuesday, December 4, 2012. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun Times Media
Updated: January 8, 2013 6:08AM
Independent baseball debuted in Joliet in 2002. Everything was rosy.
The JackHammers qualified for the Northern League playoffs, and attendance topped 200,000.
But Joliet did not appear in the playoffs again until 2010. By then, attendance had significantly slipped, and other problems had arisen.
The Northern League was about to disband, and the JackHammers were no more.
Ah, but a ready replacement arrived in the form of the Joliet Slammers, who would play in the independent Frontier League.
The Slammers came out like gangbusters, claiming the Frontier League championship under manager Bart Zeller in 2011, their first season. Attendance could have been better, but the Slammers sported a strong management team, and things were looking up.
Last season, however, they finished 37-58, attendance slipped and Al Oremus sold the team to Joliet Community Baseball and Entertainment, headed by Minneapolis attorney Josh Schaub. Some of the front office staff remains, but much of it will be new.
After 11 seasons of independent ball at Silver Cross Field, opinions abound on what will make it work: a good relationship with the community, boosting group sales, emphasizing the family entertainment aspect of a night at the ballpark, putting a winning team on the field, selling concessions at an affordable price and, yes, somehow breaking through the barriers and gaining affiliation with a major league team, preferably one from the South Side of Chicago.
When I talked with 31-year-old Chris Franklin, recently hired as Slammers general manager, he sounded prepared to accomplish most of what is on that list. He can’t do much about the major league affiliation, other than to emphasize the good situation it would be for the White Sox to operate a farm club in nearby Joliet, playing at a beautiful facility.
A winning team certainly is high on the priority list. The manager, coaching staff and signing the right mix of players all will matter.
“I’m looking for the best fit in a manager,” Franklin said. “There are so many different levels of baseball, and managers can be more or less effective at the various levels. My personal taste is someone who would be more aggressive on the basepaths.
“I’m also looking for a guy who can build a team with a lot of character, who will be involved in our community. I think chemistry trumps all.”
That said, Franklin, who was born in Joliet, played youth baseball here and played three sports at Morris High School, is facing a difficult job regardless of his hires. If the team wins, will that be enough to draw fans? If fans are there once, will they enjoy the experience enough to keep coming back?
Even considering all the questions, however, I do believe he can succeed. He is a local guy who knows what this area is about, and he could not have had a better mentor.
Franklin worked for the JackHammers as a ticket sales representative in 2006.
“I know the interest is here,” he said. “I saw it when I was here before.”
Remember, 2006 was Steve Malliet’s last summer in Joliet. He had been the JackHammers GM since the team’s inception. He was a fixture at community functions and an excellent baseball man, having had experience running the Myrtle Beach Pelicans in the Atlanta Braves’ organization before arriving here.
He left for ownership of the River City Rascals in the Frontier League, and now owns the Normal Cornbelters, also in the Frontier League.
“After my one season here, I followed Steve Malliet to O’Fallon (Mo.) with the River City Rascals, and I was director of ticket sales the first season,” Franklin said. “The second season, I was promoted to assistant GM, then the third through sixth seasons I was executive vice president and GM.
“We went to three consecutive championship series while I was the GM. We won it in 2010. The Slammers beat me in 2011.”
His plan worked. Why?
“Everything I learned in this business came from Steve Malliet,” Franklin said. “He put me in this position, to have this opportunity to be an integral part of everything.”
I always admired the way Malliet went about making the JackHammers a viable entity at Silver Cross Field and in our community.
A few years from now, we may say the same about Franklin.
The job will not be easy, but nothing rewarding ever is.