In addition to the usual queries about new faces and unfamiliar players that accompany a first homestand, which the 7-6 Thunder concluded with a 5-2 record following a 6-3 win over Richmond Wednesday night, was one involving manager Tony Franklin.
“Why isn’t Tony coaching third base?’’ was the simple one.
More analytical observations came from other fans.
“Is Tony’s hip OK?’’
“Is this something new?’’
“Did the Yankees initiate this?’’
The answers to the above are, yes, yes and yes, with nothing to do with the network that carries the Yankees, and whose emblem appears on Waterfront Park’s right-field message board.
This all began in the offseason, when former Thunder uber-closer Justin Pope was added to Franklin’s coaching staff. It continued to evolve in spring training, when it was decided Franklin would work from the dugout.
“I want to be a manager some day,’’ said Pope. “I need to learn all facets of the game, and coaching third base is one of those key facets. This was all finalized in spring training.’’
So, Franklin, who delighted fans with his oft-animated work as his own third-base coach the past four years, became the first Thunder skipper since Stump Merrill in 2003-04 to remain in the dugout during games.
Merrill and several other Yankees Minor League skippers did not coach third base during a period several years ago, with most of their coaching staffs at four. Both Bill Masse and Franklin preferred to coach third base.
“Now, however, I have a coach-in-training in Justin,’’ said Franklin. “This is all part of his development process as a coach. We’re developing not only players here, but coaches as well.’’
Was the switch easy for Franklin?
“Not really,’’ he said. “It was something I really had to get used to. It is a change for me.’’
Franklin was known as one who bantered a bit with opponents. For instance, third basemen would tell him this pitcher’s stuff was “filthy’’ and the like. He also seemed to really enjoy being on the field directing his club.
“I did,’’ he confirmed. “It was something I had a good time with. Now, I’m certainly willing to teach and observe. I can go back out there if needed.’’
So far, however, Pope seems to be doing fine.
“Justin is grasping the role of the third-base coach quite well.’’
Pope agrees he is batting 1.000 with one statistic.
“I haven’t had anyone thrown out at home in the 13 games we’ve played so far,’’ he said. “I must be doing something right there.’’
From 2004-07, Pope was the man first Masse, then Franklin called on to close games. He saved 58 regular-season games for the Thunder and was quite familiar with Waterfront Park. Pope, originally drafted by St. Louis, reached Triple-A in the Yankees system and finished his career in 2008 at Reading, where he was 1-1 2.23 with 10 saves in 31 appearances.
Coming back to Waterfront Park, wearing his familiar 22, has been a fun experience for Pope, 32.
“Certainly I know this park, and feel comfortable in this park,’’ he said. “It did seem a bit different to me at our first home game, watching the game from a different angle.
“You really have to watch the whole field, move our guys around and make sure everything on the bases is the way it should be.’’
He’s directing some exceptional players.
“With the speed we have with (Austin) Krum, (Ray) Kruml and (Melky) Mesa, we have some exciting guys. I’m enjoying this as I’m learning.’’
Unlike Franklin, he hasn’t struck many conversations with opposing third basemen in between innings.
“I’m just keeping to myself, doing what I need to,’’ he said. “There have been a few guys who have tried to talk to me. We’ll see what happens.’’
Franklin, offering the same satisfaction he relates when players improve, smiles when asked about Pope’s progress.
“He’s going to be an excellent third-base coach and an excellent manager,’’ said Franklin. “He’s willing to do the work.’’
Have we seen the last of the Thunder’s veteran manager coaching third base? Maybe. Maybe not. The torch, so to speak, has officially been passed – in the name of development, of course.
HALL OF AN EFFORT: Thunder lefty Sheaffer Hall showed a Waterfront Park crowd of 3,743 Wednesday why many in the Yankees system are so excited about him.
He threw seven scoreless innings vs. Richmond, doing it with just 77 pitches, 55 of which were strikes. He was in complete control.
“It was a manager’s and pitching coach’s dream,’’ said Franklin. “I was impressed with his efficiency. The Richmond hitters looked as if they were getting something they didn’t expect.’’
Hall, who is 1-1, 3.12 in three starts, struck out three and walked nobody. He saw a difference in this start as compared to his others.
“The key was getting first-pitch strikes,’’ he said. “I was able to work from that and control the hitters. I would love to have pitched the eighth, but it’s early in the season.’’
And there was something unexpected. Hall used the cutter he learned in the offseason and perfected in spring training.
“I threw it a decent amount,’’ he said. “I was able to throw it for strikes. It helped me tonight.’’
Franklin was pleased from another angle.
“He threw seven great innings and gave our bullpen a break,’’ he said. “We’re bit short right now, with Kevin Millwood and Kei Igawa going to Scranton. “He gave us the start we needed.’’
FROM MAINE TO OHIO AND VIRGINIA: Mets brass are excited at Brad Holt’s two strong starts for Binghamton, which featured 12 scoreless innings … Mark Cohoon has a 1-0, 0.47 ERA after three starts as well …. Reading infielder Cody Overbeck is off to a torrid start, batting .360 (18-for-50) with six homers and 17 RBIs … Two successive three-hit games have boosted Thunder catcher Austin Romine to .310 (13-for-42) and nine RBIs, tied for fourth in the Eastern League … With Francisco Cervelli beginning his rehab journey at Class-A Tampa, don’t be surprised if he joins the Thunder for a game or two within the next 10 days.