Why Wander Franco Must Go

Last August, when a social media post first hinted that Wander Franco dined upon forbidden fruit, he was held out of the Rays' lineup. But he was quoted as saying, "They don't know what they're talking about. That's why I prefer to be on my side and not get involved with anybody."

Franco had the part about "they" not knowing what they were talking about kind of right.

He wasn't just "running around" with an underage girl in his native Dominican Republic. Authorities there say he was sexually involved with her and, apparently, paying her mother about $1,700 a month for seven months in return for, as the old rhythm and blues song pleads, mama keeping her big mouth shut.

You thought Trevor Bauer turned out to be a nightmare for women and for baseball? Sexual violence with a fellow adult who wasn't awake to continue giving her consent (which was never discredited in court even if his victim lost her restraining order bid) is demeaning and dangerous. What should we call kidnapping (for two days), seducing and schtupping a 14-year-old girl even once, never mind over four months?

Especially if the girl in question, 14-years-old when Franco began his relationship with her, may have been forced into this kind of rodeo before, sadly and sickeningly. She said so when interviewed by a psychologist during Dominican authorities' investigation of the Rays shortstop.

"Since I was little," the girl told a psychologist, according to court documents made available to The Athletic, "my mother has seen me as a way for her to benefit both from the partners she has had and from my partners. And it is something that I dislike very much."

The shortstop who was worth 16 defensive runs saved above the American League average in 2023 won't be able to throw his way out of this one as readily as he can throw enemy batters out after slick and swift fielding of their batted balls. This isn't, say, a high school sophomore having a romp with an eighth grader, as shattering as that sounds. This is a legal adult in his early 20s accused of putting it to at least one girl of eighth-grade age and possible others, as well.

Like Franco, the mother is charged formally with commercial sexual exploitation. Like Franco, she could go to prison for 20-30 years if convicted in court. If her daughter told the truth to the investigating psychologist, mama may not have had to be paid to keep her big mouth shut in her daughter's case.

For now, the Rays and baseball's government have a more immediate problem to solve, namely what to do with a 22-year-old shortstop who's at once a face of the Rays and a guy who was on baseball's restricted list over this case from last August through the end of the World Series.

MLB has been investigating since. The sport's protocols governing domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse allow teams and the commissioner to discipline a player for violating it regardless of a court verdict. Bauer escaped legal punishment but not baseball discipline. Franco's case is far more grave than even Bauer's.

It isn't helped by a Tampa Bay Times column, written by John Romano, describing him as a ballplayer beyond his years on the field and at the plate but a comparative child off the field and without a bat in his hands.

If his baseball skills had advanced beyond his chronological age, then Franco's social skills were more like an adolescent.

It was nothing dramatic; nothing immediately noticeable. But common courtesies seemed to elude him . . . It wasn't that Franco was mean or rude, he just didn't seem to consider the needs of those around him.

There was also a propensity to make impulsive choices. Franco was a father at 17. He bought a Lamborghini, a Mercedes, and a Rolls Royce SUV before he was 21. He traveled with high-end bling, which the world discovered when his car was broken into at a Jacksonville hotel during a minor league rehab assignment and $659,000 worth of jewelry was stolen.

He got into an altercation with centerfielder Jose Siri near the end of spring training in 2023, and then another with Randy Arozarena during the regular season. The longer he was in Tampa Bay, the more isolated he seemed to become in the Rays clubhouse . . .

The first public sign that there might have been issues was earlier in the summer when Rays manager Kevin Cash took the unusual step of sending Franco home for two games. It wasn't a suspension per se, more like sending an unruly child to timeout. Cash talked that day about Franco needing to control his emotions better.

Eventually, it was decided to invite one of his best friends from the Dominican, Tony Pena, to join Franco in Tampa Bay. A few years older, it was hoped that Pena would be a steadying influence. And for a short time, Franco's off-field mood and on-field performance did seem to improve. He hit 8 homers in a 32-game stretch in July and August.

Then came the social media post heard 'round the sport. Then the probe. Then Franco's arrest during 2023's final week when he failed to appear on a court summons. Then the details thus far in the current case. And, his release under such conditions as a guaranteed two million pesos payment (roughly $35,000 U.S. dollars), and showing up every month before the Dominican Public Ministry. (He is allowed to leave the country so long as he meets those conditions.)

Can the Rays or baseball government itself send Franco — who signed the fattest contract in Rays history after the 2021 season, 11 years and $182 million — back to the Phantom Zone before he goes to trial?

Hark back to 2019. Pirates relief pitcher Felipe Vázquez, in his second all-star season, was bagged for having sex with a Florida girl whose age he claimed not to know was 13-years-old when he first intercoursed with her. Baseball's government wasted no time putting him on the restricted list — they did it practically the moment he was arrested.

The Pirates wasted no time, either. They disappeared Vázquez just as fast. They scrubbed his image from scoreboard videos and banners outside PNC Park, not to mention removing his name from inside-the-park monitors showing National League relief pitching leaders. "By game time, looking around," wrote The Athletic's Rob Biertempfel, "it was as if Vázquez had never played for the Pirates."*

It was the least both baseball government and the Pirates could have done out of respect to Vázquez's victim. Returning Franco to the Phantom Zone now is the least both baseball government and the Rays can do out of respect for his victim, too.

They may wish to consider a remark from Franco himself to the girl in question, during a WhatsApp conversation cited in the court documents and disclosed by the Dominican news agency Diario Libre: "My girl, if my team realizes this, it could cause problems for me, it is a rule in all teams not to talk to minors, and, nevertheless, I took the risk and I loved it."

If that quote is accurate, the Rays and baseball government have even less time to move. For the girl's sake, and for baseball's. And in that order.

* In due course, Vázquez was convicted and sentenced to two-to-four years in state prison with a 23-month credit for time served before trial and sentencing. He lost an appeal in Pennsylvania Superior Court in 2021 and was deported back to his native Venezuela last March.

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