The Bobby Fischer of Flushing
May 31, 2012, 8:17 p.m. ET

Closer Frank Francisco is the Mets’ Clubhouse Chess Master; ‘You’re Good at It. And I’m Better.’


The mound has been an unsteady place for Frank Francisco this year. At times, he has pitched effectively. During one stretch, he pitched so poorly that the Mets nearly stripped him of his role as closer.

But there remains one place inside every ballpark where his dominance is unrivaled and his superiority is unquestioned. To find it, just look for the nearest chessboard.

Francisco has emerged as the Mets’ clubhouse chess master, reconnecting with a game he played almost daily during his years with the Texas Rangers. Several hours before a baseball game, he can be found hunched over a table, staring at his pieces as he contemplates his next move.

His biggest problem hasn’t been the competition but rather a lack thereof. In a sport where most players prefer to kill time fiddling with their iPads or playing cards, chess matches are about as common as pregame poetry readings.

But in recent weeks, Francisco has been on a mission to cultivate worthy opponents. His first project was fellow reliever Ramon Ramirez, but Ramirez didn’t take to it, so the two now simply play checkers using chess pieces. “He doesn’t know how to play,” Francisco said, shaking his head.

Lately, Francisco has been playing with pitcher Jon Niese. Catcher Rob Johnson is also eyeing a run at him.

To Francisco, chess isn’t just a way of passing idle time but a valuable exercise that sharpens his mind. He learned the game from his father-in-law, Wilfredo Tijerino, several years ago and has been hooked ever since.

“It’s like a real war,” he said. “It’s very interesting. You have to sacrifice everything to save your king.”

Though it would be a stretch to say it makes him a better pitcher, there are parallels between Francisco’s craft and his hobby. In baseball as in chess, he must think ahead, knowing how to set up opponents with a series of moves. Two small moves with his pawns can set up a pivotal move with his queen. A high fastball sets up a splitter in the dirt.

“He’s a very strategic guy,” said Los Angeles Angels pitcher C.J. Wilson, who played with Francisco in Texas from 2006 to 2010. “[He knows] how far he can allow a situation to go before he has to adapt. That’s what allowed him to be a good pitcher the last couple of years.”

Like so many other aspects of Francisco, his interest in chess contradicts the popular perception of him. In 2004, he was arrested after throwing a folding chair into the stands during an altercation with fans in Oakland. That incident, coupled with his hulking physique, created a caricature of him as a temperamental brute.

At a listed weight of 250 pounds, Francisco is the second heaviest player on the Mets, behind only the 290-pound reliever Jon Rauch.

“He’s really physically imposing,” Wilson said. “I think that lends itself to guys being fearful of approaching him a little bit. He’s got the biggest shoulders—ever.”

But away from the glare of the field, Francisco appears perpetually at peace. He has mastered the art of ambling, walking as if he hasn’t a worry in the world.

When Terry Collins summoned him to his office for an early-morning meeting one day during spring training, the ever-peppy manager zipped across the clubhouse. Francisco sauntered slowly behind him, eating from a plate of grits he carried into Collins’s office.

His sense of humor is dry, often requiring few, if any words, but it is unmistakable. After a game in Atlanta in April, while a group of reporters surrounded Ike Davis by his locker, Francisco walked up behind them, shirtless, and just stared at the first baseman.

“Big Frank,” Davis said, half-puzzled, half-amused. “Looking good there, buddy.”

In Texas, Francisco created an alter ego he called el jugador—the player.

“He had all these rules,” Wilson said. “Like if he had a sketchy save situation, where a couple guys walked or whatever, he’d say, ‘A true player maybe gives up a couple walks—but no runs,”‘ he said, imitating Francisco’s deep voice.

“He could make light of himself. Even if he wasn’t perfect, he could come in and he would still express confidence, which gave the team confidence in him.”

That unshakable belief in his ability was evident earlier this season when he dismissed his struggles as little more than bad luck. And it is apparent when he is sitting in front of a chessboard.

In Pittsburgh last week, after Francisco defeated Niese for the umpteenth time, Niese trudged back to his locker and shook his head, bemoaning the mistakes that had cost him the game.

“You’re good at it,” Francisco told him.


“And I’m better. That’s what you have to understand.”

It is hard to assess, though, whether Francisco is a particularly gifted chess player or merely the best in a field of novices. No one else on the Mets plays enough to offer a suitable test of his ability.

“He could be the Dominican Bobby Fischer,” pitcher R.A. Dickey said. “I don’t know.”

Phillies pitcher Cliff Lee is considered an authority on the subject, at least within baseball, having played chess against teammates on four different teams. Lee said the best chess player he has ever faced in baseball is Jeremy Guthrie, his former teammate with the Cleveland Indians who now pitches for the Colorado Rockies.

He said Francisco is a notch below Guthrie. Lee and Francisco often played, along with second baseman Ian Kinsler, when they were teammates in Texas in 2010.

“He wasn’t bad,” Lee said. “I felt like I beat him more than he beat me, though.”

But the record is in dispute.

“I can’t believe he said that,” Francisco said. “I mean, whatever.”

Baseball has been kinder to Francisco lately, and despite all the drama of his first two months in a Mets uniform, his 14 saves were tied with two other pitchers for second in the National League through Wednesday.

But the task of training his apprentice in chess is unfinished.

“I’m terrible,” Niese told Francisco after a match last week. “I just have no defensive mind-set.”

“You need to figure out what I’m going to do,” Francisco said.

“I could have moved my knight,” Niese responded.

“It’s too late,” Francisco told him.

“I’ll get you,” Niese said. “I’ll practice.”

—Daniel Barbarisi contributed to this article

Source: http://online.wsj.com

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