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If this is just the beginning, Wander Time is going to be a lot of fun

John Romano | Wander Franco came in with enormous expectations, and managed to exceed them in his debut Tuesday night.
Published Jun. 23, 2021|Updated Jun. 23, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — The ball was hit harder than expectations. It went farther than the hype.

One swing of the bat, and Wander Franco was already outperforming the outlandish projections that have followed him since he was a 16-year-old with a $3.85 million bonus check from the Tampa Bay Rays.

I mean, who gets a curtain call on their first day of work?

If this is what Wander Time looks like, Tropicana Field is about to get a lot buzzier. The game’s top prospect got a standing ovation before his first major-league at-bat, was serenaded by the sound of his own name (Wand-er, Fran-co!) during a first-inning walk, and then drilled a three-run homer to leftfield to tie the game against the Red Sox in the fifth inning.

With the crowd of 12,994 still on their feet one pitch into the next at-bat, Franco was coerced into stepping out of the dugout and acknowledging the applause by grasping his hands together above his head in a gesture of thanks.

“God sent me a surprise with all of this,” Franco said afterward.

This was not your typical big league debut, and it sure as heck wasn’t your normal Tuesday night at a Rays game. Four hours and 11 innings later, it didn’t seem to matter much that the Red Sox had won 9-5.

“We’ve never had someone at his age with the type of performance and expectations and ceiling he has,” Rays president Matt Silverman said. “He’s become a household name before he’s ever had his first at-bat.”

By his third plate appearance, that name was going viral with the first-pitch, line-drive homer. And when he drilled a double his fourth time up — with a 105.5 mph exit velocity — it was as if Franco had made lifelong friends with an entire stadium.

You can immediately put this on the shelf with a handful of other nights in Rays regular-season lore at Tropicana Field. There was Wade Boggs’ 3,000th hit. There was Matt Garza’s no-hitter. There was Evan Longoria’s playoff-clinching homer in Game 162.

And now there is the night that Franco made you giddy over possibilities.

“I’ve never seen anything like that in this building,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora.

Rays officials were careful before the game to temper expectations for a player who is still just a few months past his 20th birthday, but Franco had no intention of easing into his stardom.

“He’s 20 years old, he’s got a ton of potential, enormous expectations on him, and fair or not, they are what they are,” Rays general manager Erik Neander said. “Those are things that most other players will never deal with.”

The crowd was smallish by the standards of major debuts (Washington got 40,201 for Juan Soto, Philadelphia had 54,242 for Bryce Harper and Toronto had 28,688 for Vladimir Guerrero Jr., although those were all on weekends), but the vibe was electric from the start.

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“Our entire team will benefit from the energy he creates, his buzz, his status coming up here,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “But I think they’ll also balance that by knowing this is a tough game and, more often than not, it takes time for guys to establish themselves.”

The Rays may have outperformed nearly every team in the American League since 2008, but they’ve never had a player such as this. At least not since the early days of Longoria. The Rays are built on versatility and depth, with a lineup of largely hard-working role players.

By himself, Franco shatters that perception. Headlines, highlights and social media will follow his every move. When a photographer began snapping pictures of Joey Wendle before batting practice, the Rays infielder jokingly chided him.

“Don’t try to make me feel good taking my picture,” Wendle said. “We all know why you’re here.”

That’s why Roan Hoefling was there. The 15-year-old from Fort Myers had tried to get his grandparents to take him to the game, but they didn’t want to drive at night, so Hoefling hitched a ride with friends who were going. He said they were studying spray charts to see where Franco normally hits home runs, and bought their tickets in leftfield 30 minutes before the game began.

When Franco hit his fifth-inning drive, Hoefling said he dove in front of another fan and caught the ball in his glove. Hoefling said he was happy to turn the ball over to Rays personnel, and ended up getting a picture with Franco after the game.

“Ever since I heard about Franco, I said this is a guy I’m going to watch,” Hoefling said. “So this turned out awesome.”

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