The Abingdon Falcons were supposed to play a Mountain 7 District baseball game at Lee High on Friday night if the soggy spring weather had permitted.
As he had for the last 15 years as head coach, Mark Francisco would’ve filled out the lineup card, given instructions to his talented team and then hung on every pitch over the next couple of hours.
Sharing space in the dugout with him would be Andrew Francisco, Mark’s oldest son and a 2019 Emory & Henry College graduate in his first season as an assistant coach on the AHS staff.
Seeing time at second base, shortstop or on the mound for the Falcons would have been junior Luke Francisco, a versatile player and Mark’s youngest son.
Tammy Francisco would be sitting in the stands cheering on her husband and her kids as the matriarch of this baseball-playing family.
She might glance down at her phone between innings to see where she and Mark’s middle son, Thomas, would be in the starting lineup for the East Carolina University Pirates as they were supposed to begin an American Athletic Conference weekend series later that evening in New Orleans against Tulane.
The coronavirus pandemic resulted in the high school and college baseball seasons being canceled, which has made things much different for the Francisco family of five, who have spent spring and summers on baseball diamonds across the Southeast for as long as they can remember.
“Surreal is the best way to describe it,” Tammy Francisco said. “I am still waiting to wake up and realize this is a dream. I love having my boys with me but would rather have us all together hanging out at the ballpark.”
The days seem to run together now for the Francisco boys and can be monotonous as Thomas and Luke take rounds upon rounds of batting practice, field a steady stream of groundballs and do maintenance work on the field located off Exit 19, where no games will be played this spring.
“I think they’ve handled it as well as possible,” Mark Francisco said. “We’ve always preached to our team to control what you can control. This virus is out of their control, so I think Thomas and Luke are just trying to focus on getting a little better each day. When you’re dealing with the unknown, I think the best thing you can do is just work as hard as possible so you’re prepared when things start back up. … I’m grateful to get to spend so much time with my boys, but I hate they aren’t getting to play or coach.”
The Abingdon Falcons were going to be loaded in 2020.
Most of their key players returned from a team that went 22-4 and dropped a 1-0 decision to eventual state champion Fluvanna County in the VHSL Class 3 quarterfinals.
“I thought we were looking really good,” Luke Francisco said. “We all had our goals set on a state championship. The team has been together since 8-under travel ball, and ever since then we were all working hard for a chance for a VHSL state title one day. I hate it for the three seniors [Jadon Boothe, Jonas Lane and Grayson Waddle] who have been with us for all these years.”
The Falcons were in their third week of practice in preparing for the 2020 season and had fared well in their scrimmages, the final of which was held March 12 at home against Richlands.
That is the same day Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency for Virginia and the VHSL Class 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6 state basketball title games were canceled.
“We were all aware that could be the last time they would get to play,” Mark Francisco said. “After the scrimmage, we came up with a plan for them to continue getting work done on their own. We stay connected in a group text, and it’s encouraging to know they are still working hard. I’ve been watching a lot of old baseball games on the MLB network, and I’ve also been heading to a cage or field about every day working with my three sons.”
Thomas Francisco was in Greenville, North Carolina, in the team room at ECU’s baseball complex, and had just gotten out of a meeting when the word came down.
He owned a .423 batting average to go along with a home run and seven RBIs in the young season and was poised for big things. He was going to spend the summer playing for the Bourne Braves in the prestigious wood-bat Cape Cod League, but alas, that season also got canceled.
“I was seeing the ball really well,” Thomas Francisco said. “I felt extremely confident in the box, and we were playing really good as a team. … It’s always been a goal of mine to play in the Cape. Being able to compete with, and against, the best players in the country would have been a great experience.”
Andrew Francisco has channeled his energy into maintaining the field at Falcon Park.
Like an artist with brushes and paint, Francisco’s master strokes with his grounds crew tools make the grass and dirt at Abingdon’s field look pristine. The only problem is nobody gets to benefit from the fruits of his labor this spring.
“When all this started, I was up at the field working on it every day,” Andrew Francisco said. “Now, I’d say I’m up there about three or four times a week. We all take pride in the way the field looks. We’ve spent a lot of hours working on it for the past 15 years.”
Tammy Francisco can vouch for that.
“I used to joke that the Falcon field looked better than our landscaping at home,” she said. “Now, ours looks good, but for some reason the Falcon field still looks better.”
The Francisco family still passed the time and filled the schedule with the absence of baseball.
“Just finding things to compete in,” Luke Francisco said. “From the golf course to ‘MLB: The Show’ [video game] to ping pong to who can catch the biggest fish to who can get the most questions right on ‘Jeopardy!’ I think we’ve all taken it equally as hard. Baseball is one of the biggest parts of our life, and having that taken away is difficult to grasp.”
There is no doubting the passion the Francisco family has for baseball.
“They all love the game a tremendous amount,” said Will Harless, a former Abingdon standout who now plays at Radford University. “It’s something that they find joy in.”
Their faith has helped the family take the bad news in stride and adapt, but at the same time, nobody will be ready for an umpire to proclaim “Play ball” more than Mark, Tammy, Andrew, Thomas and Luke Francisco.
“It was really tough to cope with all this at first,” Andrew Francisco said. “I’d say we all rely on our relationship with Christ and realizing that He is the most important thing in our lives. Bad things happen and will happen. This virus might take a lot of people, but it will never be able to take your relationship with Jesus. … I would definitely say Mom has probably taken it the hardest. I know how much she loves us and baseball. I know it’s tough for her not to be able to cheer on the Falcons or travel down to Greenville to watch Thomas play.”
A baseball season that wasn’t will be one they will look back on without much fondness.
“I know we are all looking forward to getting back out on a baseball field,” Mark Francisco said.