Los Angeles Times

UCI rooter comes with twist, shouts

He has become almost as big a fixture in the program as squeeze bunts and ace pitchers, though few know his name and fewer still know his story.

Yet almost anyone who has attended a UC Irvine baseball home game the last seven seasons, knows his voice.

Keith Franklin, also known as Super Fan, may sit about three rows up from the backstop screen, between home plate and the Anteaters' on-deck circle, but he is the epicenter of UCI baseball fandom.

Chanting incessantly, eliciting giggles with his sometimes nonsensical nicknames for players, always relentlessly positive about his Anteaters, yet unflinchingly respectful of the opponent, the 46-year-old Costa Mesa resident continually stirs a notoriously sedate collection of ticket holders.

Without him, some believe, Anteater Ballpark might be renamed Library Annex.

"He's great," UCI junior ace Matt Summers said of Franklin, who with a husky voice, a muscular, compact frame adorned with several tattoos, and long brown hair that sways emphatically atop his shoulders, might more resemble an enthusiast of professional wrestling than college baseball. "I love that he's so excited and I wish we had more of him. He loves being out there so much and he's so committed. We really appreciate all his enthusiasm."

Sean Madigan, a fifth-year senior and the Anteaters right fielder, says it's never a challenge to hear Super Fan during the game.

"You could probably hear him from [nearby] University [Avenue]," Madigan said.

"Any time you have a fan that is that dedicated, it's a pretty sweet deal. He definitely does bring energy to the ballpark and that's definitely a good deal."

Franklin, who will be leading the cheers Friday when the Anteaters face Fresno State in the opening game of the Los Angeles Regional at UCLA's Jackie Robinson Stadium at 2 p.m., brings energy, passion, a love for the game to the ballpark.

And, he acknowledges, he also brings a checkered past.

He said his love for baseball began in his native Bronx, N.Y., where the hometown Yankees were his team from the start.

He did not play baseball as a youth, competing in football and wrestling in high school, after his family moved to Santa Ana.

He also gravitated toward anything rebellious, specifically punk rock and less-fortunately drugs.

"I kind of come from the wrong side of the tracks," Franklin said. "We moved to Santa Ana in 1967, and that's where things kind of got crazy. I was very rebellious and pretty much gave the middle finger to everybody. When the drugs came into our neighborhoods, we all got swept up in it."

Franklin said his involvement with drugs eventually led to problems with the law and two separate stints in state prison.

"I did the first term which was 16 months and I got into some altercations, some fighting, so I had some time added to that. And when I got out, I didn't have it right. That's when my real fighting began; the fight to get out of [drug addiction].

"I got in so much trouble [in prison], I was in the level-three yard," he said.

"I was under the gun towers and stuff. I've seen people stabbed. I saw a lot of things people shouldn't see."

Franklin, who served a separate two-year sentence, said his path to sobriety and ultimate happiness was a bit unconventional.

"There is no God story and there is no [Alcoholics Anonymous] story," he said.

"Some people do it like that, and God bless 'em. For me, I just got really angry."

After his second incarceration, Franklin took work as a mover and eventually owned his own moving business. He has now returned to being merely an employee, who can work as much as 80 hours a week.

"I work my butt off, every day and there ain't no joke about it," said Franklin, who also credited his wife Shellie for keeping him on a law-aiding path. "I don't kick back and I ain't going to hang out at the water cooler. It can be stressful. But I come out to the ballpark, I yell my butt off, then I come home and sleep like a baby. I don't take no European vacations, but I'm on vacation three hours at a time by coming out to the ballpark."

Franklin said he had always attended professional games and even went to college games at Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach, before settling his attention on UCI.

"I got a flyer sent to my house before the 2005 season," he said. "Baseball brings a lot of serenity to my life and just kind of straightens things out. I eat, drink and sleep baseball. I said, 'Baseball in February, let's do this.'

"When I came to that first game, it was a beautiful night, the opener of a series against Dallas Baptist. The game was getting ready to start and I could hear both dugouts chirping and I thought, 'This is heaven.' It was like pure baseball. I always tell my friends, it's like free-basing baseball. You sit behind the plate and you just take it all in.

"I went to Fullerton games and Long Beach State games, but it seemed like they had their [fans]. I didn't want to jump on the bandwagon with somebody, and these guys were in my backyard."

Franklin, however, does far more than just take in the atmosphere. In some cases, he not only shapes the crowd involvement, but he is the atmosphere.

"When it started, I just came by myself and I didn't know anybody really heard me," Franklin said. "I wanted to support these guys like they were bigger than life. I started coming up with names for them and stuff. I'd go home and tell my wife and she'd say 'They probably think you're crazy.'

"I did get some weird looks out of the corner of people's eyes, but the players noticed me and I think I saw a few smirks on their faces."

Franklin only gets those looks now from newcomers, and the fans of visiting teams.

More and more, he is not only accepted but celebrated. He helps lead the crowd in "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch and experienced UCI fans regularly respond to his frequent sing-song "Rip 'em … 'Eaters" chants.

Late in Matt Summer's no-hitter against Long Beach State, following a stellar defensive play by Summers, Franklin orchestrated a standing ovation for the Anteaters' ace.

After the final out, Franklin jumped over the dugout, onto the field and gave Summers a hug while he was being congratulated by his teammates near the mound.

"I don't know how he got to me but he did," Summers said. "I was getting hugs from the guys and, all of a sudden, Keith comes out of nowhere and just grabs me. It was really funny and it was pretty cool."

Franklin arrived in the eighth inning of a nonconference home game against Pepperdine with the Anteaters trailing on May 4. The crowd immediately responded to him yelling as he walked through the entrance gate and the atmosphere in the stands was instantly altered.

UCI rallied to win, 5-4, and some fans openly credited Franklin's contribution afterward.

"I remember how we kind of started a little rally," Madigan said of the Pepperdine game. "I don't know if we would have [rallied] if he didn't come, but it is kind of funny how that worked out."

Franklin's trademark is his unique nicknames for the players. And he has something for everyone on the UCI roster.

"Every one of these kids is special to me," said Franklin, who blares "Release the hounds," every time junior first baseman Jordan Fox comes to the plate.

He calls Summers "Gunslinger," does a complete Superman intro (Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive …) for sophomore pitcher Kyle "Hooperman" Hooper and bestows "Shaeffer madness" and "Shaeff Dog" on junior catcher Ronnie Shaeffer..

And when 6-foot-8, 260-pound freshman pitcher Phil Ferragamo enters the game from the bullpen, Franklin cups his hands to his mouth and yells skyward, "I hear footsteps!"

Franklin says the acknowledgement he receives from the players outdoes any benefit his support supplies to the program.

"Whatever recognition is bestowed upon me, I believe I am not worthy of," Franklin said. "I keep thinking that one day I'll wake up and this will have been a crazy dream. I feel like I'm accepted here. Whatever [the fans] have going in our personal lives, we are all here for one common cause."

Franklin said the sporadic snickers that accompany his routine do not bother him in the least.

'I'm not the type to have a chump complex," he said. "Dignity is overrated. It's all positive and I'm not hurting anybody."

Franklin said he would embrace eventually being replaced by a legion of vocal UCI supporters.

"My goal is, one day, for nobody to know I'm here, because I'll be drowned out by 100 people doing the same thing."

Since Franklin joined the fold, UCI baseball has never been the same.

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