With a family full of people in the movie business, glamorous careers are nothing new to Westlake’s Matt Franco. Yet he is embarking on a career in professional baseball that even has his relatives envious.
“That’s for sure,” said Matt’s mother, Jill. “They would all rather be doing what Matt’s doing than what they’re doing.
“And they would rather have made the major leagues than anything else they have done.”
What they have done is become successful in the movie industry. Matt’s uncle is actor Kurt Russell, his aunt is actress Goldie Hawn, his grandfather is actor Neil “Bing” Russell and his father is motion picture producer Larry Franco.
What Matt has done is sign a contract with the Chicago Cubs, who selected him in the seventh round of the amateur draft three weeks ago.
Franco, 17, started his professional career 13 days ago in Mesa, Ariz. to participate at the Cubs’ summer free-agent mini-camp. He spent five days in Arizona before traveling to Wytheville, Va., where he is playing for the Cubs’ Appalachian Rookie League team.
Through 10 games, Franco had six hits in 26 at-bats with five runs batted in. The debut marked the beginning of a baseball road that uncle Kurt, star of such movies as “Silkwood” and “Escape from New York,” helped pave.
“He’s been helping me a lot, giving me advice for five years concerning my career in professional baseball,” said Franco, who took his high school finals a week early to get started with his baseball career. “What he’s told me is to know that I’m not going to keep hitting .500, to not get down on myself when I go 0 for 4, to stick to my abilities and to get with it.”
Kurt Russell, who’s married to Goldie Hawn, knows what he’s talking about. He played minor league baseball from 1970 through 1975 before a torn rotator cuff forced him to retire. For two of those years, 1974 and 1975, the family was together with the Portland Mavericks, a Class-A independent team.
Bing Russell owned the team, Larry Russell was general manager, Kurt Russell played second base and young Matt worked as batboy.
“That’s when I realized that I wanted to be a professional baseball player,” Franco said. “When I saw how much fun those guys were having, I knew I wanted to do what they were doing some day.”
Many 4- and 5-year-old boys dream of being professional baseball players. But few grow up to be high school players like Franco, who batted .535 as a senior and .464 for his career.
Franco, who led Westlake to its first Southern Section playoff berth this year, is confident he can become the third Franco in history to play in the major leagues. Cleveland Indians shortstop Julio Franco and Cincinnati Reds relief pitcher John Franco are the other two.
“It’s going to be my hitting that’s going to get me there,” he said. “I just hope I can keep on seeing the ball well and hitting it like I have been.”
John “Spider” Jorgensen, a Chicago Cubs scout whose territory includes Southern California and Las Vegas, signed Franco to a contract June 8. Jorgensen is positive about his prospect’s prospects.
“Well, let’s put it this way,” said Jorgensen, who lives in Cucamonga, “I wouldn’t have signed him if I didn’t think he could play in the major leagues.”
However, Jorgensen cautioned that if Franco is to play in the major leagues, he’ll do it only if time in the minors is on his side. Jorgensen believes that goes for any aspiring big leaguer, despite the occasional exceptions like Dave Winfield and Pete Incaviglia who become successful major leaguers without ever playing in the minors.
“I think with any of ‘em it takes four years in the minors,” Jorgensen said. “I don’t care whether they’re coming out of high school, college or whatever.
“Franco’s a good hitter--more than anything else--but he still needs time.”
Area high school pitchers will find their time on the mound a little easier with Franco no longer around to terrorize them.
Franco, who played first base, third and short for Westlake, finished in the top 15 among Southern Section players from the Valley area in batting average (.535), doubles (8), home runs (6) and RBI (26). Franco led or tied for the Westlake team-lead in all of those categories except for RBIs, where he finished two behind teammates Jim Henderson and Greg Struhl.
This past season, Franco was named All-Southern Section, All-Valley, All-Ventura County, and All-Marmonte League for the second straight year.
Dennis Judd, the Westlake baseball coach, added to the list of awards, naming Franco the team’s most valuable offensive player for the second season in a row.
“Without him I would say we probably wouldn’t have finished as high as we did,” Judd said. “He was tremendously important to our offense because he was able to produce for us every game.”
Judd, however, is certain that Franco did more for his team than just get hits in better than half of his at-bats.
“He was an inspiration to some of the kids,” Judd said. “Or perhaps incentive might be the key term. He provided incentive for other kids to improve their hitting so they could try to be as good a hitter as he is.
“These kids would see how he hit and copy his batting stance and work hard to try and be just as good as Matt.”
Although Franco is gone for the summer, hitters still live in his Thousand Oaks home. Matt’s sister, Phronsie, 14, started at shortstop for the Thousand Oaks softball team this season, and his brother Luke, 11, plays Little League baseball.
And, of course, the movie types are always around the house, too. That’s good news in case Franco and baseball don’t achieve the proper mix.
“Yeah, I might get into the movies if things don’t work out,” Franco said. “But I’d be interested in not so much acting as being behind the camera.”
But that’s not what concerns him now. Given a choice, he’d much rather appear on a baseball card than a movie poster.
“It’d be pretty fun to be on a baseball card,” Franco said. “My family would probably get a kick out of it.”
And it just might give them one more reason to be envious.