If you saw them play, you might forget that Coach Joe Francisco’s Notorious 9 baseball team is made up of 11-year-olds. Like the pros they aspire to be, they exude focus and confidence from the moment they step onto the field: impeccable uniforms, hard rock warm-up music, and perfectly smeared isplack. The boys—all from Long Island, New York—train at Team Francisco Baseball Academy at Prospect Factory twice a week and play at least two games each weekend, traveling as far as the Dominican Republic to challenge the best teams in the United States and beyond. In Francisco’s words, the boys are “fierce competitors,” “the closest of friends,” and “a hardcore team.” Their dream and his goal for them is to make it on the roster of NCAA Division I and professional baseball teams.
So far, the guys are on track. Since the team formed in 2015, Notorious 9 has won 16 overall league and tournament championships. Now, in its third season, it has accumulated a record of 86-14-4 and earned two national rankings: 5th (11u) by National Youth Baseball Championship, and 10th (11u) by Travel Ball Select. Impressive stats for such a young group—but to Coach Francisco, who played college and then pro ball for the Atlanta Braves, Notorious 9 is just getting started. To learn more about his coaching philosophy, the promising young stars he guides, and of course, his decision to include isplack in the team uniform, I (BW) interviewed Coach Francisco (JF) by phone last week. Here are some highlights from our conversation:
BW: How did you get into coaching?
JF: I’m more of an instructor than a coach. I’ve coached teams in the past and have sent several players to DI schools, but now I just coach this one team because my son’s on it. I primarily run a baseball academy on Long Island. As most youth coaches will tell you, having the opportunity to mold young people into good individuals and players is a privilege.
BW: Did you play baseball?
JF: I played college and then pro ball for the Atlanta Braves. I started at Appalachian State, then graduated from Wagner College. I played three years with the Braves and some independent ball after that.
BW: How would you describe your coaching philosophy?
JF: I treat the kids like they’re men. I try to instill accountability, hard work, and toughness in them. I’m trying to get these kids prepared for the next level. I’m not all warm and squishy. I love all these kids, I give respect and expect it in return, but I’m hard on them. I’m tough on them. This is a really tough game. It’s really about preparing them for what they’re going to be facing from their fiercest competition. In my mind, the worst thing a coach can do is to treat their players like gods and blow smoke. Let them compete, let them have fun. But at the same time, get them ready for high-level play.
BW: How long has Notorious 9 been together?
JF: Two full years and a fall season. They’re a hardcore team. Our goal is to make the kids Division I and pro baseball players. That’s their dream and my goal is to help them to achieve it. We have a very dedicated staff and parent base, and the kids work hard. These are baseball kids. This is what they want to do.
BW: Do they all go to school together? Are they friends?
JF: The team is made up of 10 players from all over Long Island. My academy, Team Francisco Baseball Academy at Prospect Factory, is located right in the middle. They’re 10 great kids: fierce competitors, and they really gelled as a team. They have become the closest of friends. They’re always together. They travel all over. They went to the Dominican Republic two years ago, we were invited to a bunch of big tournaments coming up, and we’ll continue to seek out the best competition, wherever that may be.
BW: How did you find isplack?
JF: I always wore eyeblack when I played. It’s the same tough, hard mentality I’m working to instill in my players. Like warriors putting on their war paint, that’s the same thing with our guys. We wear it every time, every game. Rain, sun, sleet, snow, whatever. The kids love it. They love the act of putting it on. They love to look tough. In all sports, especially baseball, a lot of an athlete’s performance is in his or her head. isplack helps them get into character, like, “Hey, we’re ready for war.” And during the game, it is war. isplack gets them in that right mindset.
(NOTE: As our very own Trevor Story, shortstop for the Colorado Rockies, put it during his visit to isplack HQ, “I believe that if you look good, you feel good. And when you feel good, you play good.” Sounds similar to Coach Francisco!)
BW: At what point before a game do your players put isplack on, and who applies it?
JF: I do, and I am very OCD about it. It’s three stripes across, smear, and fill. Every player gets the same treatment, together. It’s amazing how it brings focus to the team. It’s a very specific look. The guys get to the game 90 minutes early. Right after they’re done stretching, I’ll line them up and put it on. If it’s a big game, I’ll put it on them right before they run out. I’ve even reapplied some of our competitors’ when I see an inferior product or a poor application. Everyone deserves to feel and look their best at game time.