Vet fired by Mets paid out of pocket to give tickets to Gold Star family

USMC vet Nick Francona says he was fired for asking questions about MLB's military-themed merchandise.

Eric Dehm
July 19, 2018 - 2:03 pm

(U.S. Navy photo by Lt. j.g. Matthew Stroup/released)

*Story updated to include response from MLB regarding sales numbers and licensing*

A Marine Corps veteran, who says he was fired by the New York Mets for publicly questioning Major League Baseball (MLB) about profits from military-themed apparel, has revealed to ConnectingVets.com he used his own money to buy tickets to a game for a Gold Star family after the Mets refused to provide them.

Nick Francona, the son of Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona, spent four years as an officer in the Marines, including a deployment to Afghanistan leading a Marine scout sniper platoon. Following his military career, he worked in business for a time before chasing his dream of working in baseball. He accomplished that dream, most recently serving as the Mets Assistant Director of Player Development. While with the team, he also took on the added duty of contacting Gold Star families that the Mets planned to honor with video presentations during games.

"I was personally reaching out to all of the families of the individuals we wanted to honor," says Francona. "I wanted to explain what we had in mind and get their permission rather than just do it. I also invited them to come to a game at their convenience, depending on where they lived, they could come to Citi Field or see a game on the road."

One of the families Francona reached out to was the family of Air Force Tech Sergeant Joseph Lemm. Lemm, who was also an NYPD Detective, was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2015. A member of the 105th Security Forces Squadron, he was one of six airmen killed when their patrol was attacked by a suicide bomber. Lemm left behind a wife and two sons.

Lemm's family requested tickets to a game, and received them. But, it turns out, the tickets didn't come from the Mets organization. They came from Nick Francona. He says the Lemm Family wanted to attend a June 2018 matchup with the crosstown rival Yankees but the Mets said no because it was considered a "premium" game. In fact, in documented communications between Francona and others in the organization provided to ConnectingVets.com, it's apparent that this was not the first time families struck out with their ticket requests as Francona was also told not to offer any weekend games to the Gold Star families, as they would likely be declined by the ticketing office.

He says he couldn't bear to tell the Lemm family no, so he paid hundreds out of his own pocket to ensure they got to attend the 'Subway Series.' As he didn't want the situation to keep repeating, Francona says he continued to push the organization to change their policy and provide tickets for weekend games to the families. In this case, persistence paid off and the Mets eventually acquiesced.

Photo courtesy Nick Francona

Francona’s questioning of the relationship between the military community and MLB is nothing new. Shortly after he was hired by the Mets in 2017, Francona says he started asking where all of the money raised by MLB through military-themed merchandise, such as the uniforms and caps worn by players on Memorial Day, was going. He says he asked the league privately on multiple occasions and when he didn't get answers from the league, he went public via his Twitter account.

"They didn't respond," Francona said during an appearance on the ConnectingVets Morning Briefing radio show. "I was trying thousands of times over the course of the year and got to the point where I felt like it was the last resort to put some pressure on them publicly."

Photo courtesy Nick Francona

While Francona says he got the cold shoulder, MLB’s Senior Director of Business Communications Steven Arocho did respond to ConnectingVets request for comment.

“There is absolutely no truth to that allegation…100% of our royalties from the sales of Memorial Day weekend apparel went to charities supporting children and families grieving the loss of a military loved one.  The organizations – Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and Folds of Honor Foundation – received a minimum $500,000 collective donation. “

Francona says he's aware of what MLB publicly says about the donations but he insists it's a smokescreen designed to cover up the fact that they are making a major league profit on the items.

"If someone buys a hat for $40, or a jersey for $125, how much is going to charity? This is a really important question, far more so than royalties," Francona says. "Because it's entirely misleading to suggest that donating all of the royalties means there is no longer an economic benefit that they are gaining. It's intentionally misleading which makes it worse. They also serve as retailers, so they are still profiting even if they are donating the royalties. This shouldn't be all that complicated."

ConnectingVets followed up with MLB asking for clarification on what "royalties" specifically meant, as well as requesting any available numbers regarding the percentage donated compared to overall sales for 2018 or any previous year military-themed apparel has been offered. MLB responded after the initial publication of this article that they do not typically release numbers for any licensed apparel, but again stating that 100% of the money paid from a licensee for the use of MLB marks.

Francona says the only response he got from MLB at the time, came in the form of the league putting pressure on the Mets, leading to General Manager and fellow USMC veteran Sandy Alderson who implored Francona to stop asking questions. Something the Marine says was disheartening to hear from a fellow veteran. 

Photo courtesy Nick Francona

"He's very close with people in the commissioner's office and I think, in my opinion, he wanted to protect them," Francona says of Alderson. "And I wanted to protect Gold Star families and veterans more."

He says the disagreement on how to handle the situation led to an impasse between himself and the organization, one that ended with him being informed his services were no longer required.

While the Mets declined to comment on Francona’s firing, they did provide the following statement: "Our initiatives to recognize and assist those in our veteran and military communities will continue and be second to none."

Francona says the Mets did reimburse him for the tickets for the Lemm Family, but only after he was fired. Something he sees as an "incredibly disingenuous" move that he believes was made only because the team realized how the incident would look when coupled with firing a Marine veteran.

You can hear the full interview with Francona below. To download and listen later click Share and select Download from the available options.

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