Thursday, October 26, 2000

John Franco

Of fathers, childhood and dreams

        NEW YORK — John Franco was staring into space. In the midst of his first World Series, the culmination of his baseball career, Franco's eyes were fixed on some distant solar system.

        “There was one big bright star last night,” the New York Mets reliever recalled Wednesday afternoon. “Al Leiter asked me what I was looking at. I told him, "I'm looking at that brightest star — that's my papa.' He says: "That's probably my dad up there with him. They're probably having a beer and laughing at us.'”

        On some level, the biggest games men play are about little boys trying to make their parents proud. Franco is 40 years old, a father himself, but he still wants to share his success with his fa

        Jim Franco died 13 Octobers ago, had a heart attack while driving a garbage truck. To this day, his son wears a sanitation department T-shirt beneath his uniform out of sentiment and superstition and gratitude for the overhand curve ball the old man taught him on the playgrounds of Brooklyn.

A kid's memories

        When a pitcher walks to the mound in the World Series, he carries a thousand memories with him. For Franco, those memories are particularly poignant.

        He grew up a Mets fan in the Marlboro projects in Brooklyn, a poor kid with a baseball passion. He scoured the neighborhood in search of empty milk cartons, knowing if he could collect 20 of them, he could redeem them for an upper-deck seat at Shea Stadium.

        “The Yankees were everything in the '70s, and we didn't have much to brag about,” Franco said. “We had a better grounds crew maybe. That and Casey Stengel managed both teams. I remember we used to argue who was the better catcher, Thurman Munson or Jerry Grote. It was a lot of fun going back and forth about it for 45 minutes or an hour. Then we'd go out and play a game of stickball or slapball.”

        He went on to pitch at Lafayette High School, where Sandy Koufax had played, and then at St.John's. Originally signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers, he developed into one of baseball's most consistent closers with the mid-80s Reds.

        Funny thing about fate: Franco realized a dream when he was traded to the Mets following the 1989 season, only to miss out on another when the Reds won the 1990 World Series without him. For a long time, Franco wondered if he would ever get the shot he has now. He has saved 420 games in the major leagues — only Lee Smith (478) has more — but his postseason experience was nonexistent until last season.

        “I think I'm savoring it now, because I've played so long to get here,” he said.

No save, but a win

        He is no longer entrusted with the ninth inning. Armando Benitez has become the Mets' closer, and Franco has been reduced to a set-up role. Yet in finishing the eighth inning Tuesday night, Franco qualified for his first World Series win.

        Franco entered the game with the score tied 2-2 and immediately coaxed a double-play grounder. He then allowed a two-out single to his old Reds teammate, Paul O'Neill. Pinch hitter Glenallen Hill, who had six hits in 12 career at-bats against Franco, popped out to end the inning.

        “It has been great,” Franco said of his postseason experience. “Gray hair is coming out. Fingernails are short. Stomachs hurt. But this is what you live for as a kid, being in this situation.”



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