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The Shea Hey Kid Fulfills His Vow

After 17 years in majors and consumed by memories of days as young Met fan, Franco is finally in Series.

October 21, 2000|ROSS NEWHAN

NEW YORK — John Franco is 40, and maybe that's a little old to be considered the Subway Series poster boy. But who else? Who better?

Has anyone been a New York Met fan and a New York Met longer? Has anyone on either the Mets or Yankees lived in the boroughs longer?

Mike Hampton, in his first year with the Mets, knows the history, knows also that no one has waited longer to get to his first World Series.

That's why he called Franco aside the other day and gave him the ball with which he'd secured the final out in his pennant-clinching shutout of St. Louis.

Tough guys don't like to show their tears, and no one has had to be tougher than the 5-foot-10 left-hander while saving 420 games.

Franco, however, displayed tears at Hampton's gesture, saying he found it hard to believe that Hampton would "just give it to me, that he wanted me to have it. How about that?"

How about John Anthony Franco, after 11 years with the Mets and 17 in the majors, now a long way from the kid who scoured his Brooklyn neighborhood for Borden milk cartons because 20 meant a free ticket in the upper deck at Shea Stadium, making it to his first Series at an age when most players have retired to the golf course?

"The guys have been kidding me about taking 17 years and there's [Met outfielder] Timo Perez getting to the Series after one month," Franco said. "But it's like I've always said, timing is everything. A lot of guys never get to this point. A lot of guys get here and never get beyond. And a lot of guys have been here several times. I'll be happy with this one.

"I mean, that it's the Yankees, that it's a Subway Series, is great for the city and baseball, but I waited 17 years and would be happy if we were playing a team from Mars."

Of course, the Yankees might as well have been aliens when Franco and his brother, Jim, were growing up in the Bensonhurst projects, the sons of a frustrated Brooklyn Dodger fan who switched his allegiance to the Mets after the Dodgers departed. The senior Franco drove a sanitation truck and died 13 years ago of a heart attack suffered behind the wheel. Now his son never puts on his Met uniform without first putting on the orange T-shirt of the New York Department of Sanitation.

"Dad didn't have a chance to enjoy himself, to watch me in the position I now have in New York, but I wear the T-shirt in memory of him and to keep him close to my heart," said Franco, who learned the rudiments of an overhand curveball from his father on the Lafayette High field across from the projects.

Franco attended Lafayette, as did Met co-owner Fred Wilpon and Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax, his father's favorite pitcher.

"Dad was a die-hard Dodger fan and would always say, 'I wish you could have seen that guy pitch,' " Franco said. "I won a pitching award named after Koufax at Lafayette, but it wasn't until years later that I found out he didn't pitch in high school, he played first base."

Father and son had an opportunity to meet Koufax after the Dodgers drafted the undersized left-hander out of St. John's.

Now, almost two decades later, the Dodgers have to look back with regret at what might have been. Franco is the saves leader among left-handers--he ranks second to Lee Smith's 478 overall--but the Dodgers, who years later questioned the size and stamina of Pedro Martinez while overlooking his heart, first made that same mistake with Franco.

He was traded out of triple A in 1983 for Cincinnati infielder Rafael Landestoy, registered his first major league save with the Reds a year later and was traded as a full-fledged closer to the Mets after the 1989 season, a homecoming that would only have been more joyous if his father had been alive. He was the Mets' closer every year after that, registering a career-high 38 saves in 1998, before a severe finger injury and the arrival of Armando Benitez last year moved him into the setup slot.

Franco wasn't happy about that initially, insisting the injury shouldn't have cost him a role that he believes he is still capable of doing, but he put the team ahead of himself, appeared in 62 regular-season games with four saves and a 3.40 earned-run average and became a mentor to Benitez, although that may last only another four to seven games.

Franco is eligible for free agency, and there is speculation that he may leave his and his father's team to become a closer again with the needy Philadelphia Phillies, a relatively short train trip from his home on Staten Island.

"I feel good," he said. "I threw the ball real well this year. I haven't lost anything off my fastball, and my changeup is good. I don't have any timetable. I haven't put any limitations on myself."

The future can wait. Now, as he prepares for this first World Series, this Subway Series, Franco is consumed with memories of that time when he collected milk cartons, sat in the upper deck at Shea and vowed, "Someday that will be me down there."

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