Back then he was Johnny Bear, and he and his buddies Lumpy and
Buckteeth each cut 20 coupons off the backs of milk cartons to
get free New York Mets tickets. They boarded the B train at
Brooklyn's Bay 50th Street subway station and rode 18 stops to
42nd Street in Manhattan, where they transferred to the Number 7
line for 18 more stops to Shea Stadium in Queens. It was the
summer of 1969, the summer of the Miracle Mets, and Johnny Bear
was a pudgy little eight-year-old sitting a few rows from the
top of the upper deck watching his idol, closer Tug McGraw,
prove that you gotta believe.
McGraw came back to Shea on Sunday to take part in the
30th-anniversary celebration of that blessed season, and Johnny
Bear was there too, having long ago shed his baby fat and
matured into John Franco, major league closer. Franco, a
38-year-old lefthander, studied McGraw and the other old-timers,
including Tommie Agee, Jerry Koosman and Tom Seaver, their gray
hair and crow's feet a reminder to Franco of his own baseball
mortality. Twenty-four hours earlier the Mets had commemorated
Franco's 400th career save (which came on April 14 against the
Florida Marlins) with a This Is Your Life pregame parade of
guests handing him scrapbooks and plaques. McGraw rode in from
the bullpen on a classic Harley-Davidson chopper and then turned
the keys over to the guest of honor. Franco stepped to the
microphone and politely thanked everybody for coming, but he
really felt like screaming, "Yo, fellas, I ain't dead yet!"
To the contrary, Franco was off to the best start of his 16-year
career. Through Sunday he had nine saves in nine chances and a
0.87 ERA, and he was anchoring the best bullpen in baseball this
season. Yet there he was, standing before a crowd of 33,825 last
Saturday, the kid from the Marlboro projects in Bensonhurst, the
son of a city garbageman, a loyal Met for 10 seasons who has
lived his life by McGraw's rallying cry, and as John Franco Day
festivities concluded, there was not a wet eye in the house. "I
have a weird hate-love relationship with the fans," Franco said
afterward. "They always boo me until I get three outs, and then
they cheer me like crazy as I'm walking off the field. Whaddya
Mets fans have been known to hold a grudge for generations, and
many of them still haven't forgiven Franco for what happened in
1990. Before that season Franco was thrilled to be traded from
the Cincinnati Reds, with whom he had spent his first six years
in the majors, to the Mets, who he figured had a better chance
to win a World Series. Alas, the Reds won the world championship
that autumn after the Mets had unraveled in September, falling
out of a tight race with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National
League East. During that dreadful month Franco blew three saves
and had a 5.91 ERA. Over the ensuing Christmas holiday Franco
went to see The Godfather III at a Brooklyn theater, and as the
lights dimmed, some kid shouted, "You suck, Franco!"
What followed were seven mostly miserable seasons in New York,
with Franco collecting 178 mostly meaningless saves--and blowing
his share of them as well. He was always testing Mets fans'
patience with his penchant for nibbling at the outside corner
with his superb changeup and average fastball, and for putting
lots of runners on base, just as McGraw once did. Fairly or not,
Franco became the poster boy for a decade of Mets futility, and
rumors of his demise circulated more often than those concerning
Generalissimo Francisco Franco (no relation). He was convinced
he should be the fans' favorite son and not their scapegoat, but
he usually understood where they were coming from. "Hey, when
you stink you should get booed," Franco says, "but there were a
few nights when I thought I would need a ride home with the
Last season, finally, the Mets were wild-card contenders until
the final day of the season. Franco saved 38 games, but he blew
four in a critical stretch from July 10 to Aug. 4. Then, on
Sept. 15, in the first game of a doubleheader against the Astros
in Houston, he coughed up another game. Before the nightcap,
when he stepped into an Astrodome passageway to speak to
reporters, he turned his back, put his hands on the wall, spread
his legs and said, "Take your best shot." On the season's
penultimate Friday, Franco surrendered a late lead in a
devastating loss to the last-place Marlins. The next day's
banner headline on the back page of the Daily News read JOHNNY
B. BAD. The Mets missed the wild card by one game, and Franco
finished the season 0-8 with eight blown saves.
How galling last year was for a player who had never pitched in
a postseason game, the active major leaguer with the longest
service time never to have done so. Disappointed with his
performance, Franco last winter reviewed videotapes of every
outing in 1998 and brainstormed with pitching coaches past and
present. He decided that this year, for the first time since
'96, he would work from a full windup with nobody on base, an
adjustment that he believes has added movement and a few miles
per hour to his fastball. He has also begun using a third pitch,
a slider with a cross-seams grip that he learned from Seaver,
who this season is working with the Mets staff as a special
instructor. "He's 38, and he didn't have to make changes, but
that's who he is," New York manager Bobby Valentine says of
Franco. "That's why I'm a fan."
Of course, Franco's success involves more than mechanics. He is,
after all, a southpaw reliever and thus devoutly superstitious.
He credits his smooth start partly to a 1973 commemorative
Canadian coin given to him in early April by a little Italian
man in the stands at Montreal's Olympic Stadium. Franco carries
the coin to every game in a small bag that also holds stones
from the graves of his mother and father. "The guy said to rub
it for good luck this season, and I've been known to try
anything," Franco says. "It's been working for all of us in the
Indeed the Mets relief corps, consisting mostly of castoffs from
other organizations, is deeper, more experienced and more
talented than it has been in a decade. Through Sunday,
rubber-armed 36-year-old lefty Dennis Cook had a 1.64 ERA and
had already collected five wins to tie for the league lead with
Houston righthander Shane Reynolds. Cook appeared in 11 of New
York's first 25 games, and in eight the Mets scored on his
behalf, which makes him their unofficial good luck charm. (Yes,
he rubs Franco's coin regularly.) His teammates prefer to call
him the Vulture.
There's also the mercurial 31-year-old righthander, Turk
Wendell, who--as he has throughout his seven-year major league
career--hops over the foul line when taking and leaving the
field and spikes the resin bag before facing each batter.
However, Wendell no longer chews black licorice on the mound or
brushes his teeth between innings. Through Sunday he'd allowed
two runs in a league-leading 14 appearances while wearing number
99 and pitching on a one-year pact at a salary of $1,200,000.99
and with bonuses of $4,999 apiece if he should make 67, 68 and
Then there's former Baltimore Orioles closer Armando Benitez,
who came in a three-team trade in which the Mets sent catcher
Todd Hundley to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Last May 19 the 6'4",
225-pound Benitez, a 26-year-old righthander, was among the
players most reviled by New York baseball fans after he
attempted to throw a pitch through Yankees first baseman Tino
Martinez. Benitez's fastball clocks in at around 98 mph, but
this season he's learning to do more than just rear back and
fire. He's varying the speed of his forkball and slider to
differentiate them more from his fastball. Through Sunday he'd
struck out 17 batters in 11 2/3 innings, and the league was
hitting .146 against him. Benitez is evolving into such a
reliable eighth-inning setup man that he is becoming known
around Shea as the "eighth wonder."
"I tell Armando that this isn't caveman baseball, so it's not a
case of the biggest, strongest guy always winning," says Mets
pitching coach Bob Apodaca. "Arnold Schwarzenegger may not be as
good a pitcher as Pee Wee Herman. We want Armando to be a smart
pitcher who also happens to throw the crap out of the ball."
Through Sunday the Mets' bullpen was a combined 7-0 with a 2.60
ERA, easily the lowest in the league (chart). As a result, New
York was 12-0 when leading after six innings and 5-0 in one-run
games, and had seven come-from-behind victories. "The Mets'
bullpen is as good as anybody's," Florida manager John Boles
says. "If you are behind in the seventh, eighth and ninth
innings, you're in a world of hurt."
With a 2-0 lead in the top of the ninth against the San
Francisco Giants on Sunday, Franco predictably loaded the bases
with one out. Then he threw his new slider and induced third
baseman Charlie Hayes to ground into a game-ending double play.
That save gave Franco 406, 72 short of Lee Smith's major league
record, and sealed New York's first home sweep of the Giants in
22 years. "Johnny gives up runners, but he just doesn't crack,"
Valentine said after the game.
The victory gave the Mets a five-game winning streak. At 16-9
New York was shadowing the Atlanta Braves in the National League
East, and there was a sense in the Mets' clubhouse that in this
time of heroic sports send-offs, Franco deserves better than
just his inexorable pursuit of Smith's record. He deserves to
pitch some bonus games in October. Given the spotty performances
by New York's rotation, including zero complete games through
Sunday, the bullpen will figure prominently in the Mets' fate.
"We realize we've got a long way to go," Cook says. "None of us
are going to tear our rotator cuffs patting ourselves on the
back just yet."
Especially John Anthony Franco, who has blown nearly 70 saves in
his career. He knows it won't be too long before he screws up
again and makes the lonely walk to his Mercedes in the wee hours
of the morning for the 25-minute drive home to Staten Island. He
will get on the Van Wyck Expressway and then switch to the Belt
Parkway, rolling past Bensonhurst as he listens to Artie from
Bayside crucify him on sports talk radio. Then, just about the
time he reaches the crown of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, he
will feel those familiar butterflies in his gut as he starts
thinking about the next time the Mets have a slim lead in the
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON Really Cookin' The newly nicknamed Vulture has fed off his teammates' late run support to rack up five wins.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON Change of pace By mixing his pitches, the imposing Benitez has turned jeers to cheers.
Oh, What a Relief!
Through Sunday John Franco (left) led the only bullpen in the
majors with an ERA of less than 3.00. Here's how the Mets'
relief corps ranked against those of other National League clubs
playing .500 or better ball.
TEAM ERA W-L SAVES BLOWN SAVES
Mets 2.60 7-0 11 1
Braves 3.75 5-1 5 4
Diamondbacks 4.16 4-5 6 6
Astros 4.19 3-2 11 1
Phillies 4.36 3-3 5 2
Cardinals 4.44 3-4 7 2
Dodgers 4.62 2-3 7 1
Giants 4.71 6-1 9 3
Cubs 5.48 4-2 8 4
"There were nights I thought I'd need a ride home with the
National Guard," Franco says.