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Johnny B Goode: Franco to enter Mets' hall

NEW YORK -- That picture, that wonderful -- albeit posed -- photo, was worth far more than a measly thousand words. It was the equivalent of a well-written, five grand introduction to the kid down the block in Brooklyn. Pictured in black, white and blue (jeans), seated atop one of the old, rounded-top, stand-alone mail boxes that were on every other street corner in Bensonhurst and Graves End, was Johnny Franco.

In his neighborhood and so many others, that seat was a throne. Not every kid was able to climb or vault to the top. Not every kid was comfortable with a seat of royalty. Johnny Franco was. He graduated early from Johnny On The Pony to Johnny on the mailbox. The photo could have been taken 20 years earlier, when he was nine.

What Franco lacked in height then -- they called it heighth in Brooklyn -- he already had in chutzpah, the intangible that eventually fueled 424 saves in the big leagues, still the most by a left-handed pitcher, and now, his induction into the Mets Hall of Fame.

Well before Franco threw his first pitch for his hometown team, the New York Daily News, his hometown paper, put him on the back page, a spot that had been the pre-Internet home page for Joe Willie, Willie, Willis and Whitey, Gump, Guerin and Guidry, Clyde and Clendenon, Mick and Munson, YA and LT, Duke, Doc and Joe D., Bathgate and Berra, Tummel and Tom Terrific. Franco reveled in his inclusion.

And any New Yorker who ever plunked down two pennies, or two bits, for a copy of the famed fish wrapper knows the back page of the tab often sells the paper. A wise man at a candy store in Brooklyn that day in early 1990 would have known enough to stack the papers with the back page showing.

The paper couldn't have known what Franco would provide for the Mets over the course of 14 subsequent summers. But a trade with the Reds completed some six weeks earlier had put Franco in charge of happy endings in Queens. The Mets still were the city's favored baseball franchise at the time. Their standing, his roots and his Cincinnati resumé made Franco a homecoming king.

And now, his baseball record complete and shimmering, he is to be enshrined in the Mets' Hall of Fame. The induction of the former reliever who holds franchise records for saves (276), appearances (695) and clubhouse pranks (1,001) comes Sunday night at Citi Field. Ceremonies and a plaque will make him Johnny on the wall in the Hall.

"When I was a kid, I used to root for the Mets,' Franco said on Wednesday. "I'd impersonate Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Tug [McGraw]. And now, I'm going to be on a wall with them. It'll be a great experience. Very humbling, I'm very proud."

Franco led the National League in saves three times, twice with the Mets; produced a 2.89 career ERA, and 2-0 record and 1.88 ERA in 15 postseason appearances, all with the Mets. He served as their captain for four seasons, and was a four-time All-Star. He wasn't a dominating closer, the likes of Dennis Eckersley or Mariano Rivera. Indeed, his candidacy for the national Hall of Fame lasted one year. But a history of the Mets would be woefully incomplete without multiple mentions of Franco's achievements.

The Mets have so honored 25 others, the appropriate players, managers, general managers and announcers from the times that produced World Series appearances in 1969, 1973 and 1986. Now, one year after induction of Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Davey Johnson and Frank Cashen, the club moves on to the next generation, starting with Franco -- the kid who made his mark in Brooklyn, pitching for the same high school as Sandy Koufax and Fred Wilpon, in Queens at Shea Stadium and St. John's, in the Bronx pitching in the World Series, on Staten Island where he bought a nicely appointed home and in Manhattan where he now lives.

Franco remains as New York as the Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square and alternate side parking. Mets teammates would kid another left-handed reliever, Dennis Cook, about his overwhelmingly Texas presence. Turk Wendell once accused Cook of being "One hundred and 25 percent Texan." Cook countered with "So what's that make Johnny, 300 percent New York?" Franco took it as an unqualified compliment.

He could have left the Mets as a free agent in 1995, 2000 or 2003 -- the Phillies pursued him and offered more money to pitch in Centre City in 1995 -- but his heart was tethered to NYC. A hometown discount was all but understood in contract negotiations. Come Sunday he will have a permanent place in the Big Citi.

* * * *

Franco's tenure with the Mets was filled with images, not the least of which were his wearing an orange, New York City Department of Sanitation T-shirt under his uniform as a salute to his late father, and his carrying his father's badge, No. 4447, in his shaving kit. Moreover, there are images of him leaving the bullpen in right field at Shea with Chuck Berry's "Johnny B Goode" blaring, and him celebrating his 400th career save at Shea the night of April 14, 1999.

Not to be overlooked was Franco's clever stunt in Spring Training of 1992. He had the batting practice pitching screen dragged into the clubhouse and placed in front of the locker of black and blue Wally Whitehurst, the pitcher who took more hits to the body than the Bum of the Month president.

And there was John in almost every Spring Training camp, setting up some naïve rookie or pizza delivery boy -- he got Robert Klein and Jay Leno at Shea -- promising to lift three adults, their arms and legs interlocked as they lay side by side, off the clubhouse floor. The gullible mark of the Three-Man Lift was immobilized in the middle and about to be doused by a concoction of unimaginable ingredients.

There also was John, lamenting his fate on an evening in early July 1999 and again two months later. Still the Mets' closer on July 2, he was summoned to pitch the ninth inning against the Braves with the team trailing 12-0. He sprained the flexor tendon in the middle finger of his left hand. And just how is a kid from Brooklyn supposed to communicate with that digit damaged?

The injury cost Franco two months and his treasured role on the team. In the interim, Mets manager Bobby Valentine assigned the closer role permanently to Armando Benitez. Franco saved just eight more games in two seasons-plus of active duty with the Mets. He missed all of 2003 after elbow surgery.

Who can forget Franco's final-out strikeout -- a called strike on the inside corner -- of Barry Bonds in the 10th inning of Game 2 of the 2000 NLDS? He struck out Bonds in the ninth inning of Game 3 as well.

And there was Franco, generously deferring to Mike Piazza in May 1998 when the Mets acquired the catcher/slugger. Franco gave his No. 31 -- it had been his number with the Reds and Mets for 15 years -- to Piazza and changed to No. 45, the number of his primary hero, McGraw.

There was the night in St. Louis when a postgame clubhouse visitor suggested the club confiscate his belt. Franco had pitched well enough to save the game, but a broken-bat grounder by Milt Thompson beat him when the head of Thompson's bat and the batted ball followed parallel paths toward first baseman Dave Magadan, and no play could be made safely.

Franco never was among the more fortunate pitchers. Hitters often made partial contact with his dead-fish pitches and hit unplayable ground balls. How often did he say "I'd rather get beat by a line drive."

It was during those postmortem occasions that Franco was at his most candid and insightful. He wasn't self-deprecating so much as he was sincere and sorry. And when he gave it up big time, he exhausted his supply of mea culpas. He was crushed after he allowed a grand slam to Brian Jordan in a loss to the Braves late in 2001 that, for all practical purposes, ended the Mets' faint chances of catching the division leaders. He said he was sick to his stomach.

But Franco also was adept at turning the page. His playful clubhouse behavior taught his younger colleagues how best to handle adversity. A loss one night might be followed the next afternoon by Franco squirting two rookies with a water gun from a hidden location.

He was the clubhouse leader, the guy who playfully reminded reporters that the clubhouse soon would be closed to outsiders with a loud "All right. Get the hell out," the guy who chose the theme for the rookies' dress-up road trip, the guy who set up Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isringhausen in Chicago in 1995. They were "arrested" by real cops the day after, at Franco's direction, they had painted parts of a public statue of stallion, the parts that distinguished it as stallion, to satisfy a fabricated initiation requirement.

On occasion, Franco dropped his guard. In no other setting as a Met was he more revealing than the day before the 2000 World Series. Standing before his locker in the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, he allowed emotions he routinely concealed to gush.

"For a kid from Brooklyn and a Mets fan to be here in this place ..." he said, not needing to complete the thought. "My family ... we're all so excited. We haven't had one of these [a New York-New York World Series] in 44 years. I know how great this is for the city. I'm thrilled I'm finally in a World Series, and it's one that's special even before the first pitch."

He was the winning pitcher in Game 2, the Mets' lone victory of the Series.

When the team returned to Shea the following April, Franco found a black, leather recliner and ottoman in front of his locker -- Seaver's locker for those with good memories. Charlie Samuels, the clubhouse manager, had given it to him for no other reason than "Johnny deserves it."

It was a comfortable fit for a 41-year-old veteran. Lenny Harris called it "Johnny's throne" and determined no one else had the right to sit in it.

New York Mets, John Franco