Retired Mets Pitcher John Franco

John Franco’s Major League Baseball pitching career spanned more than two decades and 35 different stadiums in the United States and Japan, yet a certain piece of him has never left the New York mounds he threw from as a  child and a young adult. As a fan of the Mets at a young age, Franco understands the distinct passion of New York fans, and the extra edge possessed by baseball players in the five boroughs. Since his retirement in 2005, the  longtime Mets closer has been instrumental in helping to cultivate homegrown baseball talent here in the Big Apple.
Franco knows that with the rigors of competing in baseball in New York City, some high school players can slip through the cracks and go unnoticed by scouts and college coaches. With this in mind, he has helped to establish  several organizations to increase exposure and better train young baseball players across all five boroughs.
In his time as a Staten Island resident, he helped to create and then coached in the Richmond County Baseball Club, where his son, J.J., now a minor league second baseman in the Atlanta Braves organization, played as a  teenager. Franco also had a hand in the genesis of the NYC All Star Sports Group and the NYC Varsity League, two organizations that provide supplemental instruction to young baseball players and give them an opportunity to  play in major and minor league fields in the city.
Franco earned 422 saves, the most by any left-handed pitcher in Major League history. Although he feels that his career could have been even better at times, he is satisfied with the effort and professionalism he took to the mound  every day. Now in his mid-50’s, Franco still has the same enthusiasm for the game of baseball that he had as a youthful Little League player in Brooklyn, where a field is named for his deceased father, Jim. In a cozy corner of a city  restaurant, Franco talked about his mission to pitch in and help young local baseball players improve their skills, and shared anecdotes on some highs and lows from his playing years, with Living in Staten Island.

LISI: How are you enjoying retired life in Manhattan? Has it been different from living in Staten Island?
JF: Since I retired, living in Manhattan has been a joy. Not to say that I didn’t enjoy Staten Island, because I did enjoy it, but as I got older and my two older kids went to college and out on their own, there was no more need for a big house and a big property.

LISI: Did you pitch in any memorable games in Staten Island in high school or college?
JF: I remember pitching against Wagner. One thing about Staten Island is that they’ve always had some great baseball programs, all the way from Little League to college.

LISI:  How many baseball programs did you compete in as a youth?
JF: I did them all. Back then, it was a great time and great for baseball. One of the fields in Brooklyn is named after my father, who has passed away. My father was a member there in the PAL (Police Athletic League) and Little  League. His name has been up there since the late 80s, early 90s.

LISI: How long did you live in Todt Hill? How much were you involved in the neighborhood there?
JF: We were there from 1991 to 2005. In between, we lived in the city for a year and a half. My wife Rose and I were the co-chairs of the March of Dimes and raised close to $3 million for the events that we held out there. My son  played CYO basketball, Staten Island Little League, and played for Richmond County Cardinals, which I helped develop the fields there with Nick DeFendis and George Quinn, who run it now.

LISI: What was your role in developing the field?
JF: There was a vacant lot, and Nick had a vision to open up some fields there. I helped aPhoto: Gary Perone - Former Mets pitcher John Franco throws out the ceremonial first pitch and then greets Derek Jeter before the game at Citi Field, May 2014. little bit and right now it’s one of the better facilities in Staten Island. I also coached. When I retired I coached the 14 and 15-year-old’s travel  team. Most of the kids I had known for a few years, and once I retired I wanted to be around to teach and help develop some of them. We had some good teams, and the kids did really well. It was a good quality time with my son  and the others. I had a blast.

LISI: You’ve spent almost all of your life in New York City. What do you enjoy about living here that has kept you here and engaged in the baseball community?
JF: You try not to forget your roots. Sometimes when people are successful they forget where they came from. Growing up and playing Little League, high school and college here, you could just see how the communities and the  organizations and the people love baseball here. I always felt that if I ever got a chance to give back, that’s what I would do. I’m going to continue to keep giving back. I’m just a regular guy who had a good talent. I try to keep  well-grounded.
Sometimes it’s hard, but playing here, living here, playing for the team you rooted for growing up, playing in the World Series, it’s a great story.

LISI: What makes New York baseball fans different from fans in other cities?Photo: Gary Perone - Franco with NYC baseball legends Lee Mazzilli and Willie Randolph.
JF: Oh, their passion, their knowledge of the game. They want their teams to win so badly. They’re very knowledgeable, and they’re very supportive. On the flip side, it could be difficult at times too. You have to have some thick skin  to play here.

LISI: How did you learn to develop a thick skin while you played for the Mets?
JF: It’s hard. Especially as a relief pitcher, you have to be able to turn the page quite a bit. Some guys could handle it, some couldn’t. If you’re honest with the media and writers and sports shows, then you’re fine. If you’re not, then  they’re going to rail you a little bit.

LISI: You recently spoke at the NYC Baseball Summit and helped institute the NYC Varsity League and the All Star Sports Group. What sparked that idea?
JF: Three of us formed the NYC All Star Sports Group – myself, Gary Perone, who works for the Brooklyn Cyclones, and Craig Carton from WFAN sports radio. We saw that these fields in Battery Park don’t get used a lot in the  summertime, so we decided to form this organization. We did our first baseball Borough Cup last year. We had 150 teams and 3,000 kids participate across all five boroughs. The winning games for 9, 10, and 11-year-olds played  at MCU Park, the Cyclones Stadium, and the older ones played the championship games at Yankee Stadium. We had a lot of support. Even the borough presidents got involved. Now we’re hoping that some sponsorships come  on board and help out.

LISI: What makes the group unique?
JF: It’s never been done before. We felt that a lot of our organizations in and out of the city, they go to other states like North Carolina and South Carolina to play in these tournaments. Why not have one here? This year we are  doing it again. The Mets were very nice to give us Citi Field and the Yankees again to give us Yankee Stadium. As far as the Varsity League, that’s something we started four years ago with Gary. It’s like a replica of the Arizona  Fall League. We try to get all of the top high school players to come do a six-week program where we have current and former minor leaguers and former big leaguers come and give fundamental instructions.
The kids break up into teams and play a game against each other. We get professional scouts and college coaches to come and talk, and also watch some of these kids they might not have seen in some of the boroughs. It’s great  for a college coach to come see these kids play, too. Some kids have gone onto colleges from the program that we’ve done, and it’s been very successful. MLB [Major League Baseball] has been behind us on that. The one  problem with it is that it’s hard to get some of the top two-sport athletes because this is during football season, but we’ve been getting some good players.

LISI: What is the ultimate goal for the organization?
JF: To get it to run itself, so every September or October you know that you have a six-week program coming and that the kids who want to attend it are going to get some good teaching and good exposure. If we can get a kid into  college when he didn’t have a chance before, then we’ve done a pretty good job.

LISI: Your son J.J. just completed his first year in the minors. What advice did you give him when he signed with the Atlanta Braves?
JF: He just played in the Gulf Coast League with the Braves. He did very well. He had 105 at-bats. When you’re a low draft pick, you have to wait your turn and take advantage of the opportunities. The only thing I told him when he  was in Little League, all the way through the pros, was to play hard, try to be the first one on the field and the first one off the field, and when you don’t get three hits when you’re hitting, make three great plays in the field and help  your team win. He’s a hard worker. I’ve very proud of him. All we wanted was an opportunity, and the Braves game him one and he made the best of it. He hit .347 and didn’t make an error playing second base. I used to hit him  200 ground balls a day when he came to spring training as a 9-year-old. I made him little bets, like if I got 10 balls by him, he’d get no ice cream that night. Before I knew it, we were down to nine balls, then eight, and then none. He  was diving all over the place. Right now he’s in Brooklyn hitting at his high school. Next I’m going to start throwing him some batting practice. I have to move the screen up to about 30 feet. I can’t reach him anymore. (Laughs.)

LISI: J.J. was drafted by the Mets in 2010, but he chose to attend Brown University instead. Did you have any advice for him when he made that call?
JF: That was his decision. It was best for him to go to college and get an education. Only 5 percent of people make it in baseball. To get an Ivy League education and to play Ivy League baseball was the right move for him. He  went to Brown and was a four-year starter. He got an economics degree.

LISI: Was that a difficult choice for him? It could have almost been storybook, for him to play for the Mets.
JF: I don’t think so. It was an easy choice. It was great to be drafted but it probably benefitted him to go to school to get bigger and stronger. The one thing we told him was as long as you get your degree, pursue your baseball  career as long as you want. This is important to have it.

LISI: Would you ever be spotted wearing a Braves hat to support him?
JF: Sure.

LISI: What do your other children do?
JF: My older daughter Nicole works in public relations. My younger one, Ella, does dance five days a week, she does soccer, basketball and softball. She’s a good student. One thing about all of my kids, they are good students. I  give my wife Rose a lot of credit. And I give a lot of the baseball wives credit. They’re like single parents during baseball season, and it’s hard. She really made sure that the kids hit those books. I see the way she’s doing it with my  last one now and I’m sure she did it with the first two.

LISI: You’re tapped to be guest instructor for the Mets during Spring Training. What will your role be there?
JF: I got invited to go down. I’ll probably watch the young pitching. I’ll help them any way I can, from showing them grips of my change-up to talking to the pitching coach, or talking to them about mentally preparing themselves for  certain situations.

LISI: Would you like to have a career in coaching at the major league level?
JF: If the right opportunity came along, yes.

LISI: Would you only want to coach with the Mets, or would you be open to going somewhere else?
JF: I would love to stay at home, that’s for sure. But if the right opportunity came along and it seemed right, why not give it a shot?

LISI: Did you ever consider a career in television or radio?
JF: I did some TV for SNY for pre- and post-game stuff. Last year I did about 10 games on radio. I enjoyed it. I’d never say No, if the right opportunity came along. I’d definitely consider it.

LISI: Does broadcasting the games make you miss playing even more?
JF: I miss competing. I love to compete, don’t like to lose. I miss the camaraderie. I don’t miss the travel. But being in the booth and talking about is a lot easier than being on the field.

LISI: How involved have you been with the Mets since you retired?
JF: This will be my fourth or fifth year coming up as their club ambassador. I haven’t done much baseball stuff with them, but I’ve done community service, corporate stuff, along with Edgardo Alfonzo, Tom Seaver and Dwight  Gooden. We do 20, 24 appearances during the season to represent the team during different functions or charities.

LISI: What did you enjoy the most about your career with the Mets?
JF: Obviously, playing for the team I grew up rooting for. Tug McGraw was one of my favorite players growing up and he had jersey number 45, and that’s why I switched my number from 31 to 45 when Mike [Piazza] came over. I  got to meet Tom Seaver and sit down with him when he was an instructor in camp. I was having difficulty with my slider and he showed me his slider grip. I remember Sandy Koufax, who was a good friend of Fred Wilpon, coming  in and talking pitching. I was almost like a kid at a campfire listening to those guys.

LISI: When you were traded to the Mets, did you envision having the sustained success that you did?
JF: I never envisioned playing for 15 years for the Mets. I was a free agent a couple of times. I had a chance to leave but I decided not to. It was a good run. Some tough years, losing years, but it was a lot of fun. When we won in  1999, 2000, it was crazy inside of the stadium. On Staten Island, when we went to the World Series, one of my neighbors put up a big sign that said, ‘Congratulations John Franco and the Mets. Good luck in the World Series.’ It  was like a billboard. All throughout the city, it was great.

LISI: Who was the hardest hitter or two for you to get out?
JF: Tony Gwynn, obviously. I saw a statistic, I think it was myself, [Tom] Glavine, [Greg] Maddux and two other guys that Gwynn had the highest average against. So I was in pretty good company. (Laughs.) One guy who used to get  me good was Glenallen Hill. He was a pinch-hitter, righthanded hitter. He used to hit quite a few home-runs off me.

LISI: What was your biggest thrill in the majors?
JF: I have quite a few of them. The top of the list was probably the strikeouts of Barry Bonds in the 2000 playoffs. I caught him looking and then two days later I struck him out swinging. And getting to the World Series too. There are  so many great memories. It’s hard to pick just one.

LISI: What was your biggest disappointment?
JF: In 1999, the National League Championship Series game 6 against Atlanta that we were down big but came back and lost late. I was setting up for Armando [Benitez] and I gave up the lead in the eighth inning. Then we got the  lead again and Armando gave up the lead. That was disappointing. I pitched 17 years before I even got into the playoffs. In my career, not winning a World Series was disappointing.

LISI: What manager or coach do you most admire or credit for your success?
JF: I think most of the managers I played for had a lot influence. Bobby Valentine was one. We had so many. Dave Wallace was probably one of the biggest influences on me.

LISI: How so?
JF: He was my first pitching coach in pro ball when I got drafted by the Dodgers. Then years later he was my pitching coach when I went to the World Series with the Mets. I’ll never forget a game in Vero Beach I was pitching. I had  struck out a bunch of guys in my previous game. We were playing against the Yankees’ minor league team. I wasn’t striking many guys out and I used a lot of body language and movement. He came out to the mound and gave  some choice words. I’ll never forget that. From that day on, I had so much respect for him for the way he came out there and put me in my place and told me to cut the BS. He helped me manage my emotions. I thought I had to  strike everybody out. Years later I finally realized if I could throw three pitches and get three line drives, that’s the best thing. Then when I got traded to Cincinnati, I had a minor league pitching instructor, Fredie Norman, who tinkered  with me a little bit and my change-up. Jim Kaat when I was on the Reds was influential too. When I got to the Mets, Mel Stottlemyre who I had a little bit was very good. I learned a lot from them.

LISI: You played into your mid-40s. What was it like to walk away from the game?
JF: As my wife said, they had to rip the uniform off of my back. I probably should have finished the 2004 season when I was with the Mets, but I felt that I had one more in me. You always feel you have one more. The Astros called  me (in 2005) and asked me if I wanted to come to Houston and I did. I started off there well but then I faded right at the All-Star break. I knew I was going to get released. I had my time.

LISI: Was that difficult for you?
JF: It’s hard for an athlete to walk away. In your mind you think you can do it, but your body is telling you that you can’t do it anymore. The effectiveness of my change-up wasn’t good. I was still throwing between 88 and 91 mph, but  it wasn’t biting. I couldn’t rebound quickly. In my younger days I could pitch five or six days in a row, whereas then maybe I could only have two days on and then needed a day off. When I had Tommy John Surgery in 2002, to  replace a ligament in my elbow, I had to come back from that. I didn’t want to go out on an injury.

LISI: Did you ever talk with Trevor Hoffman during your career? He was also known for his change-up.
JF: Yes. We had the same agent. I talked to him quite a bit. He had an unbelievable career and a great change-up also. He used to come out of that bullpen and they played the song “Hells Bells,” by AC/DC. It was great entry  music.

LISI: Did you have a song you came out to?
JF: No. I never did really pick one. The guy who was in charge of the scoreboard used to play “Johnny B. Goode” [Chuck Berry]. They came around in Spring Training and asked us what song we wanted when we came up to bat or  pitch, and I would tell them, ‘You pick it out.’

LISI: How honored were you to be placed in the St. John’s University Athletics Hall of Fame and Mets Halls of Fame?
JF: I had a great experience at St. John’s. We ruled the East back then. One of my big regrets was that I hurt my arm and didn’t get a chance to pitch in the College World Series. I think if I was healthy we’d have had a really good  chance to win that year. I’m totally honored to be in the St. John’s Hall of Fame, and especially humbled to be in the Mets Hall of Fame. I go into that room and I see Tom Seaver’s autograph, and Tommie Agee, Bud Harrelson, the  guys I grew up watching. Bob Murphy, I listened to him as a kid. And to be with some of my teammates, like Daryl Strawberry and Mike Piazza, it’s humbling.

LISI: What is a typical day like for you now?
JF: I’m up at 7 a.m. I make lunch for my daughter. I make breakfast with my daughter. I walk her to school every day, which I couldn’t always do with my first two because I was playing. I work out at least four or five days a week. We  have the baseball tournaments and my son and my daughter playing sports, so I keep busy that way. I’m enjoying taking a lot of trips that I wouldn’t have been able to before. I’ve been to Italy a couple of times. Rose still has family in  Italy. When I was released by the Astros, I said I’d give myself three weeks and if no one calls me by July 31, that’s it. The trade deadline came, no one called, and I went to Italy with my wife. While we were in Italy, I got a phone call  from a friend of mine who asked me if I’d like to be a pitching coach for the Italian team in the first World  Baseball Classic. How ironic was that? I had so much fun doing it. About three years later I got offered to be the pitching  coach again, but I decided not to because I was retired and I wanted a chance to watch my son play.

LISI: Do you ever think about being left off of the National Baseball Hall of Fame ballot after your first year? Did you think you deserved at least 5 percent of the vote to have another chance?
JF: Well, it’s disappointing. The Hall of Fame is supposed to be for numbers. The relievers that are in there, their numbers are good. My numbers are just as good as theirs. The only lefties with over 400 saves are me and Billy  Wagner. But you can’t control things you have no control over. Some of the writers felt that the save statistic is probably not what it should be. The guys that are in there, the [Goose] Gossage, [Bruce] Sutter, [Dennis] Eckersley,  pitched in a different era when they had to go three innings. It’s disappointing, but who knows, maybe one day. I got something like 4.8 percent of the vote, so I’m off the ballot. The veteran’s committee can vote me in later on. But  who knows, I might not be here for that. But I’m in the St. John’s Hall of Fame and the Mets Hall of Fame. I had a real good career. I wish it could have been better at times, but I’ve not nothing to be ashamed of. That’s what I try to  tell my son. Don’t look in the mirror and say, ‘If I would have played a little harder, I would have had this happen.’ I gave it my all. I gave 150 percent.

Favorite Movies: The Godfather and Brian’s Song
Favorite Restaurants: Trattoria Romana and Bocelli
Favorite Band: Bon Jovi
Pet Peeve: Lack of hustle
Three People You’d Like to Dine with Pitcher Sandy Koufax, my dad Jim, and God.

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21 Sep 2016

By Paul Williams