One of the most successful — and durable — relief pitchers in the game, John Franco is often overlooked as one of the best closers of all time. After all, Franco has never been the most dominant closer of his era. He broke into the majors when Dan Quisenberry and Bruce Sutter were at their prime. When he was a power pitcher, other relievers threw harder. His career high of 39 saves for the Cincinnati Reds in 1989 was eclipsed the same year by Dennis Eckersley‘s total of 45. While with Cincinnati, he became their all-time saves leader, but the Reds went to the World Series after trading him to the Mets.
Franco’s career save totals are exceeded only by those of Lee Smith. After 16 seasons, his career ERA stands at 2.64 — nearly half a run better than Smith’s. Franco hasbeen among the best closers in the league for longer than anybody else, and consistent excellence is a quiet greatness.
Franco broke in with the Cincinnati Reds in 1984 and spent two years as the left-handed setup man for Ted Power, winning eighteen games and saving sixteen while losing only five. After inheriting Power’s job in 1986, Franco saved 132 games in his four years as the full-time closer for the Reds, relying on a hard fastball and a nasty slider. He posted a career-best ERA of 1.57 in 1988 while leading the league with 39 saves.
In a swap of two of the league’s best closers, Franco was traded to the New York Mets after the 1989 season for Randy Myers. Although Myers was younger and threw harder, Mets fans were immediately drawn to Franco, who was born in Brooklyn and had graduated from Lafayette High School. Fellow alumni include Sandy Koufax and New York Mets president Fred Wilpon.
With the Mets, Franco’s fierce competitiveness and vocal enthusiasm made him a team leader and fan favorite. Shea Stadium deejays played Chuck Berry’s “Johnny Be Good” as he trotted in from the bullpen. Franco began tending a tomato garden behind the outfield fence. When Mike Piazza was acquired from the Florida Marlins during the 1998 season, Franco gave up his beloved number 31 as a show of goodwill towards his new teammate.
Franco saved 63 games in his first two years with the Mets, leading the league with 33 saves in 1990. Injuries cut short his next two years, but in 1994 he regained his form and saved 30 games. When his fastball cooled with age, Franco developed a changeup, and instead of trying to blow hitters away, he began tempting them with pitches outside the strike zone and coaxing ground balls with sinkers. Franco saved 36 games in 1997, and in 1998 he broke Tom Seaver‘s franchise record for games pitched; the other major franchise record he holds is, of course, for games saved.
Franco’s greatest personal achievement came at Shea Stadium on April 14, 1999, when he closed out the Florida Marlins in the ninth, striking out Jorge Fabregas to become only the second player in major league history to reach 400 career saves. Later that season, Franco achieved another milestone by making it to the playoffs for the first time in his career.
Franco’s achievements in 1999 tempered some of the bitterness left by a career-threatening finger injury on July 2 that kept him out until September 4. When he returned, Franco had lost his closer’s job to young, hard-throwing Armando Benitez.
Franco was not entirely happy with his new role, and speculation ran rampant around the Mets organization that during the offseason he would demand a trade to Baltimore or Philadelphia in order to have a shot at catching Smith on the all-time saves list. But the Brooklyn native eventually decided against it. “I’m just going to stay around and do whatever they want me to do,” he told the Newark Star-Ledger.
Franco grew up in a Bensonhurst housing project idolizing Tug McGraw, the jovial Mets lefty who led the team’s drive to the pennant in 1973. He honors his father Jim, a sanitation engineer who died of a heart attack in 1996, by wearing a bright orange Sanitation Department t-shirt underneath his jersey.