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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Department of Franco

Not only do I root for a team that’s pitched a no-hitter in its life, but that team’s current iteration more or less seems to be in first place. It’s a three-way tie, and some percentage points don’t work in its immediate favor, but one-third of the season is complete and the New York Mets are more of a first-place team on June 4 than we ever would have dreamed on April 5.

They’ve certainly been playing like one, eh?

The only Met to win a World Series game in the past quarter-century had kind things to say about them before Sunday night’s demolition of the allegedly big-deal Cardinals. As part of the speech he delivered to mark his induction into the Mets Hall of Fame, John Franco compared the 2012 Mets to the 2000 Mets — said they’ve got spunk and guts and verve and panache…something like that.

I’m sure Franco picked 2000 as his point of reference because that was the year he pitched in his only World Series. I must admit as I listened to him from the Big Apple seats as part of the GKR extravaganza (Shake Shack served buffet-style; goody bags galore; G ‘n’ R themselves pressing the flesh; what a treat!), I was surprised by the comparison because, well, who compares anybody to the 2000 Mets?

That’s not a slam on a team I believe forged, when all was said and done, the third-best soup-to-nuts campaign in Mets history. Yet despite Franco’s assertion that the 2000 Mets were a scrappy bunch that nobody picked to win nothin’, they were coming off a playoff season, had just strung together three years of 88 wins or more and were certainly not written off in advance the way the 2012 Mets were.

But what the hell? If Franco wants to remember 2000 like it was 1969, 1984 or 1997, he’s earned the right, just like he earned the plaque that bears his image (which looks nothing like him, by the way). No way you could have a Mets Hall of Fame for very long without John Franco becoming one of its members. Sunday night’s ceremony on his behalf was as inevitable as it was touching.

John brought enough friends and family to field a softball league, which was a reminder of his most charming qualification for the august body which I remain thrilled exists in full. He’s from around here and he’s one of us. That might not have cut much ice when corners were being nibbled and counts were being run and our heartbeats were in greater need of monitoring than Jon Niese’s. Reconsidering Franco’s 14 seasons of razor’s edge relief reminded me that from 1990 to 2001 and again in 2003 and 2004, the three-word phrase I uttered most constantly during ballgames wasn’t “Let’s Go Mets,” and it wasn’t “You Gotta Believe.”

It was “come on, John,” and not in a particularly supportive tone of voice.

This is where I feel obligated to say something like, “Sure he drove us crazy, but in the end, he always came through.” That, however, would feel like a lie. John Franco came through a lot but not always. Not close to always. No way. A ton more saves than blown saves, to be sure, but plenty of ninth innings gone to hell. Plenty. I could look up how many, but that would be as pointless as pointing to all his saves. John Franco’s tenure as a save collector made me decide saves are the most overrated stat in baseball. Sometime by the late ’90s, I began to equate saves to extra points in football: somebody’s gonna get them eventually, but when you don’t get them, hoo-boy.

If this sounds harsh on the night a guy with indisputable Met longevity and genuine Met affection was given the greatest honor the Mets have to give (and again, I’m elated the Mets have resumed giving it, for maintaining an active hall of fame is what a self-secure baseball franchise does), it’s probably my dormant passive-aggressive relationship with Franco coming to the fore. All those years, amid all those saves, I didn’t hate Franco, but I can’t say I loved him. Thing that got to me was the Mets always seemed to be insisting we should, like there was a Department of Franco where we had to line up and get our papers stamped. John Franco got his 300th save — we’re having a day for him! John Franco got his 400th save — we’re having another day for him! Don’t you just want to lavish John Franco with prizes and praise?

I never much did, not until it got to the subject of his localness and his loyalty and the throat-lumping story of how he wore the orange Sanitation Dept. t-shirt underneath the uniform for his dad and how he clipped the Borden or Dairylea coupons because it was the only way he could afford to come to the games from Bensonhurst when he was a kid worshipping Tug McGraw, the guy whose 45 he borrowed when 31 was bestowed on Mike Piazza.

Then I was totally into John Franco, the best darn human interest story in town: the one who deserved to make the postseason at last in 1999; the one who deserved the W next to his name in the NLDS clincher against Arizona (after not having won a game of any kind since 1997); the one who secured a strain of Santana/Baxter-style eternal immunity by striking out Barry Bonds (called, of course) at a critical juncture of the 2000 NLDS; the one who is indeed the last winning World Series pitcher we have. Incidentally, the save that night, in Game Three against the Subway Series opposition, went to Armando Benitez, who was more dominant than Franco ever was as a Met closer and ten times more flammable on average.

By the early 2000s, John Franco was lovable without being hazardous (usually). He was as New York as it got for the New York Mets when the city and the team meant more together than maybe it ever did in the baseball aftermath of 9/11. You hated John Franco giving up a grand slam to Brian Jordan, but you didn’t hold it against him quite as much as you would have without benefit of the bigger picture of which he was clearly a vital part. You rooted for him to come back from Tommy John surgery. You wished he could have gone out in less ragged fashion than he did when Art Howe stashed him in the back of the bullpen for most of the second half of 2004. It was strange that Todd Zeile, he of being from everywhere, got a legitimate sendoff on the last day of his last season as a Met, but John Franco, 99.9% certain to be leaving that same day, was given a third of an inning and only half-hearted official acknowledgement that his time was up.

The Mets compensated for it Sunday night with the spiritual equivalent of a 500th or 600th or 10,000th save party. The extended Franco family was on hand. Lou Carnesecca was on hand. An array of Franco teammates from across the multiple Met eras he spanned was on hand: Doc and Darryl and Cone (who’d never come back for anything since his own 2003 comeback expired) from when Johnny arrived from Cincinnati; Jeff Innis and Bret Saberhagen from the period the Mets usually pretend didn’t exist at all; Leiter and Zeile and Fonzie from when there was a team good and/or scrappy enough to hoist Johnny on its shoulders and help him to the playoffs in the same sense that he was helping it get as far as it could.

John Franco can’t come out of the bullpen and torture us en route to saving us anymore, so it was all good for a special night. I was so exhilarated by his appreciation for making the Mets Hall of Fame that when I learned they were selling replicas of his Sanitation Dept. t-shirts (with FRANCO 45 on the back), I didn’t hesitate to snap one up.

He drove us plenty crazy in his day, but isn’t that what your own do to you sometimes?

5 comments to Department of Franco

  • Dandy Salderson

    My sentiments exactly. I didnt hate him, but I didnt love him the way the team insisted I should have… perfectly written.

  • Linda

    Nice write up. But i would have skipped the tee shirt.
    I have been to spring training several times and have some great memories.
    One not so great one, waiting for Franco after the Mets played the Braves in orlando. For some reason he was in a met uniform that day (maybe 4 years ago). After the game, I was the only fan standing by the fence dressed in full Met regalia. 40 minutes later he walked back into the dugout. I asked him for an autograph. He said “no” and waved me off.

  • […] his entire speech. It was cool to see Fonzy and Doc and Darryl again as well. Greg Prince remembers the Mets closer in much the same way I […]

  • Ed

    The funny thing about relievers is that i don’t think we have ever had a reliver that was a ‘lock’ for a save. Certainly Franco never made it easy but neither did Tug, Orosco, Benitez (pitching batting practice to Brian Jordan), Randy Myers (bouts of wildness/goffer balls), Cornejo (what a disaster), Looper (why?), and Franscisco Rodriguez (you want a piece of me?). Lets not forget Doug Sisk who was responsible for Davey Johnson owning stock in Rolaids. Sad to say but the injury frequent Billy Wagner probably was the most dominant closer we ever had. Just think how 2007 and maybe even 2008 might have played out if he had been healthy? Relieving is a tough business and I hate to say it on these pages but it makes you appreciate the guy across town even more – even if he only had to work one inning a game. I’m proud of Franco he is a worthy member of the Mets Hall of Fame. Congrats Johnny!

  • […] since 1974, this change of heart was rather surprising. It definitely went against the prevailing Department of Franco vibe that pervaded the Mets’ treatment of their hometown boy during his extended tenure with the […]