As a rookie with the Reds in 1984 John Franco watched how closers Tom Hume and Ted Power never seemed to change their demeanor, whether they saved a game or lost it. Still, when his time came to close games, Franco, flush with the raw emotions of youth, "busted up my share of locker rooms in my early years." The more games he saved, though, the more Franco learned that those failures would be temporary. He learned, too, how to act like a closer. There was a certain way you had to stand and walk and carry yourself on the mound so that every bit of body language announced to the hitter, "I am supremely confident!"—especially during those times when Franco knew in his gut that it was a lie. Hitters are like dogs, he figured, who can sniff the slightest bit of fear in a person. If he thought his face gave off a faint hint of doubt, Franco would walk down the back of the mound and keep his back to home plate until, like an actor finding the soul of his character, he had fixed the most cocksure look he could muster.
"Never, ever let them see you sweat," Franco says. That is the motto that has helped Franco, a 5'10" sinkerballer who couldn't make it as a starter because he would tire by the fifth or sixth inning, to 421 saves. That is also another bit of advice he has passed on to Benitez.
The education of Benitez continues, though Franco knows his successor as the Mets' closer must figure out for himself how to handle the bad nights as well as the good. Even Franco, in his last years as the Mets' closer, struggled sometimes with this core truth. As he drove from Shea Stadium to his Staten Island home after blowing a game, Franco would tune his car's radio to the sports talk show station. He would listen to fans call in with pronouncements that Franco was finished. He was torturing himself. "I'd get so angry I'd want to drive off the Verrazano Bridge," he says. "It's bad enough that the game stays in your mind. Then you hear this stuff on the radio and think, Hey, so-and-so from Stony Brook, what the hell does he do for a living? What does he know?"
These days, as Franco drives over the Verrazano Bridge in the late hours of the night, he doesn't think about busting through a guardrail. The radio is off. He pops in a CD of The Three Tenors or, perhaps, Andrea Bocelli. He has moved on to soothing music. He is a setup man now. The ninth inning, and all of its good and all of its bad, belongs to Benitez.
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