Later, around 3 p.m., on his way to Shea, Franco stops by to watch the Lafayette varsity, of which he is the unofficial pitching coach, warm up for a game against John Jay High. Franco, wearing a suit now, signs autographs and shakes familiar hands. Old Sam the umpire waddles up to say hello.
"You nearly gave me a heart attack at the game last night," Sam says of Wednesday's narrow victory over the Mets. "How you been, John?"
"You blind bat," says Franco with a smile. "How many fingers I got up?"
"I made you," says Sam. "Don't forget that."
"I remember the closer it got to 5:30, the bigger home plate would get," Franco says. "Everything was a strike. You had to get home for the spaghetti."
Sam is beaming now. "You remember," he says.
Stoppers make their living on a high wire. They can either tumble to a loss or, at best, walk the tightrope to a save. A win means that they blew the lead they were supposed to protect. The job has driven talented pitchers with only the least bit of Hamlet in them to misery. "You don't judge a stopper by his eyes, because they'll fool you," says the Reds' 42-year-old Kent Tekulve, a former stopper who now sets up for Franco and whose 1,026 relief appearances are a major league record. "And you don't look at his stats either, because they're going to change. You look at how he handles himself in the hard times. John's always the same pitcher. He doesn't lose his confidence, and he doesn't stray from what's made him good. The tighter it gets, the tougher he goes."
As a senior at Lafayette in 1978, Franco went 14-1 and averaged 17 K's a game. But because he was 5'7" and 140 pounds, no pro team drafted him. So he accepted a baseball scholarship to St. John's. Frank Viola, who won the American League Cy Young Award last year as a Minnesota Twin, pitched for St. John's then, and he and Franco were considered an interchangeable pair of aces. Viola was the gangly control pitcher from the Long Island suburbs. Franco the sawed-off fireballer from the city. "John was tough, hard nosed—a street-wise kid from Brooklyn," Red men coach Joe Russo recalls. "He'd kill you for a win."
The Los Angeles Dodgers picked Franco in the fifth round of the June '81 draft. It was a dream come true for Jim Franco, Johnny's dad: his boy, following in the footsteps of another Lafayette lefthander, Sandy Koufax. In fact, Koufax, an instructor in the minors for L.A., helped to leach Franco the changeup after he signed with the team. But the dream lasted only two years. In May 1983, the Dodgers dealt pitcher Brett Wise to the Reds for infielder Rafael Landestoy. They threw Franco, a minor leaguer, into the trade.
By '84 Franco was in the Reds' big league bullpen. Growing up, he had dreamed of being driven in the goofy oversized golfcart from the bullpen to the mound at Shea, like his idol, Mets reliever Tug McGraw. That season he got his wish while pitching for the Reds at Shea. "Getting in that cart was the worst thing I could have done," Franco says. "All the way down the leftfield line I had beer thrown at me, I had pennies thrown at me, I got called every kind of name you could think of. I felt like saying, 'Hey, I'm from New York!' But I had that different uniform on."