In '85, Franco went 12-3 with a 2.18 ERA as a setup man for another ex-Dodger, Ted Power. In '86, Franco became the stopper. He had 110 career saves when he turned 28 last September; only Lee Smith and Bruce Sutter had more at that age. He now has 126. Briskly efficient on the mound. Franco has developed a trick to keep his concentration sharp after a long wait to enter the game: He takes a whiff of an ammonia capsule before he walks onto the field to pitch.
Franco seems as comfortable facing a batter in the ninth inning of a 3-2 game as he is on Rose's white leather sofa in Bensonhurst. "You've got to learn to take the good with the bad and the bad with the good," he says. It's a simple approach that has helped him weather a hailstorm of good and bad in the past three years: his marriage to Rose, the death of his parents, the birth of Nicole. "I've been through a lot of life lately," Franco says.
His mother, Mary, used to scrub and wax the hallway of the seventh floor of Marlboro Building No. 5, where the family lived, even after the maintenance staff had cleaned it. She would stuff $20 bills in the diapers of her numerous godchildren for their parents to pluck out later. She was loving and tough, ladling out law and order to her two boys with a wooden sauce spoon.
"She and her best friend, Suzie Rossi, would play bingo four, five times a week at Most Precious Blood," Franco says. "When I got my driver's license, I was like the chauffeur, driving them to bingo. If the church didn't have it, I'd take them to Roll-A-Rama. If that didn't have it, Avenue P. They would always find bingo. Sometimes—my mom didn't want my father to know—she'd go in the afternoon and again at night. A double-header!"
Jim Franco was his son's counselor and friend. Before John made any decision, whether about baseball or school, love or money, he talked it over with his dad. Jim never missed a day of work at the city sanitation department or a ball game at Lafayette High. "My father was tough as a pit bull, and he taught me to play hard," says Franco. "But he was real conservative and kind of quiet. He was the only guy in the neighborhood who read the dictionary—twice."
On Valentine's Day 1986, Mary Franco died of cancer. She was 56. In order to be near his father, Johnny bought the house on Bay 46th where Jim and Mary had rented the top floor after they moved out of Marlboro in 1982. Aside from an '85 Buick Riviera, it was the first large purchase Johnny had ever made.
On Oct. 13, 1987, Jim—who was 59 and had never been sick a day in his life—suffered a fatal heart attack in the cab of his garbage truck. When someone at the morgue told Johnny that an autopsy would have to be performed because his father had been working for the city when he died, Johnny went so crazy that hospital security guards had to restrain him.
Johnny and Rose still live in the middle apartment of the house, renting out the top and bottom floors. During the season they live in an apartment in downtown Cincinnati, but the minute the season is over, they return to Bensonhurst. While he's playing, Franco carries with him, from ballpark to ballpark, a reminder of his folks. In a clear plastic jar in his locker, next to an unused box of batting gloves, are stones from their graves. "So their spirits will be with me," he says.
Johnny wants to live the rest of his life in Brooklyn. Rose would like to move to a bigger place, though, one with a yard for Nicole and a room where all his friends can hang out, away from her white leather sofa. He may consent, but they won't move far.
"That's why I'm a success," he says. "Because these guys back home, my family and everybody know what kind of person I am. No matter how much money I make, I'm not going to change.