Johnny Franco came home last week. A dozen or so of his nearest, dearest and most leather-lunged paesans from the neighborhood stopped by the apartment on Thursday morning to tell old stories and clean out the fridge. Johnny and his wife, Rose, live on the middle floor of a three-story redbrick house on Bay 46th Street in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. Behind the building sits Lafayette High, where Johnny used to own home plate when he pitched for the Redmen. A block away, on the other side of the elevated subway tracks, is the Marlboro Housing Project, where he grew up. Around him, everywhere, are people who knew Franco then and know him now. They say he hasn't changed a bit.
A few dozen folks from the neighborhood had been in the stands at Shea Stadium the night before, compliments of Franco, when he pitched a scoreless ninth inning for the Cincinnati Reds to nail down a 6-4 win over the Mets and claim his ninth save of the season. In Cincinnati three days later, against the Phillies, he would earn his 10th save in 10 chances this year, continuing the success he enjoyed last season, when he converted 39 of 42 save opportunities, had a 1.57 ERA and was named National League Fireman of the Year. Mets manager Davey Johnson calls him "the most consistent reliever we've got in our league." Now in his sixth big league season, Franco, 28, is a stocky, 5'10" lefthander with a jaunty smile. He throws a 90-mph fastball and a change-up that breaks away from a righthanded batter like a screwball.
Franco makes more than $1 million a year as the Reds' stopper, yet he maintains his off-season home in Bensonhurst. "I could live anywhere, I've got the money," he says. "But when I walk out the door and walk around the block, everything reminds me of the good times and the bad times." Besides, it's easy for old friends to stop by when he's in town. In Franco's kitchen right now, Rudy Bilotti, a chef at a local restaurant, is talking about the physique of a well-known New York underworld capo. "The man has no neck," Bilotti says. "I got no neck either, but at least I can wear a chain. If he wants to wear a chain, he's got to wrap it around his forehead." Mike Abbate's younger brother, Anthony the cop, swaggers through the door. "Sure we're glad Johnny made it," he says, beer can in hand. "Now we drink for free."
Franco has shared his life with these guys. When he returned from his first season in the minor leagues, they threw a party and hung a sheet out a window at the Marlboro projects that read: WELCOME HOME JOHNNY! When he married Rose in 1987, they all put on tuxedos; when his daughter, Nicole, was born a year ago this month, they became instant uncles. And when the Mets' Darryl Strawberry beat Franco with a two-run homer last season, Johnny awoke the next day to find a a couple of boxes of strawberries on his doorstep. "He knows we made him," says his best friend, Carl Bordello, "and he knows we can break him, too."
Bordello, a self-proclaimed stickball legend, who works in a brokerage house, has a long history of keeping Franco in line. "If Johnny needed picking up, we'd kick him in the face," he says. "I remember once when he broke up with Rose, and we went right over to his place and found him sitting in his room in the dark, listening to Lionel Richie records. We threw the records out the window and pulled him by the hair and threw him out of the room." Johnny has known Rose since he was 17 and she was 15. She grew up on Avenue U, about 10 blocks from Franco's home, and they met at a disco, the Night Gallery on 86th Street, known to Franco and his friends as "the shooting gallery" because of all the lead that used to fly there.
At about noon on Thursday, Johnny and the group—including his older brother, Jimmy; his godson, Paulie McSherry; and his cousin John (Beanhead) Franco—leave the Francos' place and wander up Bay 46th to Stillwell Avenue. Stillwell is one of the main arteries of Bensonhurst, a mostly Italian neighborhood of 150,000 in the southeast corner of Brooklyn, two stops short of Coney Island on the B train. Bensonhurst brims with pizza joints, fruit stands, social clubs and squarish houses with wrought-iron fences out front and laundry drying out back. It was here that John Travolta cruised for dance partners in Saturday Night Fever and where Alice and Ralph Kramden, on The Honeymooners, lived.
The group crosses Stillwell to the Marlboro projects. The guys talk about the characters that lived in the projects, like Otto, who could bite golf balls in half and used to whack himself on the head with a billy club. They talk about the projects' old rules, like the $5 fine for running on the grass. They talk about Sam, the ice-cream man who used to come around in his truck until he was shot in the chest. And they recall the summer nights when their mothers would pull out lawn chairs, sip iced tea and jabber in Italian while the sun set.
Marlboro is made of up of 28 grimy buildings, separated by plots of dirt lightly whiskered with grass. Racially mixed, it's a flashpoint for tension between blacks and Italians. "It's a rough place," says Joe Gambuzza, Franco's coach at Lafayette. "Muggings, knifings, rapings. Sometimes you have to fight your way in. You grow up there, you grow up tough."
In one of Marlboro's greener patches, Franco, scraping the ground with one of his white Italian loafers, finds the plot of dirt they called a mound. When he and his buddies weren't playing ball—Wiffle, stick, saddle, slap, stoop, wall or paddle—their idea of a good time was to get in a darkened elevator and ride to the top of the building, blindly swinging away at one another. Then they would get out and compare bruises. Sometimes they would put on roller skates, wrap magazines around their forearms for padding and then, in a mock roller derby, wrap their forearms around one another's heads.
Franco and company ramble out of the projects and down Stillwell Avenue. They stop to pick up chicken parmigiana sandwiches at John's Deli and eat them from the top of a garbage dumpster. On their way home they stop by the high school and challenge the kids in one of Gambuzza's classes to a few innings of Softball.