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.
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."
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.
"I look at it this way: I don't want to forget where I grew up."