O CAPTAIN, MY CAPTAIN
You’d probably have to go back to Lou Gehrig‘s “luckiest man” speech in 1939 to find a New York baseball moment as poignant as John Franco‘s May 9 press conference at Shea Stadium, when he broke down in tears relaying his 10-year-old son J.J.‘s “Was it my fault because we played catch yesterday?” reaction to the news that tendon and ligament damage to his left elbow officially wipes out hopes he had of returning to the Met bullpen this year—and, quite possibly, for good. The kind of surgery Franco needs, if he does indeed decide to go that route, would keep him out of competition for at least a full year, by which time he’d be close to 43. It’s not exactly an optimistic scenario.
Still, beating the odds is something Franco’s been very good at throughout his life. Between his size (the Mets list him at 5-10, and that’s probably with cleats on) and the fact that his out pitch is a dead-fish screwball, the Brooklyn native was given little chance to make it as a pro when he graduated from St. John’s in 1981. He was drafted by the Dodgers mainly on the recommendation of local scouts Steve Lembo and Dick Teed, who saw his grit and heart as bigger assets than his arm. Seventeen major-league seasons, 998 regular-season relief appearances (fifth all-time), and 422 saves (second behind Lee Smith‘s 478) later, you’d have to say they were correct.
If indeed we don’t see the Met captain on the field again, flashing his trademark “Yeah, right” smile/smirk at an umpire’s ball call on a close pitch, we’ll always carry the image of Franco striking out Barry Bonds—looking—with an all-guts inside fastball to end Game Two of the 2000 divisional playoffs, as well as memories of his four scoreless appearances against the Yankees in the Subway Series, in which he became the oldest pitcher since 1933 to win a World Series game. We said it then and we’ll say it now: Had the other Mets followed his proud, intense-but-not-tense lead, they might have won that Fall Classic.
SHOWING HIS GUTS
This week’s “Who Cares If He’s Back?” Award (a/k/a “the Tyson“) goes to Sterling Hitchcock, the befuddled Yankee who finally rejoined the team after opening the season on the DL. A starter in name (and $6 million paycheck) only, he tossed so poorly during a Triple-A rehab stint that he’s been relegated to the bullpen. (“I’m not going to make waves and throw my ego around,” promised Hitch. Whew! We got scared there.) Subbing instead for an injured Andy Pettitte is 26-year-old Theodore Roosevelt “Ted” Lilly. Two years ago, in exchange for fat toad Hideki Irabu (magically transformed into a closer these days—who knew?), New York received the diminutive Lilly, listed at 6 feet tall (but more like 5-10, we hear). The southpaw’s herky-jerky crossfire delivery—he seems to head for first base while throwing to home—baffles many a batter, as the mighty A-Rod attests: “He kind of lulls you to sleep, and then the ball explodes out of his hand.”
Speaking of herky-jerky deliveries, Lilly has twice lost his lunch after attempting Roger Clemens‘s notoriously fierce workout routine (which, for a pitcher, gives new meaning to the word hurling). Equally stomach-churning for his teammates is Lilly’s lack of control. In 2001, he pulled off a six-inning shutout . . . while lobbing eight walks and three wild pitches. He one-hit Seattle last month for eight frames, yet repeatedly bounced balls in the dirt and missed the strike zone by feet. Still, in Joe Torre‘s words, “He’s done a hell of a job”: The youngster packs a 2.90 ERA and 0.84 WHIP (walks plus hits, divided by innings pitched)—the lowest of any Yank—with opponents tapping a paltry .156 against him. Despite his 0-3 record (and delicate constitution), little Lilly’s proving he has the guts to be a starter.
Either Fred Wilpon is cheap or he hires people who couldn’t plan a dinner for two. No other possibility exists after the events of a recent Sunday at KeySpan Park. More than 2500 fans showed up in Coney Island when single-game tickets went on sale, and Wilpon’s Brooklyn Cyclones weren’t ready. Those who arrived when the ticket windows opened at 9 a.m. were still in line nine hours later. Brighton Beachers wandering by must have recalled breadlines during bitter Russian winters.
While everyone went home with tickets, a wait that even Vladimir and Estragon would not have tolerated had an obvious cause. Last year, the Cyclones sold out every contest, and scalpers thronged Surf Avenue before games. Nevertheless, Wilpon, or his people, decided that only four ticket windows would be enough to handle the rush. Free donuts and hot chocolate were welcome but proved that someone had expected a big turnout.
A halfhearted, late-afternoon dispersal of seat cushions, towels, and team pictures (i.e., last year’s promo leftovers) left many in line claiming they’d be rooting for the opposition if they did get tickets. Apparently, a team’s most devoted fans deserve to be treated no better than peasants. What’s wrong, Fred? Couldn’t you afford a half-dozen extra computer terminals, if only for a day?
Contributors: Billy Altman, J. Yeh, Dean Chadwin Sports Editor: Ward Harkavy
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 14, 2002