By Mike Fitzpatrick
There's always been something about John Franco that made him the quintessential New Yorker.
Now, the feisty little lefty from Brooklyn is a member of the Mets' Hall of Fame.
Once an All-Star closer and New York Mets captain, Franco was inducted during a 35-minute ceremony at Citi Field before Sunday night's game against St. Louis. Wiping tears from his eyes at the podium behind second base, he thanked just about everyone he could think of and said pitching for his boyhood team was a dream come true.
"For those 14 years that I played here, I gave it my best," a smiling Franco told fans who arrived early for the festivities. "It wasn't always easy, and I'm sure I kept a lot of you on the edge of your seats. But I had it under control all the time."
Franco's family, friends and several former teammates from the Mets and nearby St. John's University were on hand for his big night. Dressed in a sharp suit and orange tie, he walked in from the right-field bullpen to the song "Johnny Be Good" and waved to the crowd. He was presented with his Hall of Fame plaque, to be displayed alongside the others inside Citi Field's main entrance.
The ceremony started with New York City Department of Sanitation bagpipers playing in left-center field. Franco's dad was a sanitation worker for nearly two decades and a union shop steward in Brooklyn.
In a touching tribute, the reliever wore his late father's orange Department of Sanitation T-shirt under his uniform when he pitched for the Mets, and he got choked up Sunday night when talking about his parents.
"The sanitation department was like my second family," Franco said.
His salute featured a 2-minute video tribute and concluded with Franco throwing out the first pitch to son J.J., who wore his father's No. 45 Mets jersey. J.J. Franco was drafted by the Mets out of high school and just completed his sophomore season as a college infielder at Brown.
"Second-team all-Ivy," his dad said proudly.
Franco is the Mets' career leader in saves (276) and games pitched (695). He joined the team in 1990 after a trade from Cincinnati and stayed in New York until 2004, making him the second-longest tenured player in team history, behind Ed Kranepool.
The four-time All-Star finished with 424 major league saves, fourth on the career list and the most by a left-hander.
"Great changeup," said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, who faced Franco during their playing days. "Great competitor."
Highlights of Franco's stint with the Mets include a World Series win and a 1.88 ERA in 15 postseason appearances. Twice he struck out home run king Barry Bonds in crucial situations during the 2000 NL playoffs, helping the Mets advance to a Subway Series won by the New York Yankees in five games.
One of only three captains in Mets history, Franco became the 26th member of the team's Hall of Fame, joining such luminaries as Casey Stengel, Gil Hodges, Ralph Kiner, Tom Seaver, Gary Carter and Tug McGraw — another lefty reliever with a bubbly personality who was Franco's favorite player as a kid.
"To be on the wall with those guys, it means an awful lot to me," said Franco, now a club ambassador with the Mets. "It's humbling. I'm very honored."
Some of those Hall of Famers were on the field for the ceremony, including ex-teammates Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry.
"You deserve this as much as anybody," former Mets lefty Al Leiter told Franco, who pitched at the same Brooklyn high school (Lafayette) as Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax and team owner Fred Wilpon.
Small for a pitcher at 5-foot-10, Franco was drafted in the fifth round by the Los Angeles Dodgers and beat the baseball odds to last 21 seasons in the majors. He did it with a crafty circle change and a fearless, fiery mindset on the mound.
"You can't judge a person by his size, but you could judge 'em by the heart he has. And I have always had a big heart. Every time I went out there I gave 150 percent. It wasn't pretty at times," Franco said, "but I was under control and I knew what I was doing. And I enjoyed every minute of it, through the good times and the bad times."
The surprising Mets are enjoying good times right now. Franco was in attendance with his son Friday night when Johan Santana pitched the franchise's first no-hitter and said it was "very, very satisfying" to see that.
"I think the fans are starting to believe a little bit," Franco said before the ceremony. "It seems like there's something special going on here."
When he stepped to the podium about two hours later, he told the crowd the same thing.
"The 2012 Mets, they remind me of the 2000 Mets. Nobody gave us a chance at the beginning of the season," Franco said. "This team right now, with the leadership of David Wright and (manager) Terry Collins, watch out for those guys."