What a relief

Southpaw Franco one of the game’s most effective closers

December 15, 2010
John Franco is one of 33 players on the 2011 BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot. (National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

View a photo gallery of the 2011 BBWAA ballot

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – He is one of only five members of the 400-save club – the second reliever ever to reach that milestone.

Unlike his fellow 400-save club members, however, John Franco was no flame-throwing, ninth-inning intimidator. But armed with pinpoint control and the guts of a burglar, Franco crafted a legacy unmatched by almost all modern closers.

Franco, who played 21 big league seasons with the Mets, Reds and Astros as retired as the all-time saves leaders among left-handers, is one of 33 players on the 2011 Baseball Writers' Association of America ballot for the Class of 2011 at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Franco is making his debut on the BBWAA ballot.

BBWAA members who have at least 10 years of tenure with the organization can vote in the election, and the results will be announced Jan. 5. Any candidate who receives at least 75 percent of all BBWAA votes cast will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2011. The Induction Ceremony will be held July 24 in Cooperstown.

Born Sept. 17, 1960, in Brooklyn, N.Y., Franco attended St. John's University before being drafted by the Dodgers in the fifth round in 1981. In May of 1983, Franco went to the Reds in a trade for infielder Rafael Landestoy, and debuted in Cincinnati a year later as an effective lefty reliever. In 1985, Franco won 12 games and saved 12 more – and in 1986 he took over the job as the Reds' closer, saving 29 games while being named to the first of four All-Star Games.

"The skin has got to stay thick, like an alligator," Franco said of closing games. "It's got to. You really don't know how to describe it unless you're there on the other side."

Franco's thick skin paid off as the 5-10, 170-pounder repeatedly set down baseball's most powerful hitters. From 1986-89, Franco averaged 33 saves a season for the Reds while posting an ERA higher than 2.94 just once.

But following the 1989 season, the Reds and Mets swapped closers – with Franco headed to New York in exchange for Randy Myers. With his hometown team, Franco picked up where he left off in Cincinnati – averaging better than 27 saves a year for nine seasons, including injury-shortened seasons in 1992 and 1993.

Starting in 2000, Franco moved into the role as a setup man, missing the 2002 season following elbow surgery. He returned to the Mets in 2003 and 2004, then closed his big league career with the Astros in 2005.

The final line: a 90-87 record with a 2.89 ERA, 424 saves (fourth all-time) and 1,119 games (third all-time).

"I love to play; I love to compete," Franco said. "Everything I've owned, everything I have, is because of baseball."

Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum