2002-05-18 / Sports

Franco Won't Let Injuries Beat Him

Baseball Columnist
By Bryan Hoch

Baseball Columnist

After an emotional press conference last week at Shea Stadium, John Franco has ultimately decided to do what most felt he would all along – go for it.

Sidelined since spring training with nagging pain in his left elbow, a recent MRI showed that the New York Mets relief pitcher required reconstructive surgery to repair injuries to the medial collateral ligament and flexor tendon in his pitching elbow.

"It wasn’t the news I wanted to hear, but on the other hand I’m satisfied to know," Franco said. "I said all along that it didn’t feel right. Now I know what the problem was."

The injuries will cause the Brooklyn-born Franco to miss at least the remainder of the season. He first felt the discomfort pitching in the Mets’ spring training camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla., where it originally thought to be the tearing of scar tissue formed after a December operation to remove calcium deposits.

Assured that rest would cure the ailment, Franco was sidelined and placed on the 15-day disabled list to open the season, but when he tried on at least three recent occasions to test the arm, he still found himself unable to pitch.

"I know my body just like anyone knows their body," Franco said. "I don’t want to say ‘I told you so’, but I knew something wasn’t right. For me to pitch with that pain I was having, I would have been short-changing myself and the team."

An icon of the Mets since coming to Queens via a trade with the Cincinnati Reds prior to the 1990 season, the future of Franco’s successful 18-year major league career hangs in doubt.

Since being pioneered by Dr. Frank Jobe in 1974, over 200 pitchers have come back from the required so-called "Tommy John" surgery, in which a tendon is extracted from the player’s non-pitching hand, wrist or forearm to replace the torn ligament.

One of the biggest challenges of Franco’s recovery, which is slated to take twelve to eighteen months, could be his age. Now 41, Franco is one of the oldest pitchers ever to attempt a comeback from the procedure.

"Seeing the guys who have had that kind of surgery over the years, I know Grant Roberts had some kind of surgery on his elbow, John Smoltz recently, Jason Isringhausen," Franco said. "I know they’ve bounced back."

Franco really has very little to lose by deciding to have the surgery, which was performed Wednesday afternoon under the care of Dr. Lewis Yocum in Los Angeles. The lefthander is in the second year of a three-year, $10.5 million contract, with the procedure being paid for on the Mets’ dime.

If the surgery and resulting intensive recovery program are successful, Franco could possibly be able to return as a situational lefthander used out of New York’s bullpen. If not, the team captain is eternally assured a role with the Mets, whether on the coaching staff, or in the front office.

"With John’s heart and ability, if he could pitch for this organization, you could never say no to that," Mets GM Steve Phillips said. "As long as I'm here and as long as this ownership is in place, there will be a place for John Franco."

"I’m very happy with what I’ve done [in my major league career]," Franco said. "The only thing missing is a World Series ring. I’m going to do my damn best to help this organization get that ring."

*****

Does anybody remember the day in 1998 that Mets co-owner Fred Wilpon proudly wheeled out the $100,000 model of his updated Ebbets Field, complete with retractable roof, retractable field and intimate seating for approximately 47,000 fans?

To be built on the site of Shea Stadium’s parking lot, the unnamed "Ebbets II" was to be the next home of the Mets, warmly reminding fans of the old home of the Brooklyn Dodgers while providing them with all of the present-day amenities Shea so sorely lacks. Shea would then be destroyed to serve as parking facility.

In his final year as mayor, Rudy Giuliani had hoped to leave a "legacy" to the city of New York with the construction of new facilities for both the Mets and Yankees, as city officials actually began conducting environmental tests on the marked area at Shea last summer.

Then came September 11, and Giuliani left office, leaving a different legacy altogether to New Yorkers.

In the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center, fiscal money that would have eagerly gone to the construction of new sports facilities has been diverted out of necessity to the massive task of rebuilding Lower Manhattan.

With this in mind, a Daily News report this week stated that the Mets and the City are planning an $11 million project to renovate and repair certain areas of Shea Stadium. The first wave of improvements are expected to be completed by July, and could make the facility a viable option for the Mets to continue play in for as long as the next twenty years.

That’s not exactly what was in mind for Wilpon, who is currently completing the purchase of the team from co-owner Nelson Doubleday and has never shown much affection for Big Shea. Better get used to those orange field-level seats for a while, fans.

*****

Barry Bonds may be baseball’s reigning home-run king, but he continues to struggle at Shea Stadium.

"I never hit good here," Bonds told San Francisco Giants manager Dusty Baker last Thursday while taking batting practice. "It seems like home plate goes toward left field."

After a series of impressive shots that cleared the outfield wall by a healthy margin, Bonds remarked, "I think I found a box. If I find a spot where I’m happy, I’ll be OK."

Somebody should have told the Mets’ Pedro Astacio to steer clear of that happy spot. Bonds launched his 11th home run of the season, and his only hit of the series, against Astacio in the fourth inning, leading the Giants to a series sweep of the Mets.

*****

Bryan Hoch regularly covers the New York Mets for MetsOnline.net. He can be contacted at bryanhoch@metsonline.net.


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