05/08/2002 11:07 pm ET
Franco's career in limbo
By Kevin Czerwinski / MLB.com
NEW YORK -- The news that there was something wrong with John Franco's aching left elbow wasn't surprising. The arm that had gotten the Mets captain through 998 career games hasn't been right since last summer.
But when New York general manager Steve Phillips disclosed the severity of the problem early Wednesday evening, it was difficult not to think that the 41-year-old setup man's 18-year Major League career had reached an end. Franco will miss at least the remainder of this season and probably most of next year as well after an MRI revealed an injury to the medial collateral ligament and the flexor tendon in his elbow.
Franco, who had the MRI done Wednesday morning at the New York Hospital for Joint Diseases, has been on the disabled list since the end of Spring Training and has not done more than throw a few bullpen sessions since undergoing surgery to remove a calcification on the elbow in December. The native New Yorker, who is second on the all-time saves list with 422, was brought to tears when informed of the news shortly before the Mets took the field against the Giants at Shea Stadium. He left the park early, saying he will address the media on Thursday.
"This is not great news," Phillips said. "This is not something that can heal on its own. John has to consider whether he wants surgery. He is clearly lost for the 2002 season and into next year."
The medical explanation for what has gone wrong in Franco's elbow is an avulsion of the MCl and flexor tendons from the medial epicondyle. That mouthful of medical jargon, however, means little to Franco, who only knows now that he must make the biggest and last decision of his career. Have surgery to reattach the tendon to the elbow and then undergo Tommy John surgery to replace the ligament or retire.
The news cast a pall over the Mets clubhouse, leaving the team stunned and upset.
"Obviously we're extremely saddened and disappointed," catcher Mike Piazza said. "We envisioned Johnny coming back to help us this year but that won't be the case. What can you say about the guy that hasn't already been said? He's definitely a New York icon where he came from and what he accomplished for someone not blessed with a lot of physical attributes.
"By no means am I eulogizing him, though. He needs time with his family now to mull over his options. We're saddened, though, and our hearts go out to him. There's not much to say. We told him we feel for him and that we're here for him and that we love him. We just have to let him think about it now and see what he wants to do."
Manager Bobby Valentine spoke in low and measured tones after New York's 8-2 loss to the Giants. His team's fourth defeat in a row and fifth in six games seemed far from his mind as he pondered Franco's fate.
"I'm sick about this," Valentine said. "There's no better team guy, no better captain. It's a damn shame. The guy is out there trying his heart out. There is no better guy around. He's been here through the tough times and the good times and he knows what it is to be a teammate. I think Johnny affects everyone personally and everyone took this personally.
"It came as a total shock because he was able to throw. The doctors said having that injury should have kept him from throwing the ball. It wasn't really hurting that much, according to John, and I'm thinking that at worse we shut him down for a week. But to go in that room and have the doctors say he needs reconstructive surgery was startling."
Phillips, who was also clearly stunned, leaned against a wall behind the press box at Shea Stadium as he delivered the news in somber tones. He knows that Franco, who is in the second year of a three-year deal worth $10.5 million, has his age working against him if he elects to go forth with the surgery. But he's not ready to see No. 45 off into retirement just yet.
"Plenty of guys have done it, but I'm not sure how many guys have done it at 41 years old," Phillips said. "The older you get, the slower you tend to recover. But I've said it all along: Don't bet against John Franco."
Franco first began experiencing pain in the elbow last summer and it prevented him from being anywhere near effective through August and September. He tried rest and rehab on the elbow before deciding to have surgery on Dec. 3 to remove the calcium deposit. Phillips and team doctors insisted that neither the surgery nor Franco's zealous approach to making it back to the mound played a role in this latest injury. Franco also had surgery in 1992 to repair a torn flexor tendon.
Phillips said he encouraged Franco not to make any rash decisions. He wants Franco and his family to discuss the matter and take some time before taking a course of actions because "in this situation, a couple of days aren't going to matter." His deal with the Mets is guaranteed and insured. Phillips said the Mets would be responsible for between 20 and 25 percent of his salary.
"It is not only a loss on the mound, but also in what he brings to the clubhouse and the bullpen," Phillips said. "John Franco is a Met. And as long as I'm here, he will be a Met. If this is the end, an offer will be extended to him to work for the organization in some capacity. Ownership agrees with that. Both [Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday] have shared that with me."
The Brooklyn-born Franco is New York's longest tenured player and has become somewhat of an icon in the city. He went to St. John's University after graduating from LaFayette High, the same school that produced Major Leaguers Sandy Koufax and the Aspromontes, Ken and Bob, as well as co-owner Fred Wilpon. Franco lives on Staten Island and is involved in countless charitable activities throughout the Big Apple.
He has pitched in a team-record 605 games as a Met and is the club's all-time saves leader with 272. And now it may be over.
"He just wants it a little more than everyone else," Valentine said. "In spite of his size [5-foot-10, 185 pounds], he came up with a great out-pitch and kept making adjustments to remain competitive and one of the best in the business. He's one of the best that ever pitched and I'd do anything to see him pitch again."
Kevin Czerwinski covers the Mets for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.