Monday, March 2, 2015

One Mo-MET In Time: Matt Franco

Prior to 1997, the Mets had only faced their crosstown rivals from the Bronx in Grapefruit League games and Mayor's Trophy exhibitions.  In addition, neither the Mets nor the Yankees had ever qualified for the postseason in the same year.  But thanks to interleague play, meaningful games between the two squads became a reality as the 20th century came to a close.

The first regular season contest between the two teams in 1997 ended with Dave Mlicki pumping his fists on the Yankee Stadium mound in celebration of the Mets' 6-0 victory over the Bronx Bombers.  It was the defining game for the journeyman Mlicki - an extraordinary moment in an otherwise ordinary ten-year major league career.

The Subway Series has become a venue for some of the most dramatic victories in Mets history.  Entering the 2015 season, the Mets have won 42 regular season games against the Yankees, including 13 one-run victories and six walk-off wins.  Perhaps the most dramatic of these one-run, walk-off triumphs occurred on July 10, 1999, as both the Mets and Yankees were trying to reach the playoffs in the same season for the first time.  And when the game ended, one Met became a hero for life, delivering the game-winning hit in a pinch.

Matt Franco proves that even bench players can become Mets legends.  (AP Photo)

Matthew Neil Franco was born for Hollywood endings.  His uncle, Kurt Russell, has been an actor since childhood, following in the footsteps of Franco's grandfather, Bing Russell.  Franco also has immediate family working behind the scenes, as his father is acclaimed movie producer Larry Franco.

Franco was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the seventh round of the 1987 June amateur draft.  As is the case with many struggling actors, it took Franco several years to make it to the big show.  He didn't advance past the Double-A level until his seventh professional season and didn't make his major league debut until the final month of the 1995 campaign.

Following his 16-game cup of coffee with the Cubs in 1995, Franco was traded to the Mets at the outset of the 1996 season.  Once again, Franco's only time spent in the big leagues in 1996 was during a brief September call-up.  But after starting the 1997 campaign in the minors, Franco was called up by the Mets following an injury to outfielder Andy Tomberlin, who also served as the team's primary pinch-hitter from the left side of the plate.  Tomberlin never played for the Mets again as Franco took over as the team's top lefty-swinging pinch-hitter, batting .306 with three homers and 13 RBI in 66 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter.

In 1998, Franco continued to be one of the baseball's most productive pinch-hitters, reaching base 26 times (14 hits, 12 walks) in 68 pinch-hitting appearances.  But his best season off the bench came in 1999, and he punctuated his year with a dramatic at-bat against the top closer in the game.

On July 10, the Mets and Yankees entered the second game of their three-game set at Shea Stadium with both teams playing their best baseball.  The Yankees were in first place in the AL East and were owners of the third-best record in the game.  Meanwhile, the Mets were the hottest team in the sport, winning 22 of their last 32 games to move them within striking distance of the first-place Braves.

The Mets took the first game of the series, 5-2, with the deciding runs scoring on a tie-breaking three-run homer by Mike Piazza off Roger Clemens in the sixth inning.  Power was on full display in the second game - a Saturday matinee at Shea - but most of it came from the players sitting in the road team's dugout.

The Yankees hit six home runs that afternoon (two by Paul O'Neill, two by Jorge Posada, one each by Ricky Ledee and Chuck Knoblauch), becoming the seventh team to hit at least six homers in one game against the Mets.  The Mets had lost the six previous contests in which they were taken deep half a dozen times, losing those games by a combined 94-26 score.  They were determined not to go 0-for-7 in those situations.

Mike Piazza did his part, hitting one of the longest home runs in Shea Stadium's history - a 482-foot blast over the picnic area tents in left field - to give the Mets a temporary 7-6 lead in the seventh inning.  But a two-run homer by Jorge Posada an inning later helped the Yankees retake the lead.  The score remained 8-7 as future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera came into the game in the ninth inning.

Rivera had never allowed a run to the Mets in four career appearances, notching saves in all four games.  But that streak was in jeopardy when Edgardo Alfonzo followed Rickey Henderson's one-out walk with a double.  With the tying and winning runs in scoring position, John Olerud grounded out to first baseman Tino Martinez, leaving Henderson and Alfonzo on base and Yankees manager Joe Torre with a decision to make.  Should he have Rivera face cleanup hitter Mike Piazza or should he walk him intentionally to face Melvin Mora, who had entered the game two innings earlier as a late-inning defensive replacement for Benny Agbayani?  Torre chose the latter, and had Rivera issue a four-pitch free pass to the Mets catcher.

Mets manager Bobby Valentine counteracted by inserting Matt Franco into the game to pinch-hit for Mora.  Franco had never gotten a hit against Rivera in two previous plate appearances, but he had drawn a walk.  And a walk against Rivera with the bases loaded would have tied the game.  But Franco had his eye on a bigger prize, and with the Mets down to their final strike, Franco delivered.

YouTube video courtesy of Courtside Tweets

After taking a borderline 0-2 pitch from Rivera that was called a ball by home plate umpire Jeff Kellogg - a call that did not please Torre, who could be seen mouthing "that ball's not low" in the Yankee dugout - Franco laced a single to right on Rivera's next offering.  Running on contact, Henderson scored easily from third base and Alfonzo slid home safely ahead of Paul O'Neill's throw, giving the Mets a thrilling 9-8 victory before 53,792 raucous fans at Shea Stadium.

The two-run single by Franco would be the only safety he'd record against Rivera in four career plate appearances.  Franco's clutch hit was also the first of four times the Mets defeated Rivera during his illustrious career.  The only teams to defeat Rivera more often during his 19-year tenure with the Yankees were the Orioles (nine losses), Red Sox (seven) and Rays (six) - all teams that played in Rivera's division.

Matt Franco's game-winning single on July 10 was one of 14 pinch-hits he collected in 1999.  Franco also set a major league record in 1999 when he walked 20 times as a pinch-hitter.  By reaching base 34 times in 80 pinch-hit appearances, Franco posted a stellar .425 on-base percentage, one of the highest marks in team history.

But despite being one of the best substitute players in club annals, Franco is mainly remembered for his one big hit on a warm summer day at Shea.

Photo by Ed Leyro

''In batting practice alone, I've been through that same situation a million times.  Everyone has.  Bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, two outs, two strikes.  To get the game-winning hit at Shea Stadium, playing the Yankees, with 53,000 people in the stands, the bases loaded, down a run, in the bottom of the ninth, I don't know how it's going to get any better than that.  It's a dream come true.''

Ed Kranepool set a team record with 90 pinch-hits.  Rusty Staub's 72 RBI are also best among all Mets' subs.  Both figures are nearly double the amount of hits and RBI put by Matt Franco as a pinch-hitter (58 hits, 37 RBI) during his five seasons with the Mets.  But for all the regular season records set by Kranepool and Staub during their times as the top hitter off the bench for the Mets, none of their hits or runs batted in have resonated as much with Mets fans as Franco's game-winner off Mariano Rivera.

Matt Franco was born to a family that spent a lot of time in front of the camera.  But in a season where the Yankees and Mets qualified for the postseason together for the first time and one year before the teams squared off in the first Subway World Series in 44 years, it was Franco who took center stage in a mid-July game at Shea Stadium.

Hollywood is known for producing storybook endings in film and television.  On July 10, 1999, Matt Franco produced a storybook ending of his own.  And in doing so, he became a beloved Met for life, all because he came through in a pinch against one of the most dependable pitchers of this or any other generation.

No script could have produced a better ending.

Note:  One Mo-MET In Time is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players who will forever be known for a single moment, game or event, regardless of whatever else they accomplished during their tenure with the Mets.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 5, 2015: Mookie Wilson 
January 12, 2015: Dave Mlicki
January 19, 2015: Steve Henderson 
January 26, 2015: Ron Swoboda
February 2, 2015: Anthony Young
February 9, 2015: Tim Harkness
February 16, 2015: Kenny Rogers, Aaron Heilman, Tom Glavine
February 23, 2015: Mike Vail

1 comment:

Joey Dunlop said...

Matt and I played soccer as kids in Westlake village where we grew up. Eric wynalda and cobi Jones were on our soccer team. Those guys made it big in soccer, Matt made it big in baseball right out of high school, I made it big in the drug world n the rest is history. Kurt Russell would come to the games sometimes he was the king of cool. Red corvette, long hair. ..this was around 1980.maybe 81.