JJ Franco spent much of his childhood in Shea Stadium, watching his father, John Franco — who will be inducted into the New York Mets Hall of Fame this summer — pitch for the Mets. Though Brown’s Murray Stadium may not be as glamorous as the stadium he grew up in, JJ is making a name for himself here as the starting second baseman for the Bears.
“I was kind of born into it,” said JJ, whose father had a 21-year Major League Baseball career as a relief pitcher with the Mets, the Cincinnati Reds and the Houston Astros. His 424 career saves are the fourth-most in MLB history, and the Mets announced last month that he would be enshrined in the team Hall of Fame June 3.
Watching baseball was always going to be part of JJ’s life, but he said his father never pressured him to play the sport. “My dad said I could do or be whatever I want to be,” he said.
But JJ loved sports from a young age, and his father’s influence instilled in him a passion for baseball. “Constantly being around that atmosphere … it was almost like it wasn’t a choice,” he said.
John came to as many of his son’s games as he could, and JJ said he remembers the car rides with his dad more than he recalls the games themselves. Even after John tore his Achilles tendon in November 2011, he still threw batting practice to JJ while wearing a boot.
Having a baseball player for a dad also had other perks. “I basically grew up in Shea Stadium,” JJ said. Until he began playing in travel leagues that required a greater time commitment, it was as though every day was “bring your son to work day,” JJ said.
While shadowing his father, JJ was able to take batting practice on the field and field ground balls hit by Mets coaches. He got to know his father’s teammates and spent a lot of time with his father’s fellow relief pitchers.
He became closest to pitcher Al Leiter, whose locker was next to John’s and also got to know several outfielders quite well, especially Cliff Floyd, Jay Payton and Mike Cameron through shagging flies with them. “I definitely knew that I was in a very small group of kids” to have this type of opportunity, he said.
John said that his son fit right in with the team, and that his fellow players were happy to have teammates’ kids around. “We’re all family,” he said.
The opportunity was not wasted on JJ — he took full advantage of the exposure he got to professional baseball and the advice he received from Mets coaches, John said. “He was like a sponge, and to this day, he’s like a sponge,” he said. “He’s a bright student of the game.”
JJ said he hopes to be drafted and to sign with an MLB team after he graduates. It would not be the first time — in 2010, after he had already committed to Brown, the Mets picked him in the 47th round of the amateur draft. Though he decided to go to college, the day he found out he was drafted was “a very satisfying day,” he said.
“I think he’s got a bright future,” John said. “We’re very proud of his accomplishments,” he added, pointing to his son’s mental and physical development, as well as his improvements hitting and fielding.
Though father and son have spent a lot of time with each other on the diamond, they have rarely been in competition. The only time John has pitched to JJ as though he was actually playing in a game was when JJ was 14. John, in his first year of retirement, was coaching his son’s summer league team and one day agreed to pitch seriously to each player on the team.
JJ used his knowledge of his father’s pitching style to his advantage. John was best known for throwing a circle change-up, but JJ was looking for something else. “I knew his first pitch was going to be a fastball,” he said. He guessed correctly and got a base hit.
“He knows exactly how my ball moves,” John said.
Today, John “could probably get him out from 40 feet. If I had to go from 60 feet, I’d be in trouble.”