- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Jay Franklin hasn’t watched a professional baseball game in years.

He can’t. He dedicated his life to the sport for so long, then got so little in return. Many days, Franklin wishes he had never played.

“I can’t watch. It makes me cringe,” he says. “Like, I get a bad taste in my mouth because of it.”

In 1971, Franklin was one of baseball’s top pitching prospects. That summer — two days after he graduated from Madison High School in Vienna — the San Diego Padres selected him second overall in Major League Baseball’s amateur draft. He signed a $75,000 contract and purchased a new red Grand Torino Sport. Calls from hundreds of well-wishers flooded his phone.

Three months later, the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Franklin was in the major leagues, facing Hank Aaron, Pete Rose and Johnny Bench.

Now 53, an unemployed Franklin battles depression, fixed delusions and paranoia while living in a Reston group home. He draws a monthly $1,000 disability check and has no car.

No one calls other than his sister, mother and a former high school teammate. Because of his illness, he has “chosen to isolate himself from the world.”

He prefers either to stay in bed all day or camp out at his mother’s one-room condo in Clifton, the “comfort zone” to which he retreats every other week.

Last month he declined an offer to attend a World Series game.

“I’m battling a lot of issues,” Franklin, now a burly 6-3, 260 pounds, says while sitting at his mother’s dining room table.

He swigs Pepsi from a Big Gulp cup, runs a hand over his gray, handlebar mustache and leans back in the chair. Franklin readjusts the old, blue baseball cap that sits on his head, takes a deep breath and continues.

“See, my world caved in. I’ve been on top of the world and at the bottom of the world. I’m fighting my way back, handling it the way I can.”

Franklin was born into baseball, the grandson of a Baltimore Orioles scout and son of a walking baseball almanac. Floyd Tuthill had managed men’s semi-pro teams since the 1950s. His daughter, Pat, spent much of her life behind the backstop, keeping score for her father’s teams.

Pat shared her love for baseball with her two youngest children: Jay, known to his family as John, and his sister Trudy. After each game, Coach Tuthill hit the young Franklin groundballs and taught him how to throw.

By age 13, Franklin seemed destined for stardom. The right-hander pitched against players two years his senior and was practically unhittable. The domination continued two years later when he pitched in a league for 18- to 19-year-olds.

The scouts noticed Franklin his junior year. One day his mother sat in the stands and noticed men in suits, with pad and pen, sitting around her.

“There were 30 scouts there that day,” says Pat Franklin, who has scrapbooks stuffed with articles from her son’s playing days.

“It blew my mind,” says Franklin, who noticed his audience from the mound. “But my grandfather always stressed confidence, so I figured, why be nervous? I just let my fastball do the talking.”

His 98-mph fastball spoke volumes.

In three years at Madison, Franklin went 28-1 with 15 shutouts, seven one-hitters and three no-hitters. He graduated with 363 strikeouts in 212 innings and allowed just 29 runs his entire career.

Franklin led Madison to the state championship as a senior, but he is most fond of his performance in a regional final. After giving up a double in the game’s first at-bat, Franklin fanned 29 batters in a 14-inning marathon, which his team won 1-0.

“John is arguably the best school-boy pitcher in the history of the Commonwealth,” says former Madison pitcher and longtime family friend Mike Wallace, who was drafted by the Phillies in 1969 and spent time with the Yankees, Cardinals and Rangers. “He was very natural, very fluid. Didn’t seem like extreme effort, but he just had incredible stuff.”

After getting taken by the Padres — the previous year the club selected his neighbor and best friend, Clay Kirby — Franklin reported to Tri-City (Wash.), San Diego’s Class A affiliate in the Northwest League. He went 8-1 and led his team to its first title.

His big league debut came that September, an eighth-inning relief appearance against Bench.

Franklin’s first pitch traveled only 50 feet. He regrouped to strike the Reds catcher out with a low fastball, according to an old newspaper clipping from the San Diego Union. The Padres won 4-1.

But Franklin soon struggled. He had fastballed his way through high school and the minor leagues, rarely using any other pitch. He had little confidence in his curve and change-up.

The talent gap between the minor and major leagues was drastic. In the minors, maybe one hitter a game could handle Franklin’s fastball. In the big leagues, eight batters a game could time his pitches.

With Franklin struggling as a reliever, the Padres switched him to a starter, figuring that might help him mentally.

Franklin got his first start Sept. 21, 1971, against Aaron and the Atlanta Braves.

Franklin struck out the leadoff hitter. But later in the inning, Aaron slugged career home run No. 638 off him. Then Darrell Evans and Ralph Garr both homered.

“I needed more time,” Franklin says. “I wish they kept me in the minors another year so to develop my pitches.”

His mother agrees.

“It was exciting and wonderful at the time, but none of us were thinking,” she says. “That was an 18-year-old kid out there, just out of high school. He was too young for that.”

However, Franklin found himself in common situation, according to Wallace.

“I saw it happen to John,” Wallace says. “I saw it happen to David Clyde [the Rangers’ first pick in 1973]. They needed box office sales and John was box office. Clyde went from pitching in high school straight to the majors. They rushed those guys. Neither of them were ready, but that’s how it was.”

The Padres had Franklin slated for the starting rotation the following spring training. But he reported to camp out of shape.

In high school, he played basketball all winter and entered the spring in top physical form.

But he spent most of that winter sitting on his grandparents’ couch watching television.

The Padres scrimmaged a local community college team, and coaches instructed Franklin to throw only moderate speed and focus on his mechanics. But a batter hit a home run off Franklin early in the game.

“It ticked me off bad,” he recalls. “Next guy up, I let one go with all I had and heard something snap in my elbow.”

Franklin took the year off to rehab. He came back strong, going 5-0 in AA ball, then hurt his shoulder.

“I never used to have any pain. It was just different for me,” he says. “They told me to squeeze a ball and run everyday. I got lazy. It was like I gave up.”

Franklin spent the next five years toiling in the minors. He tried switching to a sidearm technique to get more movement on his fastball his final season. But after the injuries, his pitches topped out at only 85 mph. The Padres released him.

“That was the dark ages,” Wallace says. “You injure your arm and you’re done. John needed a surgery no one could perform at the time. There was no Tommy Johns, no transferring of ligaments. He was 10 or 20 years too early for that.”

Franklin returned to Virginia with his wife, Jordi, whom he met out west and married a year into his career, and two young children. He got a job as a heavy equipment operator for a construction company, but his fortunes continued to plunge.

In 1985 Franklin’s wife took the kids and moved back to her native San Diego.

Franklin had a nervous breakdown.

He tried fighting for custody. But his sisters, taking his mental health into account, urged him to give up.

Franklin began working at the Fairfax post office and started taking the steps to become a pro scout. But he scrapped the idea because of the paranoia that plagued him when he encountered crowds.

“I can’t take it,” he says. “I think they’re all talking about me, and they know about the bad things I’ve done.”

In 1988, Franklin’s father — manic-depressive since 1971 — committed suicide. In 1991 both Franklin’s former wife and Kirby died a few weeks apart. The tragedies worsened Franklin’s state. While undergoing a mental health analysis at the Arlington County Courthouse the same year, Franklin thought the mafia was chasing him and jumped out of a four-story window.

He shattered his once-famous right arm.

Psychiatrists first labeled Franklin as a paranoid schizophrenic and prescribed medication that helped conceal, not heal, his sister says. Franklin’s family had him committed several times in response to repeated suicide threats.

But most recently, Franklin has promised not to take his life.

“He says that as long as my mom’s alive, he’ll keep living because he doesn’t want to do to her what my dad did,” a tearful Trudy Franklin-Cahoon says.

She, along with Wallace’s help, continues to seek assistance for her brother. She manages his money and helps pay for his psychiatric appointments out of her own pocket. Doctors have rediagnosed him with depression and fixed delusions.

Franklin has good days and bad days. He loathes the group home at which he lives. And his daily vice comes in the form of three packs of cigarettes and a case of Pepsi.

Franklin goes to the occasional Clark Griffith Collegiate Baseball League game, upon the prodding of Wallace, who has coached the Vienna Senators for 10 years.

“I have him break down my pitchers,” Wallace says. “He’s very astute and knows what he sees. He doesn’t know I’m picking his brain, but I am. He helps me out.”

But Franklin can take baseball only in small doses. His favorite pastime is betting on pony races at Charles Town.

“Right now, I’m just existing,” Franklin laments. “The deck’s stacked against me. That’s how I feel. There’s a song that came out years ago that says, ‘I’m dying inside, but nobody knows it but me.’ That’s me in a nutshell.”

Franklin-Cahoon and Wallace know Franklin’s illness may never improve but hope better living conditions can give him more peace.

“Everybody has their demons,” Wallace says. “Anybody that has played for money has their ‘I wish I had this or that.’ John’s are just compounded by his illness, and he’s a guy that deserves better.”

Franklin-Cahoon is planning fund-raisers, which will lay the foundation for a trust fund that will help with her brother’s mountain of medical bills.

She and Wallace remain in talks with several baseball-related organizations.

Ultimately, Franklin-Cahoon hopes to buy land and build a small house for her mother and brother. She wants a baseball diamond in the property plans — a “field of dreams” where young ball players achieve their goals. There, Franklin-Cahoon hopes, her brother and mother can enjoy the sport so strongly intertwined with their lives.

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