Former Madison High pitcher Jay Franklin, No. 2 overall draft pick in 1971, blames subsequent problems on baseball
By Josh Barr,
Jay Franklin’s memory is golden. He vividly remembers the 14-inning playoff victory in which he struck out 29 batters just as easily as he recalls Darrell Evans cranking a 3-2 fastball into the upper deck or Hank Aaron tagging Franklin for his 638th career home run. All of that happened 40 years ago.
Franklin’s right arm, which made him Major League Baseball’s highest draft pick ever from the Washington area and took him to the big leagues at 18 years old, is not quite as sharp.
Around the elbow, Franklin still has the scar from a failed suicide attempt, when he tried to jump through a fourth floor window at the Arlington County Courthouse. More than that, though, if he tries to use that arm now, the 58-year-old feels a numbness throughout that once rocket-like limb.
“I can’t throw a ball from here to that tree without it hurting,” he said between puffs of a cigarette, motioning to a towering oak tree some 15 feet away from the patio of his sister’s home in Warrenton.
Franklin still gets autograph requests and is happy to comply, but — diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic — his life is more about survival than reliving the good old days of a player who dominated Northern Virginia high school baseball and was selected second overall by the San Diego Padres in baseball’s amateur draft in 1971.
At Madison High in Vienna, Franklin posted a career record of 28-1 with 363 strikeouts, three no-hitters, seven one-hitters and 15 shutouts. While a few dozen scouts showed up to watch Franklin each time he pitched, he could not remember ever seeing a radar gun, though he was told he threw 95 mph. It was also at Madison that he picked up the nickname Jay; with five players named John, Warhawks Coach Tom Christie needed a way to keep everyone straight.
“John was legendary,” said 1969 Madison graduate Mike Wallace, a pitcher who went on to play five seasons in the majors.
Since Major League Baseball started its first-year player draft in 1965, the Washington area but has produced just three other players taken in the top 10 picks: McLean High grad Seth Greisinger went sixth overall to the Detroit Tigers in 1996, while Severna Park natives Gavin Floyd and Mark Teixeira went fourth and fifth, respectively, to the Philadelphia Phillies and Texas Rangers in 2001. On Monday night, St. Albans School graduate Danny Hultzen, a pitcher at the University of Virginia, is expected to join that select group.
None of those players rose as rapidly as Franklin, nor fell so steeply. After three weeks in the majors at 18 years old, Franklin never made it back.
‘Expecting so much’
First he had elbow problems. Then it was his shoulder, overcompensating for the elbow. He bounced around the minor leagues for a few years, then returned to Northern Virginia and worked as a laborer, in quality control and delivering packages.
His wife left him, taking their two children to California. His father committed suicide. Shortly thereafter, Franklin was committed to a mental hospital. He now lives in an Annandale group home and attends sessions aimed at improving his ability to socialize; he said his therapist is changing his diagnosis to depression disorder.
All because of baseball, Franklin said.
“I feel like I let a lot of people down because they were expecting so much out of me,” Franklin said. “When I hurt my arm and didn’t make it, it was a big disappointment, not only to me, but I’m sure also for my family. . . . I just accept the past, that’s all you can do. You can’t get away from it. I can’t get away from it. I have to go on and try to forget about it.”
But then there are those memories, etched oh so clearly in his head. On the one hand, Franklin said he still believes that when he sees two strangers whispering on the other side of the street that they must be talking about him. But then there is the former baseball player who remembers one of the greatest single-game sporting efforts ever in the region when he struck out 29 Jefferson batters at the old Fairfax High (now Paul VI Catholic High). “I was pumped up that game,” he said. “The leadoff guy got a double and I said to myself, ‘That’s enough of this crap.’ ”
With that attitude, Franklin seemed a sure thing to make it in the majors. After the Padres drafted him, he signed a contract that included a $65,000 bonus and reported to the Tri-City Padres in Kennewick, Wash., going 8-1 before being summoned to San Diego. He made two relief appearances, then started against the Atlanta Braves on Sept. 21, 1971; his sister, Trudy Franklin, still has a cassette tape of the radio broadcast that night.
Jay Franklin said that after the game, the Padres returned to the West Coast for one final series and he returned to Vienna for the offseason. But while he had played basketball at Madison, helping him stay in shape, that winter he did little. When he reported to spring training and pitched in a scrimmage against San Diego State University, he injured his elbow.
“I threw a fastball and snapped tendons in my elbow,” he said. “I felt it. They sent me to some doctors and everything and the doctors told me to take the year off.”
Franklin returned in 1973 to the Class AA Alexandria (La.) Aces but knew things were not right as he had altered his throwing motion to make up for a lack of elbow strength, hurting his shoulder. Teammate Randy Jones went on to win the 1976 Cy Young Award while pitching for the Padres, but Franklin spent two more seasons in central Louisiana, then one each in Amarillo, Tex., and in Hawaii before the Padres released him.
“I had lost my confidence,” Franklin said. “I knew when I went to the mound, it was going to be a struggle. I had always, when younger, been on top. Always the strikeout artist or whatever you call it. Now, I wasn’t getting any strikeouts. . . . A left-hander can get away with 88 or 87 because their ball naturally moves. But a right-hander has to throw the ball 90-95 to stick around. At this point I was throwing about 85.”
After baseball, a downfall
Returning to the Washington area, though, things were about to get worse. Franklin never could find his niche. When his wife, Jordi, took their children and left town, Franklin’s state worsened. He spent a month in a mental hospital, but his paranoia only strengthened.
“He would think cigarette companies would label their cartons to identify with him — a lot of paranoia and delusions,” said Trudy, who looks after her brother’s business affairs. “Seeing things, thinking people are chasing him. It’s an absolutely horrible disease. Just a belief that nobody would believe what he is saying, just off the wall stuff.”
After his father, Gilbert, took his own life in 1988, Franklin gave up fishing, an activity the two had always done together. Close friend and former teammate Clay Kirby and Jay’s ex-wife Jordi died one month apart in 1991; Franklin said he has not spoken with his son or daughter in California in more than a year and can’t call them from the group home because he cannot dial long distance. Franklin again thought about suicide several times, “but my dad did that and I didn’t want to do that and upset my family.”
He smokes one or two packs of cigarettes and downs a six-pack or so of Pepsi daily. A fast food bag with large fries is never far away. But after drinking a 12-pack of Milwaukee’s Best beer three or four times a week, he now drinks alcohol sparingly.
Franklin said the only satisfaction he gets now is from a biweekly trip to the horse track in Charles Town, W.Va., where he takes $125 per outing. He has gotten to know many of the other regulars watching from the grandstand. Over the years, Franklin estimated, he has lost $200,000 betting on horses.
Franklin is, however, making strides, he believes because of a new medication. His diagnosis is changing. He is comfortable talking about the past, though, he remains shy around women, he said. He watches television more often — no longer believing the characters are talking about him — and has begun following baseball a bit. He last worked a few months ago, as a grocery store bagger, but standing four hours at a time hurt his back, so he quit.
He would like to move out on his own, but fears he will be unable to afford rent; currently he pays $288 monthly for his place in the group home. He does not have any immediate job prospects.
As for the past, Franklin said he worries little about what might have been, though he has plenty of time on his hands to look back.
“It doesn’t bother me too much, I just wish I had it all to do over again,” Franklin said. “So many people wish that all their lives. I would have worked a little harder after I injured myself to stay in shape.”