There seems to be a bottomless pit of interesting information regarding the remarkable career of Julio Franco. He played in the Majors until he was nearly 50 years old. His professional career stretched from the late 1970’s until the 2007 season.
Franco was a one and done player on the Hall of Fame ballot but his name is all over the record books. And who knows? If his career didn’t have a few sojourns into foreign leagues, he might have reached the 3,000 hit mark and who knows where that would have led him.
And he also taught me, yes me, an interesting lesson about how RBIs can be amassed.
Franco was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies out of his native Dominican Republic in 1978. The 23 year old Franco made his big league debut on April 23, 1982.
Among the Phillies names in the lineup were Ivan DeJesus, Pete Rose, Bo Diaz, Garry Maddox, Manny Trillo, Sid Monge and Ozzie Virgil. They faced the Cardinals who played Bob Forsch, Gene Tenace, Keith Hernandez, Ozzie Smith and Darrell Porter among others.
I listed those names to give you a sense of the era he first showed up in. The names in his final big league game would look a lot different.
He only played 16 games with the Phillies in 1982 and in the off season was shipped off in a multiplayer deal to Cleveland, bringing Von Hayes to Philadelphia.
Franco hit well in his first year in Cleveland, finishing as the Rookie of the Year runner up to Chicago’s Ron Kittle. Between 1983 and 1987, he steadily improved each year. He became a consistent .300 hitter, albeit one that didn’t walk much. His OPS climbed to .818 in 1988, he would steal bases and had good gap line drive power.
His defense at shortstop was suspect and was moved to second base in 1987.
In 1989, the Indians dealt Franco to the Rangers in a 3 for 1 move. In Texas he made three straight trips to the All Star Game, winning the Mid Summer Classic MVP in 1990. His power increased while he still stole 30 plus bases a year.
In 1991, as this Fleer Card celebrates, he won the batting title, finishing the season with a .341 mark. His OPS was .882 and he brought home his fourth straight silver slugger award.
But injuries in 1992 slowed him down as he only played 35 games. He came back in 1993 to hit .289 with an OPS of .798. He tested the Free Agent waters after 1993 and landed with a super talented White Sox team.
Manager Gene Lamont put Julio Franco in the cleanup spot behind Frank Thomas. I remember when that happened, I thought he was crazy. “Franco doesn’t drive in runs. He should bat second and be driven in.”
But a funny thing happened. Franco DID drive in runs. He hit a career high 20 homers, hit .319 and his OPS soared to .916. And in the strike shortened season, he drove in 98 runs in 112 games. He would have easily passed 110 or even 120 RBI if there wasn’t labor strife.
It was the first realization I made that perhaps “being a run producer” meant being a good hitter when runners were on base. Maybe putting a good hitter there, and not necessarily a masher, meant producing more runs.
Had the White Sox played a full season in 1994, who knows how far they would have gone? Either way, the strike did hit and in the labor limbo, Franco left MLB for Japan.
He put up big numbers for Chiba Lotte and cashed a nice paycheck. In 1996, he returned to America to rejoin he Cleveland Indians. They were the defending AL Champs and looked to go to the World Series and win it in 1996. Franco contributed a .322 average and .877 OPS for the Tribe and played in his first post season.
Cleveland fell short to Baltimore in the playoffs but looked to come back in 1997. Franco played on that squad as well but was dealt to Milwaukee midway through the season and was not part of the team that lost a lead in the 9th inning of Game 7 of the World Series.
In 1998, no big league team was interested in a 39 year old DH. He returned to Japan for 1998 and after one at bat with the 1999 Devil Rays, found himself playing a team in Mexico and a team in Korea.
By 2001, he was 42 years old, essentially out of MLB since 1997 and hitting with the Mexico City Tigers.
But man he was hitting. In 110 games and 469 plate appearances, he was batting .437.
That isn’t a typo. The first number was a 4. His OPS was 1.175. Granted, it wasn’t against big league pitching. But the Atlanta Braves, looking to get back to the World Series after a disappointing 2000 playoffs, took a flier.
Franco was back in the major leagues as a 42 year old pinch hitter. Baseball fans all over the country did a double take. “Wait, is that the SAME Julio Franco?”
Yup. He batted .300 in a part time role and hit .301 in the Division Series sweep of the Houston Astros. He homered in the Division Series and NLCS, again falling short of the World Series.
He remained on the Braves as a part time first baseman and pinch hitter, playing in the post season for the 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005 Division Champs. In the 2003 Division Series, he batted .500 and had an OPS of 1.225 in a part time role.
In 2006, the 47 year old Franco signed with the Mets and once again played in October as New York lost a heart breaking NLCS to St. Louis.
The 48 year old Franco played his final game with the 2007 Atlanta Braves. That was 15 years after the featured Fleer Card was issued.
His last game was against the Florida Marlins. The Marlins would not exist until 11 years after Franco’s big league debut. In his final game, not only did they exist, but they had torn down two World Champions and fired Joe Girardi.
The hero of the 1997 and 2010 World Series, Edgar Renteria, was Franco’s teammate in that game. So was Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann, Andruw Jones and John Smoltz.
Players like Hanley Ramirez and Miguel Cabrera were playing for the Marlins. They are both still active.
In his final MLB at bat, Julio Franco singled off of Lee Gardner for an RBI single.
Gardner was 7 years old when Julio Franco made his big league debut.
That is quite a baseball life. He amassed nearly 4,000 professional hits, including 2,586 in the majors. Franco is the oldest player to hit a grand slam, a pinch hit homer and 2 homers in an MLB game.
He returned to the Mexican League in 2008 and played 7 games for an independent league as a 55 year old is 2014. In 2015, he was a 57 year old player manager in Japan and who knows? He might be back for a return.