Better than you remember: Julio Franco

June 14th, 2020

While we’re waiting for baseball to come back, we are making do. So once a week, inspired by the late Deadspin’s “Let’s Remember Some Guys” series, we will take a look at one player in baseball history, why he was great, why he mattered, why we should hang on to him. Send me your suggestions at [email protected].

Player: Julio Franco
Career: PHI 1982, CLE 1983-88, TEX 1989-93, CHW 1994, CLE 1996-97, MIL 1997, TBR 1999, ATL 2001-05, NYM 2006-07, ATL 2007
Accolades: All-Star (1989-91); Silver Slugger (1989-91, '94)

The first thing that’s going to come to your mind when I say the words “Julio Franco” is going to be “the guy who played baseball until he was almost 50,” and that’s a very reasonable response. That would be my response, too, and I do not blame you for it. But Franco was a lot more than that. We’ll get to the lovable old guy aspect of Franco, don’t you worry. But Franco, just like you and me, was a lot younger once.

When Franco finally retired in 2007, much was made that he had made his big league debut in 1982, going 1-for-4 against Bob Forsch and a Cardinals team that ended up winning the World Series. He was already 24 when he finally broke through to the bigs. Franco made his professional debut in 1978 for the Butte Copper Kings of the Pioneer League. From the beginning, he had that crazy batting stance, which somehow looked like he was pointing the bat at the pitcher from behind his head and also like a question mark. More than anything, he was a live wire, an electrical cord with too much current running through it. He was absolutely riveting to watch from the beginning.

Franco also could hit from the get-go, a consistent .300 hitter throughout the Minors, but his defense needed considerable work, particularly from the shortstop position. Franco played 16 games for the Phillies in 1982, but Philadelphia, fresh off a World Series appearance, wanted to upgrade its lineup with Cleveland’s Von Hayes, so it traded Franco (along with four other players, including Manny Trujillo and George Vukovich) for him.

Franco became the Indians' starting shortstop, and while he hit (well enough to finish second in American League Rookie of the Year Award voting in 1983, behind Ron Kittle) a bit, he never truly broke through. He was just enough of a good hitter to hang onto his shortstop spot, but not good enough to entirely offset his increasingly shoddy defense. (The Indians ended up bouncing him back and forth between second base and shortstop, to diminishing results.)

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By 1987, Franco's bat had fully come around. He hit .319 and became beloved by Indians fans, who would chant “Juliooooooooo” every time he came to the plate. He was also a little bit less of a free swinger than his stance might have implied. In '90, he had only one more strikeout (83) than he did walks (82). That was after the Indians, who were starting to worry that Franco was starting to get a little long in the tooth (he was 29), traded him to the Rangers for Oddibe McDowell and two other players. At 30, Franco became his best self as a hitter, making three straight All-Star teams from 1989-91.

Franco was named MVP of the All-Star Game in 1990, when he drove in the game's only two runs, and his best season came in '91, when he led the Majors with a .341 batting average.

Then, Franco's career took a turn that might have felled lesser men. A knee injury in 1992 limited him to 35 games and essentially ended his career as an infielder. It forced him to be a full-time designated hitter in '93, and he only had 14 homers in 144 games with a .289 average -- not good enough for a full-time DH.

Franco signed with the White Sox for the 1994 season and had one of the best years of his career at 35, hitting .319 with 20 homers and 98 RBIs for a team that was in first place at the time the strike hit. He finished the year eighth in AL MVP Award voting, but still, he was a 35-year-old corner infielder/DH in a league where 20 homers was starting to make you merely average.

Frustrated by the strike -- particularly with fears that the 1995 season would be delayed as well -- Franco signed with Chiba Lotte Marines of the Japan Pacific League and hit .306 while winning that league's equivalent of the Gold Glove Award at first base. He was now 37, but eager to get back to the big leagues, so he signed with Cleveland again and hit .322 with a .407 on-base percentage in '96 for an Indians team that won the AL Central and allowed him to play his first career postseason games.

Franco's numbers fell off in 1997, and Cleveland again thought he was too old and released him in August. The Brewers signed him for 42 unremarkable games and then let him go as well.

At this point, Franco was 38 years old, couldn't play anywhere but first base and DH and didn't have a ton of power. That’s normally a pretty good sign your career is over, and you can be forgiven if you thought Franco's was. From 1998-2001, Franco had one big league at-bat (in 1999 for Tampa Bay, and he struck out), but he kept peddling his wares all across the world, back in Japan, then Mexico, then Korea and then Mexico again. His ability to still hit left-handers caught the eye of the Braves, who, almost on a whim, signed him in September 2001 at age 42. Franco hit .300 in 25 games for them and then hit two homers that postseason, encouraging them to sign him to another one-year contract.

And the one-year contracts kept coming. Franco hit .284 in 125 games at 43, .294 in 103 games at 44, .309 in 125 games at 45 and .275 in 108 games at 46. After playing in only one postseason series by age 41, Franco played in one every year from 2001-06. He was so good for the Braves in '05 that they signed him to a two-year deal before the 2006 season, even though he’d be 49 when the contract ended.

Franco finally slowed down a little then, and after playing 135 games for the Mets from 2006-07, they released him in July 2007. The Braves picked him up, which may have been for nostalgia, and he then finished his MLB career, getting a hit in his final at-bat.

Even though that was the end of Franco's time in MLB didn’t mean it was the end of his baseball career. He briefly played in the Mexican League in 2008, before retiring and becoming a Minor League manager for the Mets. He managed in the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League in '10 and the Mexican League in '12. But he couldn't resist playing again.

In 2014, at the age of 55, Franco recorded 30 at-bats over seven games for the Fort Worth Cats of United League Baseball. In '15, he played for and managed a Japanese independent league team at 57, hitting .333.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, there aren’t many people wearing baseball uniforms right now. But Franco is, because he's the hitting coach for the Lotte Giants of the KBO. He hasn’t gotten in a game. Yet. Because the swing? The swing is still the same. It will always be the same.

Send me the player you’d love to have me write about at [email protected].