Tuesday, October 19, 2004

And Now...A Few Words About Julio Franco

Julio Franco just completed another season of major league baseball with the Atlanta Braves. He played in 125 ballgames and batted .309. Nothing, on the surface, particularly earth-shattering about that. Good numbers, though. I'm sure he played a serious role in helping the team win its 14th division title in a row (or whatever the heck it is for the Braves, who, remarkably, keep grinding it out, even if they don't ever win the World Series).

But here's what has me scratching my head: On August 23 of this summer, Julio Franco turned 46 years old. Now, I've been thinking. And doing a little research, too. The question that spurred me on was this: Has ANYONE in the history of major league baseball ever played 125 games at the age of 46 and batted .309???

Well, I didn't search out every nook and cranny of the record book. But I'll tell you what I DID find. Neither Pete Rose nor Ty Cobb ever played to age 46. Cobb did bat .323 his last year at the age of almost 42. Rose, at 45, batted .219 his last year, and he probably should've hung 'em up a couple of years prior. And you can come up with a whole bunch of old-timers, guys born in the 19th century, who played baseball well into their 40s. Guys with names like Jim O'Rourke, Sam Thompson, Kid Gleason, Dan Brouthers, Hughie Jennings, and Arlie Latham. As far as I can see, every one of these guys was making only token appearances at their advanced ages. They sure didn't play in 125 games.

In more modern times there was the legendary Minnie Minoso, who had a huge reputation as being older than God and still able to swing a bat. But really, Minoso's later exploits were overblown, and in fact his baseball skills--considerable in his prime in the '50s--had deteriorated by his late 30s. The Chicago White Sox used to trot ol' Minnie out for show, and he actually appeared in a game at the age of 57. More recently, Carlton Fisk played to the age of 45, remarkable especially because he was a catcher. But Fisk hit .189 in 25 games his final season, and truthfully, he hung on about two seasons too long (though the longevity helped him get into the Hall of Fame, methinks).

There have been a raft of modern-era players, great ones all, who have played on into their 40s. Dave Winfield almost made it to his 44th birthday. He batted .191 his final season. Carl Yastrzemski DID make it to 44. He batted .266 that final year. Paul Molitor batted .281 in his final season in which he played 126 games. But he retired a mere pup at the age of 42. There are others. Ted Williams, 42. Enos Slaughter, 43. And, of course, Willie Mays, whom many sadly remember from his last season, at age 42, falling down on national television during the 1973 postseason playing for the New York Mets in a last-gasp effort to reclaim the spotlight. It wasn't the kind of attention Willie wanted. He batted .211 that year.

As for Franco, it's not like he's on the downslide. He batted .284 in '02, and .294 in '03. He's actually improving! Even more ironically, after a career spent mostly in the American League, where they have the designated hitter option for aging players, Franco has spent his final four years in the National League, where he must play a position. More recently, that's been first base, but Franco has played every position but catcher over the course of his long career. Another oddity: Franco was out of big-league baseball for all of '95, '98 and '00 and virtually all of '99. (He was playing in Latin America during that time.) He made his triumphant return to the majors in 2001--at the age of 43!

Franco's career numbers are excellent. He's got 2,457 hits, 1,110 RBIs and a lifetime batting mark of .300. If he'd played those years he was out of MLB, he definitely would have hit the 3,000 mark for hits.

So as far as I'm concerned, Julio Franco is the greatest oldest baseball player who ever lived. I applaud him heartily. I salute him with utmost respect. I doff my hat to him. I wish I could shake his hand. Someone oughta give him a parade.

Tough part now is, I don't want Julio's luster to fade. I wonder if he's thinking of coming back next year... Hmmm...

Maybe hang 'em up, Julio. Go out a champ. Don't pull a "Willie" on us. Preserve the legend, and know that you struck a blow for middle-aged men everywhere.

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