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55-year-old Julio Franco to play for independent Fort Worth Cats

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(USA Today)

You can't tell 55-year-old Julio Franco baseball is a young man's game. After spending parts of 23 seasons in the big leagues and only officially retiring from the game in early 2008, he's looking to make a comeback, albeit short-term, with the independent Fort Worth Cats of the United Baseball League.

The Fort Worth Cats’ General Manager, Craig Brasfield, proudly announced today that former major leaguer Julio Franco will join the Fort Worth Cats Baseball Club as player/coach for the first home stand of the 2014 season, which begins on Tuesday, May 20. Based upon Franco’s addition, the United League has extended the Cats' initial homestand through Wednesday, May 28. Franco’s addition to the team will allow him to join a rare fraternity of players to play five decades of professional baseball.

Franco joins Nick Altrock and Minnie Minoso as the only players to play professionally in at least five decades. Altrock's career started in 1898 and he made regular pitching appearances through 1908. He'd make multiple comebacks over the next few years, including his final game in 1933. At 57, he is the second-oldest player to ever appear in a game behind Satchel Paige (59). Minoso debuted in 1949 and played through 1964. He returned to the Chicago White Sox at age 50, playing in three games in 1976. He returned again in 1980 at 54, pinch-hitting in two games for Chicago.  

It's the second year in a row that Fort Worth has signed a former major leaguer to serve as a player-coach during its opening homestand. Last season, Jose Canseco filled the role, which obviously garnered them plenty of attention. Now, it's the well-traveled Franco's turn.

Franco last appeared in an MLB game on Sept. 17, 2007, when he was 49 years old. During the course of his long career he suited up for eight different teams and played in 2,527 games in MLB, collecting 2,586 hits, 173 homers and 281 stolen bases. Most of his later appearances came as a designated hitter or pinch-hitter. He also managed to squeeze in some time in Japan, Korea and Mexico before hanging it up. 

Franco's prime years were spent with the Texas Rangers. In fact, he won the American League batting title with the Rangers in 1991, when he hit .341. That would safely be termed his most productive season, as it was the only time he topped 200 hits in a season.

That was 23 years ago, but the time that has passed certainly hasn't lessened Franco's passion for the game.

From the official press release:

"I'm very excited about the opportunity to play and coach in Fort Worth and reconnect with my friends, former teammates and Texas Rangers staff members," Franco told the Cats' website. "I love Fort Worth and I'm very excited about the opportunity to work with the younger players and entertain the fans."

“I’m excited to have Julio as both a hitting coach and player,” Mike Marshall, current Cats’ manager and a playing contemporary of Franco during their respective careers, exclaimed. “Our players and fans are very lucky to get this opportunity and I’m sure Julio will make an immediate impact on the players and the community.”

The experience Franco brings could indeed be valuable, but only if the players take the time to pick his brain. They would be well advised to do that because Franco is one of those guys who has bridged the gaps between several generations and has seen the game from many different perspectives.

It wouldn't be surprising if he made an impact on the field as well, perhaps delivering a key pinch-hit in the latter innings, just for old time's sake. 

Speaking of which, before suiting up for the Cats next week, Franco will stop by Globe Life Park in Arlington on Sunday to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before the Texas Rangers game against the Toronto Blue Jays. That might be the last large crowd he performs in front of, but it will be a warm up for his true final act. 

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Mark Townsend is a writer for Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at bigleaguestew@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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