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Big League Stew

Happy Birthday Boy! Julio Franco is (only) 53 today

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

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On occasion, Big League Stew honors a birthday boy per week by taking a longer look at his career. Please join us in lighting the candles.

It's hard to call Julio Franco an ageless wonder. Unlike, say, Craig Biggio, Franco looked his age during each of his 23 major league seasons from 1982 to 2007.

But Franco is perhaps the greatest old position player of all time,  having broken Jack Quinn's 76-year-old record to become the oldest player ever to hit a home run. Counting his stats in professional baseball in Japan, Korea, Mexico, the Dominican Winter League, and the majors, he has more than 4,000 career hits, and his 2,586 major league hits place him 80th on the all-time list, three ahead of Ernie Banks. (Franco is just one hit ahead of his former teammate, Chipper Jones, who likely will soon push Franco to 81st.)

Franco is one of the greatest players to emerge from San Pedro de Macoris, the sugar town on the Eastern Coast of the Dominican Republic that became known as "the city of shortstops," as Mark Kurlansky has written, due to the success of players like Alfredo Griffin, Pepe Frias, Rafael Ramirez, Tony Fernandez and Franco. But baseball took him from the sugar cane to every corner of the world, and Franco is hardly ready to unlace his spikes, having managed the GCL Mets in 2009 and managing in the Venezuelan winter league during this past offseason.

His diet and workout regimen are legendary. To stay strong into his later years, the New York Times wrote during the second-to-last season of his career in 2006, he had a protein-heavy diet, generally eating five or six meals a day and taking in around 5,000 calories. Jeff Passan illustrated just what it's like to eat 20 egg whites, Julio Franco's regular breakfast: {YSP:MORE}

I made my way into the kitchen and started cracking. Unless you are a chef at a breakfast joint or a mother of 10, you probably have never seen 20 egg whites in a bowl. In liquid form, they are as intimidating as the shake Julio prepares every afternoon made of beets, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, garlic, onions and, just to ensure the taste doesn't make him wretch, an apple — one that, were I to pass the egg test, I would drink.

The finished product was just as intimidating as I thought. Two pounds, the scale read. Two pounds of boring.

Julio, I figured, wouldn't mind if I sprinkled some hot sauce on the eggs. A little high in sodium, perhaps, but I would drink a lot of water. The goal was to finish the eggs at all costs.

The first 25 bites went well. I took a breather. The next 15 were palatable. Another minute to unbuckle the belt. The following 10 were a struggle. In my head, chickens started to cluck. The final five were unbearable. Particularly when I stared at the plate.

At least five of the whites remained.

Best Year: 1991, .341/.408/.474, 15 HR, 78 RBIs, 36 SB, 9 CS
Franco had three All-Star seasons, but never finished higher than eighth in the MVP voting. His eighth-place finish came in the lost season of 1994, when a lot of players were on pace for amazing years and Franco hardly stood out from the crowd.

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But in 1991, though Franco finished 15th in the voting, he may have been one of the five best players in the league, leading the league in batting average, providing one of the better mixes of power and speed in the league, and playing decent defense at shortstop. Unfortunately for Franco, no one was beating Cal Ripken that year, as the Iron Man exploded for the best season of his career and overshadowed every other shortstop in the game. Franco was almost certainly the second-best shortstop in baseball, though; from 1989 to 1991 he was fifth in baseball in Wins Above Replacement (the Baseball-Reference version), behind only Bonds, Ripken, Rickey Henderson and Ryne Sandberg. In 1991, Franco did what he did nearly every year of his career as a starting player, his first 15 seasons in the majors: he hit for average, hit for power, stole bases, and played decent if unspectacular defense. 1991 was the best year of his career, but it was hardly better than 1989 or 1990; at his peak, Franco was easily one of the best players in the league.

Insatiable as he was for baseball, after the strike ended the 1994 season, Franco wasted no time in finding a new place to play baseball. He signed a contract in the offseason with the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan, managed by Bobby Valentine.

Worst Year: 1997, .270/.369/.360, 7 HR, 44 RBIs, 15 SB, 6 CS
Franco was 38 years old in 1997, and though he wasn't a disaster at the plate he wasn't particularly good either. While age had forced him to be moved from shortstop, he logged time at second base, first base and DH. The Indians released him after a bad first half; the Brewers picked him up and he wasn't able to do any better for them, and was released after the season. Clearly, many observers must have thought he was done.

They were only off by a decade.

Looking at the numbers, it's not that Franco was bad. It's just that, in the inflated stats of the late '90s, Franco was hitting like he had as a rookie in the deadball '80s, getting on base and providing only minor-to-modest power. He certainly wasn't a starting player anymore, but he would have been an adequate bench player. After his release, though, he spent 1998 in Japan, 1999 in Korea (except for one hitless at-bat with the Devil Rays), and 2000 and 2001 in Mexico. He spent 1995 in Japan. He was leading the Mexican League in batting average in 2001, at the age of 43, when he was signed by the Atlanta Braves as a bench bat and backup first baseman. He played in Atlanta for the next four and a half seasons, hitting .292/.365/.428 in 1333 plate appearances in 478 games.

Claim to Fame: It's remarkable that he is now known chiefly for being such an old ballplayer, because during his prime he was known for having the weirdest batting stance in baseball, hunching his back over, holding the bat way over his head, and pointing it directly at the pitcher; he did this with a bat that was often the heaviest in baseball, well over 40 ounces.

Off the Field: Early in his career, Franco was known as a wild man who partied hard and constantly. His former manager, Pat Corrales, said, "I never thought he'd live to 40." Franco found faith in his early 30s, though, and is an outspoken Christian. But his faith, as with everything else in his life, points him back towards baseball. When he was accused by former Pirate Andy Van Slyke of being on steroids, because of his success at an advanced age, he responded: "Tell Andy Van Slyke he's right — I'm on the best juice there is ... I'm juicing every day and the name of my juice is Jesus."

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