Being Julio Franco
By Jeff Passan, Yahoo Sports
August 23, 2006
Every morning, Julio Franco takes 20 or so eggs, separates the whites from the yolks and cooks them into a big, fluffy cloud of protein. Julio is a backup first baseman and reliable pinch hitter for the New York Mets. When he struts around the Mets' clubhouse bare-chested, his torso tapers into a V-shape and his arms resemble those of a lumberjack. And best anyone can tell, he turns 48 years old Wednesday, though he may be 50 or 51 or older. Coming from the Dominican Republic, where birth documents aren't wholly reliable, not even Julio is sure.
Medical professionals, teammates and managers have tried to explain how Julio hit pause on his body and continued to play baseball at a competitive level long past that of any previous regular big leaguer who didn't throw a knuckleball or spitball, and they all come to the same conclusion, which is to turn their palms upward, shrug their shoulders and mumble some derivation of "I don't know."
Well, there had to be some kind of a solution out there, and in the name of science, I was determined to find it.
The Fountain of Youth? Who needs that?
Twenty years ago, I tried to be like Julio Franco. I would stand in my backyard, grip my metal baseball bat, assume my usual stance, then shimmy the bat forward, practically pointing it at my dad before he delivered a pitch. It felt awkward – it looked even weirder – and somehow this cockeyed posture worked for Julio. And if it worked for Julio, it had to be right.
Back then, Julio played second base for the Cleveland Indians, though his position was immaterial because his bat kept him in the lineup every day. And accordingly, at the old Cleveland Stadium, every few innings someone would yell, "Hoooooo-lee-ohhhhhhhh," and it would reverberate off of 70,000 or so empty seats for the whole place to hear.
The year after the Indians traded Franco to the Texas Rangers, he made his first All-Star game. Two seasons after that, he won an American League batting title. He was 33, and though he probably had a few good years left in him, convention said he would retire at 37 or 38, maybe 40 if he was lucky.
"I was supposed to retire a long time ago," Julio said in late March before a Mets spring training game. "I was supposed to retire after last season, right?"
Well, not exactly. After he won his batting title, Julio was born again in the offseason. He swore off smoking and drinking, both of which he had done in excess, and remade his body by eating only organic food. If his mind was to be fit for God, his body would have to be its sanctuary.
In 1995, Julio played in Japan, and following two more years in the big leagues, he went back to play for the Chiba Lotte Marines. From then on, Julio seemed an afterthought to major league teams, a one-at-bat stint with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1999 being the only reward for a .423 batting average in the Mexican League.
Only when the Atlanta Braves were desperate for a bat and Julio had hit .437 in Mexico did he get another chance. They brought him in on Aug. 31, 2001, thinking he was nothing more than a stopgap. Four years later, he was still there, a productive hitter, a crack fielder, a sage inclined to philosophize.
When I met Julio for the first time, at Braves spring training in 2005, the discussion was fascinating. For every query pointed toward Julio on his agelessness, he came back with one of his own.
"Let me ask you a question," Julio said. "Are you a sinner?"
Loaded as the question was, Julio's point was that if you are, you need to reconsider your actions. Because, Julio said, everything he does is with the Lord in mind, and the only reason he plays baseball is because the Lord wants him to play baseball, and if the Lord wants him to play baseball as he approaches 50, his body better be some kind of a machine.
Though I never did ask what sort of kind and benevolent being would ever allow someone to eat 20 egg whites every morning.
When Julio awakens, he prays for an hour. I chose an abridged version.
Please, please, please turn my stomach into steel for the next hour. Thank you.
With that, 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. In my effort to be like Julio Franco, I couldn't even make it through breakfast.
It's not like the old man didn't warn me. In spring training, I told him I wanted to spend a day like he does. He smirked, his smile lining the lone creases in his taut face.
"You know what I do," Julio said. "Just try."
I came. I saw. I was conquered.
In fact, I feel like I owe Julio an apology for even trying. This is his routine; his way of defying whatever makes us age. He is the one looking it in the eye every time he slips on his Mets uniform and scoffing at it, reminding it that it's not welcome – not this year, at least, and not next year because the Mets have him signed through his 49th birthday, and not any time after that, either, because he wants to play past 50, past Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Niekro, the two knuckleballers who were still active at 48 (Wilhelm almost made it to 50), and past every reasonable person's expectation of what exactly a 50-year-old is supposed to be.
My palms are turned upward. My shoulders are shrugging. I don't know.
And I don't want to, either.
Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Wednesday, Aug 23, 2006 5:42 pm, EDT