An Oldie, But A Goodie

The league laughed when the Braves signed 42 year old Julio Franco to a contract 2 years ago. Two years later, the elder Franco still continues to chug away at 44 years of age and produce both offensively and defensively as a Brave. How does he do it?

If Julio Franco had been a pitcher, no one would have laughed.

The Braves ability to work with pitchers has gone nearly unquestioned over the last decade. (Though admittedly, Shane Reynolds is trying his darndest to bring that reputation into disrepute.) From Rudy Seanez to Chris Hammond, the Braves have become legendary for their ability to seemingly sculpt quality pitchers out of clay, mud and whatever materials happen to be lying around. The cry "Send him to Leo!" reverberates throughout the Braves nation whenever a scuffling pitcher is brought into the Braves organization. In fact, certain African cultures have erected elaborate religious rituals centering around the worship of Leo Mazzone bobble-head dolls. If the Braves had brought in a 45 year old pitcher from god-only-knows-where, the only discussion would be how long it would take the guy to win a Cy Young.

Unfortunately, Julio Franco is not a left handed pitcher. Julio Franco is a 44 year old (wink wink, nudge nudge) first baseman. When the Braves signed him in 2001, he was a 42 year old (wink wink, nudge nudge) first baseman who hadn't played a full major league season since 1997. Suffice it to say, it was hard to stifle a chuckle.

Not that "Braves sign Julio Franco" wouldn't have been a great headline…

In 1989, when he was 30 and coming off a .316/.386/.482 season as Texas' second baseman. Julio was a fine player in his day, actually. He finished in the Top 10 in OBP 4 times, and he made 4 All-Star teams. He actually won a batting title in 1991. The problem was, his day was a little over a decade ago.

In fairness, Julio was playing organized baseball, and doing a good job on September 1st, 2001. He was hitting .437/.497/.678. That's Batting Average/OBP/SLG folks. Julio Franco was hitting well over .400 when the Braves signed him.

Out of the Mexican League. Where the league leader in home runs was Mark Whiten. Where Julio Franco's home park was in Mexico City, which is roughly 3,000 feet higher than Coors Field. Stopping that laughter just got harder and harder.

Especially when Franco started 2 for 15 and looked about as silly as a hitter can look in the process. Julio's got this wacky batting stance where he holds his bat (a mammoth piece of lumber, one of the heaviest bats in the league) high up over his head and points it directly at the pitcher. When he gets fooled, he looks awful, and he was getting fooled pretty frequently those first few games.

And then a funny thing happened. Franco started to hit line drives, mainly to right and right center. Every day, 2 or 3 line drives to the right side. It was fascinating to watch, because everybody in the park knew that Franco was going to try and slash the ball to the right side. And yet, every game Franco would find someway to smack a ball to the off field. Some of the line drives fell in for hits, and most were caught, but even those were impressive. It was surreal, watching this 42-45 year old slash line drives off actual major league pitching. And somehow by the end of the season Julio Franco, 42 year old Mexican League All-Star Julio Franco, was hitting an even .300.

And it wasn't an empty .300 either. Franco was doing something few in the Braves hacktastic offense had the slightest clue how to do: Drawing walks and getting on-base. Maybe it was his approach at the plate, maybe it was a ferocious desire not to leave the big leagues again, or maybe it was just the stubbornness and cantankerousness that inevitably comes with old age, but for whatever reason, Franco did not give up at-bats without a fight. In fact, Franco coaxed enough pitches out of the strike zone that he ended up with the second highest OBP on the team, behind Chipper Jones.

He ended up hitting .300/.376/.444 in September, which isn't exactly good for a first baseman, though it is adequate. Then again, the Braves didn't need good, considering what they had been dealing with for the rest of the year. The Braves nearly set off fireworks at the thought of their first baseman approaching adequate.

First there was Rico Brogna who…well, Rico could really turn that 3-4-3 double play, couldn't he?

The last attempt was Ken Caminiti, a once great third baseman who played first base as if he was high. That made his off-season arrest for possession of cocaine a lot less surprising.

Sandwiched in between was Wes Helms, who once had a good game against the Brewers.

And believe it or not, Julio Franco is still on the Atlanta Braves on July 1st, 2003, which is shocking if you think about it. A 44 year old should not be able to get around on major league fastballs, it should be absolutely impossible. With his stance, with his bat, Franco should be making a fool out of himself on a daily basis. Oh, Franco has his flaws, like all hitters. He can't pull the ball, he really can't. Players on the left side of the diamond have been known to use Julio Franco at-bats to catch up on the latest celebrity gossip. He doesn't have the power you'd expect from a corner infielder. Heck, he doesn't have the power you'd expect from a 20 year old Yugo. And yet there he is, with that ridiculously heavy bat, with that goofy stance, looking for all the world like a washed up has been, hitting .290 and sporting the 3rd highest OBP on the team. It's mind-boggling. It's astounding. It's…

Inspirational.

That's not a word you hear tossed around when it comes to Major League Baseball any more. Baseball these days isn't supposed to be inspirational. We have so many people, from Bud Selig to Rick Reilly to Jay Mariotti, all willing to tell us what's wrong with the game, why we should distrust the players, why things aren't as good as they used to, basically why cynicism should be the order of the day. We hear it so often that all the cynicism is hard to overcome.

And then we watch Julio Franco, this 44 year old former All-Star, hit line drive after line drive into right field, and all of the negativism disappears. We watch Julio Franco, and we see the Fountain of Youth personified. We see somebody who is actually fighting a winning battle against the relentless march of the years. And we think that maybe, just maybe, Father Time isn't the inexorable demon we thought it was. Maybe all we need to do to is pick up a 34 oz. bat, and start swinging.

Andrew Bare can be reached at AndrewBare29@hotmail.com

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