December 6, 1988: Texas trades Pete O'Brien, Oddibe McDowell, and Jerry Browne to the Cleveland Indians for Julio Franco.
The Rangers fought feverishly over the span of a couple of days in the winter of 1988 to avoid further slipping into their recent downward spiral.
Just two years earlier, the club came within five games of first place in the American League West under new manager Bobby Valentine. But the Rangers swooned in the following two seasons, falling as far as 22 games under .500 late in the 1988 season.
Then, as 1988 drew to a close, the Rangers made two key trades aimed to brighten their hopes for the future.
The first came on the afternoon ofDecember 5th at the Winter Meetings in Atlanta, when reliever Mitch Williams, utility infielder Curtis Wilkerson, and a host of other players were included in a deal to land blossoming young slugger Rafael Palmeiro from the Chicago Cubs.
But the club wasn't done there, and would land another big fish the next day in the form of Julio Franco.
One of many native sons of the Dominican Republic, Franco broke into the big leagues with Philadelphia in 1982. It wasn't an extensive stay in the majors for the infielder, who mostly played at short during his 16 games on the big league level that season. But a year later, Franco found himself a part of a four player deal to acquire outfielder Von Hayes from the Cleveland Indians.
With the Tribe, Franco found a full-time position at shortstop and certainly made the most of it. However, his distinctive knock-kneed stance with his bat wrapped high behind his ear seemed to almost go hand in hand with his moody, often temperamental attitude in the clubhouse.
Franco drew rave reviews in his first year with the Indians, finishing just out of reach of Ron Kittle for American League Rookie of the Year honors. But on a Cleveland ballclub notorious for its uninspired play in the field, the infielder was no exception. Franco was an error machine upon switching leagues, committing 28, 36, and 35 miscues over his first three years with Cleveland.
Meanwhile, off the field of play, Franco's welcome in city on the Cuyahoga River was quickly wearing thin.
Over his six-year tenure with the Indians, Franco twice failed to show up for games - once during a road trip in New York and again following a pre-game dispute with his wife. He also spent time in a Dominican jail for carrying a gun in his car.
But during the 1988 Winter Meetings, former Rangers GM Tom Grieve dismissed doubts about the second baseman's reputation during a high profile get-together with a gaggle of the Indians' top executives. More esthetically pleasing to Grieve was the fact that with a proposed trade of Pete O'Brien, Jerry Browne, and Oddibe McDowell for Franco, the Rangers would keep their pitching staff in tact. It also enabled the Rangers to give a promising young outfielder by the name of Cecil Espy a look in centerfield.
The 1980's had not been a pleasant experience for anyone in the Rangers organization. Grieve, who was named the club's General Manager following a mid-season shakeup four years earlier, knew the club was in search of a new leader and they believed they had found him in Oddibe McDowell.
A first round draft pick in 1984, McDowell starred on the 1984 U.S. Olympic Team with such baseball notables as Mark McGwire, and former Rangers Will Clark and Bobby Witt. His obligations to the team kept him from playing minor league ball, but when he arrived in spring training a year later it left the mouths of the Rangers watering.
The centerfielder broke camp with Triple-A Oklahoma – an almost impossible feat for a player with no professional experience. He started the season on fire, hitting .400, with 7 doubles, an astounding 8 triples, and 2 homers over the first six weeks of the minor league season. Meanwhile, in the major leagues, the Rangers sputtered to yet another horrendous start. A three game sweep in Milwaukee had some believing the ship was about to be righted, but that was quickly followed by a 4-16 stretch of ball and the eventual firing of manager Doug Rader.
Bobby Valentine was quickly hired to replace Rader, and shook things up almost immediately. On just his third day at the helm of the team, he called up McDowell and inserted him into centerfield and the leadoff spot.
In his first year as a major leaguer, the smallish-sized bundle of muscle started off slowly but gradually improved as the games wore on. Of course, the highlight of his rookie season in baseball came on a late July evening in 1985 when he hit for the cycle against Julio Franco and his Cleveland Indians.
But the speedy leadoff man regressed over the span of the next two years before the Rangers finally ran out of patience with a player once deemed the future of the franchise.
Thus, McDowell, along with a fan favorite in O'Brien and a lightly built, slap-hitting infielder named Jerry Browne became part of one of the biggest off-season overhauls in team history.
After relocating to Texas, Julio Franco hit .316 with 92 RBI, and stole 21 bases in 24 attempts during his first season in Arlington. Things only got better a year later as Franco again collected over 170 hits, but this time stole over 30 bases.
But perhaps his biggest thrill of the season came during the 1990 All-Star Game.
With Wrigley Field as the setting, the game stayed scoreless through six innings. Sandy Alomar Jr. led off the AL seventh with a single, followed by another single from Lance Parrish. Franco was due up next, but the game was halted for a lengthy 68-minute rain delay. When play resumed, Franco smacked a double to right-center field off fireballing relief pitcher Rob Dibble, scoring the only runs of the game in a 2-0 victory for the American League. His efforts won him All-Star Game MVP honors – becoming the first Ranger in team history to win the award.
But Franco's best year was clearly in 1991. That season he claimed the batting crown with a .341 average and collected 201 hits. He also flashed plenty of speed on the basepaths, swiping a career high 36 bases. It was also a momentous year for the personal life of Franco, as he officially became an American citizen at the end of October. Later that Winter, he also found God, and became a devout Christian.
The hitting machine that was Julio Franco finally began to wear down in 1992 thanks to a knee he badly injured in an early July game. The injury completely wrecked his season, and also likely ended his tenure with the Rangers, who did not expect him to ever be the same type of player.
But Franco lived on, as you well know.
Although the Rangers would not resign him following the 1993 season, Franco joined the Chicago White Sox though free agency and picked up right where he left off. In the strike-shortened 1994 campaign, Franco was on pace for his best offensive year ever, slamming twenty homeruns before the strike and tallying 98 runs batted in by mid-August.
But Franco continued on, and on, and on. Fifteen more years and counting, to be exact.
With an unprecedented amount of travels to Japan, Mexico City, Korea, and playing time with eight Major League teams and counting during his 23 years in baseball – who knows exactly when we'll finally bid farewell to Julio Franco?
Only the charismatic Franco, along with his 2,586 hits (and over 3,800 hits in 29 seasons as a minor leaguer) know for sure.
Shaping the Rangers #9: Julio Franco
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