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julio-franco-hangs-up-his-spikes | May | 2008 Articles

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Julio Franco Hangs Up His Spikes

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The first thing anyone noticed about Julio Franco was his batting stance. His body jacknifed toward the pitcher, his elbows above his head, holding his bat -- always the heaviest in the major leagues -- parallel to the ground, pointed forward. Every swing was a violent whirl, bringing the bat from front to back and then through the strike zone to meet the pitch. Every swing of every at-bat of every game. He retired today, at the age of 49, the oldest regular position player in the modern era.The motion was indescribably inefficient, which is why he’s the only batter who ever had such a stance. By the end of his career, he was almost exclusively an opposite-field hitter. He didn’t have a great deal of bat speed, but he had exquisite, and almost inexplicable, bat control, which allowed him to foul off pitch after pitch until he finally could either work a walk or drop a single into right field. His teammates consistently marveled that he was in the best shape of anyone on the team. In a previous life, before he was a 40-year old pinch hitting wonder, he was one of the best-hitting shortstops in the American League, playing with the terrible Indians teams that inspired the movie Major League, largely prior to the offensive explosion of the ‘90s. By the time he was 30, he was a second baseman on the early-‘90s Texas Rangers of Juan Gonzalez, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Ivan Rodriguez, and -- for one season -- Jose Canseco. When the strike hit in 1994, he went to Japan, spending the entire 1995 season there. He returned to the majors in 1996, at the age of 37, but was no longer a full-time player. After 1997, he went back to Japan, and other than a single at-bat with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1999, he appeared gone for good. But he hadn’t retired. From Japan he went to Mexico, and from there to South Korea. In late August of 2001, Atlanta Braves General Manager John Schuerholz found him leading the Mexican League in hitting -- seven years after his last season as a full-time player in the major leagues -- and brought him in as the Braves’ full-time first baseman for the month of September, at the age of 42. He ended the year hitting .300, for the 8th time in his career. He was the Braves’ backup first baseman and ace pinch hitter for the next four seasons, until the end of 2005, in an ultimate show of respect, the Mets’ GM Omar Minaya offered him a 2-year contract at the age of 47. He remained productive in 2006, but was less so in 2007, and was released by the club midway through the season. The Braves picked him up 6 days after his release, played him for a few days, then sent him to the minor leagues, calling him back up to the majors in September. He then declared free agency. He returned to the Mexican League at the beginning of 2008. He was a man who simply couldn’t stay away from baseball, and continued to play it at a high level longer than any other baseball player in history. For the Braves, he appeared in 501 games and had 1218 at-bats, with 29 HR and 179 RBI. Over the parts of 6 seasons he played for us, his overall line was .291/.363/.424, which is better than the lines currently being put up by Kelly Johnson, Jeff Francoeur, Mark Kotsay, and Matt Diaz. He really should become a hitting coach. I hope Bobby brings him onto the coaching staff. He’s an inspiration.
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