Today is Julio Franco‘s 57th birthday. Yes, he’s just 57. Isn’t that an odd idea that someone can only be just 57?
It was 2001 that Franco magically arrived on the team. After letting Andres Galarraga leave, the Atlanta Braves made the decision that Rico Brogna was their guy at first base. Rico had been a productive player between 1995-1999, bashing 20 homers four times, but Brogna was a Brave because he was cheap. He had hit .232 in 2000 while splitting time between the Phillies, Red Sox, and injuries. The Braves got him for $1.5M as a stopgap option. He got off to a good start, but after April 14, Brogna posted a .570 OPS with 2 HR.
Shortly before Brogna’s season came to a close in mid-July, the Braves spun the Wheel of Guys Who No Longer Could Play Baseball and came up with Ken Caminiti. Braves fans remembered the damage the steroid-aided Caminiti did to the Braves when the Padres beat Atlanta in the ’98 NLCS. He would also bash the Braves for three more homers in the NLDS as an Astro in 1999, but the Braves won that series. However, a year after hitting .303 for the Astros while dealing with injuries, Caminiti had been a failure for the Rangers, who cut him on July 2. Three days later, the Braves came calling. It would have been one thing if Caminiti hit as a Brave, but he didn’t and instead, we were tasked with watching him look exactly like a guy who had never played first base in his life. As Philip Seymour Hoffman said while portraying Art Howe in the film Moneyball, “First base is the moon to him (Scott Hatteberg).” But it wasn’t the moon…it was Pluto to Caminiti. He had been a three-time Gold Glover at third base (though that was 1995-97), but at first base, it was as ugly as you might expect.
All the while the Braves offended the baseball Gods with Brogna and Caminiti, they also had the 25-year-old rookie, Wes Helms, who actually started nearly as many games as Brogna. While Helms would rocket ten homers during the year – more than Brogna and Caminiti combined – he only on-based .293. He wasn’t an option, either. Neither was Dave Martinez, who got four starts at first. No, the Braves needed another option.
Enter Franco, who had been playing for the Mexico City Tigers and hitting .437 with 18 HR over 110 games. Franco’s time in the majors since the end of the 1997 season had included one game where he struck out in his only at-bat as a Ray. Outside of that, he had played for Samsung in Korea between a pair of seasons with Mexico City along with a run in 1998 with Chiba Lotte in Japan. It was a shot in the dark, but once Franco joined the Braves when rosters expanded, he immediately joined the lineup. He was like a myth come to light. 43 years YOUNG and with a body that made the 24-year-old Andruw Jones look fat, Franco stepped in and went 0-for-4 against the Cubs. The next day, he had two hits. Three days later, a three-hit game and a homer and he was off. Over his last 19 games, Franco hit .328 with 2 HR and an .878 OPS. Suddenly, for the first time all year, the Braves had a first baseman. Franco even homered in both the NLDS and NLCS.
Franco became a force for the Braves. While he destroyed lefties, he handled righties well enough to hit .291 as a Brave. Platoon partners cycled in and out of Atlanta. Matt Franco in 2002, Robert Fick in 2003, and finally a rookie Adam LaRoche in 2004. The emergence of LaRoche led the Braves to finally decide to cut the cord with Julio after the 2005 season. He would head to where old Braves went in the 2000s to remain competitive…the Mets. He hit .273 in 2006 with New York and even played some third base for the first time since his rookie year of 1982.
The game seemed to finally catch up with Franco in 2007. He hit an even .200 over 50 AB with the Mets and it no longer became a cute story. The Mets released Franco on July 16. That allowed the Braves to swoop him and pick him three days later. For the Braves, Franco represented yet another option to provide stability to first base like he had done in 2001. Scott Thorman had bombed, Craig Wilson had been released, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who was hitting .284, looked uncomfortable at first base. Of course, Franco’s chances of playing meaningful time ended before it even really began as the Braves acquired Mark Teixeira less than two weeks after Franco signed. That left the veteran without a purpose and he was sent to the minors where he would stay before returning in a pinch-hit role when rosters expanded. His last at-bat came on September 17. With Atlanta leading 10-6 in the 8th, Julio Franco, then 49 years-old, hit for Peter Moylan and singled in Kelly Johnson.
Atlanta moved on and in 2008, Franco opened the year with the Quintana Roo Tigers before announcing his retirement. He briefly served as a manager in the Gulf Coast League and the Mexican League, but Franco would return for seven games in the since-folded United Baseball League in 2014. This year, he’s a member of the Ishikawa Million Stars where he serves as player-manager. One of his players is Eri Yoshida, a side-arming knuckleballer who taught herself to throw a knuckleball by watching Tim Wakefield.
Franco remains one of the most well-loved players in recent Braves history. His run with Atlanta was amazing and at 56, he still keeps busy with the game he adores.