Julio Franco is returning to American professional baseball. Yes, that Julio Franco, the one who last appeared in the majors seven years ago with the Atlanta Braves, as a 48-year-old. Franco, 55, is plotting a comeback with the United Baseball League's Fort Worth Cats. He will serve as a player-coach through at least the club's next homestand, beginning today and ending May 28.
By this time, we should know better than to be shocked. "Age is a stereotype," then-45-year-old Franco said at spring training in 2004. "If you can keep playing, why shouldn't you?" And the next year, when asked what got him into another year of baseball at 46, Franco offered a simple answer: "I got bored." He continued, "Well, I thought to myself, I might as well start playing a little winter ball."
Franco's major league career was seemingly over after the 1997 season. In 120 total games with the Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Brewers, Franco hit .270/.369/.360 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage), his worst healthy season in more than a decade. For the next three seasons, Franco played wherever he could earn a paycheck. He had stops in Japan, South Korea and Mexico, where he showed he had enough left to play in the majors. Through 110 games with the Mexico City Tigers in 2001, Franco was hitting .437/.497/.678 with 18 home runs, 34 doubles and 90 RBI -- good enough to catch the attention of the Braves.
Franco joined the Braves for the end of the 2001 season and hit .300/.376/.444 in 25 games. It was impressive enough when everybody thought he was 40 years old. But in reality, Franco was 43. Old media guides revealed the 1961 birth date Franco originally used (which placed him as a 20-year-old when he made his debut for the Philadelphia Phillies in early 1982) was false. The Braves then listed him as born on Aug.23, 1958.
Franco, for his part, has never cared to discuss his age.
"Age is only a number," he told journalists prying into his birth date at spring training in 2002.
Franco remained a Brave through 2005, his age-46 campaign and consistently proved he could still do it. From 2003 through 2005, Franco hit .295/.367/.447 with 20 homers and 42 doubles in 849 plate appearances.
His age was an issue in the field, where he was limited to playing first base, but Franco could still hit like a major leaguer. In 2003, Franco hit .294 with a .824 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS), becoming the second 44-year-old to make at least 200 plate appearances with an above-average OPS in major league history. The first was Cap Anson, who hit .331/.407/.400 for the 1896 Chicago Cubs.
Franco slowed down in 2006 and 2007 with the New York Mets. He could still draw a walk and posted on-base percentages of .330 and .328, respectively, as a 47- and 48-year-old. But his defensive limits made him untenable on a 25-man roster. Franco played 36 games in 2008 with the Quintana Roo Tigers of the Mexican League, but he hit .250/.356/.336 and hung up his spikes in May. "It was the hardest decision in my life," Franco said.
It has been six years since Franco's retirement. That's a lot of time to get bored. After three decades around baseball, Franco knows the cure to what ails him. Who knows if, at 55, Franco has enough physically to play with the young guns? But Franco has another chance to prove age is nothing but a number.
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