Roger is like a brother to me. And for good reason: he is. Almost four years younger than me, he turned 50 on May 1. I texted him, asking if he is supposed to be buying a sports car or something. By that age, haven’t you entered “mid-life crisis” territory?
When I was in college in the early 1980s, I attended a 50th birthday party with some friends from my dorm. They were from Gallipolis, Ohio, in the southeast corner of the state, on the river. A bunch of us joined them on a weekend road trip to their hometown.
The Gallipolis boys included Wick, who was what the girls called a “social butterfly.” Wick really enjoyed knowing everyone. I will always remember him as the guy from whom I heard the news that John Lennon had been shot. I was sitting on his brother’s couch, just kind of daydreaming, when Wick burst in to the room and broke the news. He was a couple years older than I. Chaz was Wick’s younger brother. Chaz was my age, and was quiet as a mouse. His skinny, white-guy afro boasted about a five-inch radius. Then there was Mole, an overweight, beady-eyed soul whom everyone liked. The Gallipolis boys loved their southern rock, especially Lynyrd Skynyrd and Molly Hatchet. (At the beginning of Skynyrd’s “What’s Your Name”, instead of “Well, its 8 o’clock in Boise, I-da-ho”, it was, “Gallipolis, O-hi-o.” Of course, my version had always been, “Mentor, O-hi-o.”) “Green Grass and High Tides Forever” by the Outlaws was always near the turntable in their rooms, along with the stray outlier like “Blues Power” by Eric Clapton, the Just One Night album version.
The birthday party was to be held at a private gun club on a Friday night. We arrived before dark, with dozens of folks rolling in after us. Before the guest of honor showed up, beer was flowing inside the club. Based on the smell, something else was also being shared outside. Eventually, a police cruiser’s flashing red lights illuminated the trees as it crept up the quarter-mile drive.
“Wait, they have no reason to be here. This is a private party.” Momentary hushed panic gave way to some laughter, and within a few moments, all of the attendees were outside.
We spread out and then congealed like a giant amoeba into a raucous cheering section as the lights drew closer. “Look behind the cop car. There’s a hearse!”
Sure enough, the police car was the hearse’s escort. They wound through the remainder of the driveway and pulled up to the gun club building. Several noted the smiling man in the passenger seat of the hearse as the birthday lady’s husband. He exited the vehicle and shut the door. “We’re gonna need some pallbearers.”
Several of the guys stepped to the back of the hearse. The doors opened and a casket was slid out. The pallbearers joined the husband in carrying it away from the hearse, up the front walk and into the building. The rowdy crowd engulfed them.
Once inside, the casket was set on one of the several round tables. As the cheering continued, someone opened it. The honored guest sat upright, with a rose in her clenched teeth. Still in the casket, she stood and began taking bows to the crowd. Her black tee shirt boasted a white “50” in a solid block font- and when she turned to face those behind her, the back of her shirt revealed the request, “DON’T BURY ME YET.”
It was every bit as crazy a scene as it sounds. Throughout the evening, mini-events were held, like singing performances. One notable act was a pair of twins — 30-something women who were both very pregnant — lying down, face up, with their heads hanging off the side of one of the round tables. From the neck down, they were covered with blankets. On their upside-down faces, bandanas hid their noses and eyes. On their chins were drawn eyes and a nose, and they spoke through upside-down mouths. They took turns telling raunchy jokes.
I don’t think 50 is very old. Isn’t it, “If you make it to 100, you win”? The best quote I heard about aging was from George Burns. In his early 90s, the entertainer was still active and as beloved as ever. He already had several shows lined up in Las Vegas for the week he turned 100. He said he couldn’t die before that age; if he did, he’d lose a fortune!
Do you suppose Julio Franco thinks 50 is an old age?
No, neither do I. The recent media attention he’s received as the 56-year-old player-manager of the semi-pro Japanese Ishikawa Million Stars attests to that.
He actually retired from the Atlanta Braves — and Major League Baseball — eight years ago, coming up just short of his goal of playing until age 50. He hadn’t planned on playing much this season, but an injury to the team’s best hitter has resulted in Franco playing every day. At last check, he was still hitting over .300, and driving in and scoring runs at a high rate.
It seems like a couple generations ago that Franco played with the Cleveland Indians. And for good reason: they acquired the Dominican Republic native as a second-year shortstop in a 1983 trade with the Philadelphia Phillies. At the time, the trade was billed as the Tribe’s top prospect, Von Hayes, for 1982 Gold Glove second baseman Manny Trillo and lesser prospects.1
Franco was born to hit. He finished with an average over .300 with the Indians in every year from 1986 through 1989. This was in spite of his use of the heaviest bat allowed (reportedly 36 inches and 33 ounces), and his unconventional batting stance (if you recall watching Franco with the Tribe in the ‘80s, you might also have memories of pointing the bat over the top of your head at the pitcher while standing knock-kneed and sticking your butt out, imitating Franco). One facet of his game that people may forget: he also stole 30 bases annually.
The problem for Julio Franco was that he had more trouble catching and throwing the ball than even more recent Indians fielders. He led the league in errors in 1984 and 1985. Franco’s fielding was said to be the reason Philadelphia was willing to let him go. He did improve; some feel this was a result of his defense being used against him in salary arbitration hearings.
When Franco joined the Tribe, Latin players were regarded with some suspicion due to their expressiveness and flamboyance. They tended to be viewed as uncooperative head cases. This was the narrative with Franco.2 When he first arrived in Cleveland, just off the plane, he reportedly wore no coat, had $5,000 stuffed into a sock, and was asking where the casinos were (that was hilarious at the time). Beginning in 1983, Pat Corrales was his manager. Coincidentally, Corrales had also been his manager in Philadelphia the year before. Corrales later acknowledged that like many ballplayers, Franco enjoyed beer and women. He was very talented, and he knew it.
Yes, there were some discipline issues. Once, in New York, Franco had come through with a game-winning hit. Celebrating his brother’s birthday, he stayed out late afterwards, and didn’t bother showing up for the next night’s game (I don’t know about then, but perhaps today, the reason for his being out of the lineup would be listed as “flu-like symptoms”). Corrales routinely fined Franco for a lack of hustle, as well. It was matter-of-fact, without any hollering from Corrales. Franco would come off the field, walk by Corrales, and ask, “How much?” Corrales would calmly reply with the amount of the fine.
So, some of the skepticism over Franco’s character in his younger days does seem well-earned. During the early part of the 1985 season, Johnny LeMaster was acquired by the Tribe to play shortstop. Franco was asked to move over to second base. The player to be benched was his friend, Tony Bernazard. Franco protested the move, and LeMaster was traded away three weeks later. Franco remained at shortstop until 1988, when Bernazard was traded and Corrales was fired.
By the time the end of the 1980s arrived, the Tribe had suffered through a long era of losing. This included a painful withering under the white-hot national spotlight of high hopes in 1987. Some said Franco’s effect on the team was divisive, while others felt he was an “easy target” on a terrible team. After the 1988 season, mild-mannered manager Doc Edwards gave the front office an ultimatum: He would not return in 1989 if Franco returned. Edwards reportedly had enough of Franco’s attitude and lifestyle, including his habit of bringing a Rottweiler and a snake to the Indians’ clubhouse.3
Some players from Latino cultures are seen as extremely proud and sensitive, especially to insult. However, some insist that being looked to as a leader can sometimes transform such a player into a “model” teammate.4 Indeed, being traded to the Texas Rangers for the 1989 season seems to be an important turning point in Julio Franco’s career. Some feel he was welcomed in Texas as a leader, and that trade marked the beginning of his status as a true star: he was an All-Star three times for the Rangers, and led the league in hitting in 1991 with a .341 average. Franco also assumed a role on the Rangers as one who counseled young players to keep their temper under control. Franco became a devout Christian during this time, as well. This was at the start of the George W. Bush ownership era with the Rangers. Franco and “W” remain close friends today.
Julio Franco had one of the best years of his career in 1994. He hit .319 for the Chicago White Sox. Tribe fans will recall that year as being shortened due to owner/player bargaining issues. At that time, no one knew whether there would be a season in 1995; Franco wanted to play ball, so he signed with the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan. He was with the Marines twice during his career. He played alongside American Pete Incaviglia, and under manager Bobby Valentine. Franco remains a favorite in Japan, and the feeling is mutual. In a 1996 interview , Franco gave his impressions of Japanese baseball:
•The tough Japanese-style workouts helped a player’s longevity (he adopted them).
•Japanese players were too hesitant to steal and take extra bases. They feared being thrown out. And they were too willing to bunt.
•The umpires often changed their strike zones during games.
Franco played with several other organizations during the following seasons, in the U.S., Japan, and in Mexico. He was actually booed by Cleveland fans during a few return visits while with other teams (the boo birds were envious of his success while the Tribe’s efforts remained futile), but he was again cheered as a hero when he re-signed with the Indians in 1996 as a role player during that historically powerful era.
Should Julio Franco wind up in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame? Let’s consider. He enjoyed an impressive and storied career. He has the most hits among all Dominican-born players (the list includes Sammy Sosa, Pedro Guerrero, Rico Carty, the Alou brothers, George Bell, and eventual Hall of Famer Albert Pujols). He left the big leagues for a time, on his terms, during the ’94 stoppage. When one totals his hits including those from his Japan and Mexico days, they add up to over 4,200. But we can’t do that in determining Hall eligibility, of course. He was a lifetime .300 hitter as a middle infielder/DH with 2,586 total major league hits. He was a three-time All Star who finished as high as eighth in MVP voting. He led the league in batting once. He never starred in the postseason. His closest “comp” is Alan Trammell (their MLB numbers are very similar. Franco had the better average and more major league hits; Trammell had a little more pop). Trammell’s defense was solid and steady. Alan Trammell is not in the Hall of Fame…
Over the years, Julio Franco became extremely health-conscious and is careful about what he eats. He also became a workout warrior. Nicknamed “Moses” in 2006 by teammate Billy Wagner, he holds several age-related baseball records.
He’s reached most of his goals in baseball. Except his longevity goal — he now says he wants to play until age 66!
- Sneering Phillie fans still refer to Von Hayes as “5-4-1.” Philadelphia ostensibly acquired the solid outfielder-first baseman for five no-names; defending two-time second baseman Manny Trillo may not have had much left in the tank, but Julio Franco himself > Von Hayes [↩]
- Maybe I’m wrong, but I often think a lot of racism and pre-conceived cultural expectations over the years resided more with sports writers than with the fans in general. Just reading old articles from the SI Vault seems to support this. So it’s ironic to me when an enlightened writer of today chastens the reader to evolve in his acceptance of others. [↩]
- Sports Illustrated, August 13, 2007 [↩]
- The Social Roles of Sport in Caribbean Societies, Michael A. Malec. And Franco’s role today as player-manager seems to serve as clear validation. [↩]