Baseball is a game of variance. Brady Anderson hit 50 home runs in one season but never hit more than 24 in any of his other 14 career years.1 There was a season Carlos Santana was better at stealing bases than Mike Trout.2 Mark Reynolds once finished with a higher batting average than Carlos Correa. Crazy things are ordinary; because baseball.
Fluctuations are not only guaranteed in the statistical sense but also of the players on a roster. Whether the performance dips or rises, movement to another team is more an inevitability than a mere possibility. Even the most consistent players can be moved as a team decides to add a veteran or get younger or just wants to shake things up. After all, Kenny Lofton was traded away from the 1996 Cleveland Indians despite four straight Gold Glove Awards, three straight All-Star games, and receiving AL MVP votes in three-of-four seasons, while doubling time as a fan favorite for many.
One of the few guarantees in baseball is that age will eventually catch up with everyone. Ichiro Suzuki (2001) is the only pre-2008 MVP award winner from either league still playing. The 2008 NL MVP Award winner, Albert Pujols, is now confined to being a well-below average hitter as his OPS+ has seen 115 points disintegrate from it.3 Pujols won the MVP award three times and finished in the Top 5 of voting 10 total times during his career, but an aging body has no reverence for such things.
The other guarantee of baseball in my lifetime has been Julio Franco as a professional hitter. Two years before I was born, over the summer of 1978, a young 19 year old Franco traveled from San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic to Butte Montana to play baseball for the Copper Kings. He hit .305/.381/.433 because Franco has never had an issue translating baseball across cultures.
In the 38 years that have passed since, Franco would spend 23 of them in Major League baseball with his last game being on September 17 2007 with the Atlanta Braves as a 48 year old man. He went 1-for-1 that day as a pinch-hitter and hit .321/.375/.429 over his last 11 MLB games- because of course he did.4 The remaining 15 seasons of his baseball career- both interwoven and after his MLB seasons- would be spent in Mexico, Japan, and Korea. Wherever there was a baseball team willing to put Franco in the lineup, he was there.
Like Lofton, Franco fell off the Hall of Fame balloting the first year he was eligible. The steroid era put a taint on the voting process with some writers sending in empty ballots and others with more worthy candidates than available slots, but the nuance of Franco’s career was never expected to be immortalized in Cooperstown. Cult heroes are not defined by popular societal acceptance after all.5
ESPN The Magazine’s Michael J. Mooney did a full profile of Franco during the 2016 season and noted that his fame in Asia was as much about his longevity as it was about his ability to hit.
A T-shirt for sale lists the clubs Franco has played on, starting with the Phillies in 1982 and including the Rangers, White Sox, Brewers, Devil Rays, Mets, Mexico City Tigres, Fort Worth Cats, Puebla Parrots and Samsung Lions (in Korea), plus two stints each with the Indians, Braves and Chiba Lotte Marines (in Japan). His first stint in Japan was in 1995, after the MLB season was cut short by the strike.
On it went year-after-year. I would check in to see where Franco was playing, give out some good “Hooooooo-leeeeee-Ohhhhhh!!!!” chants that hearkened all the way back to Sunday afternoons spent with my father in Municipal Stadium, and feel secure knowing that somewhere on this Earth, Franco was hitting baseballs for a professional team.
Suddenly, the blanket that had kept me warm my entire life has been ripped away. Franco spent most of the 2016 season as the player-manager of the KBO Lotte Giants futures team.6 He did not play every day, but he stepped to the plate several times per week. Near the end of the season the Giants decided new coaching was needed to attempt to create some results in what was becoming a lost season. So, Franco received the call that he was promoted to hitting coach of the KBO ballclub, which meant he was player-manager no more.
Lotte continues to decline and pulled the knife. The coaching team was reorganized in order not to fall behind the competition in the last season of the season.
Lotte Club said in a press release on the morning of January 18, “I changed the position of some coaching staff.” The first coach of Team One and the Future Steam team changed hands. Julio Franco hitting coach and Chris Jorge spring pitcher Coach, who helped the young players get into the season, will play the first-team main coach. Jumyeong Hwang’s pitching coach has been changed to Dream Pitcher Coach, and Chang Jong-hoon’s coach has been changed to Futures Hitting Coach.
The first foreigner who is not an Asian leader is a main coach. It is noteworthy that Lotte ahead of the 6th home match will be able to change the atmosphere with this low price.
It is worth noting that the legacy of Julio Franco will not merely be of him hitting on the field but of those who he has helped over the many years, organizations, and leagues. Playing a game of “How many degrees to Julio Franco” in MLB will still yield small results for nearly all players. For instance, every member of the San Francisco Giants has at most two degrees to Franco as his most recent protege signed from his current Giants to the Giants on the American side of the Pacific. Hwang has yet to duplicate his KBO success in his limited time at the MLB level, but he is hitting .289/.334/.480 for the Triple-A Sacramento Rivercats. Before leaving Korea he noted the influence of Franco on his game.
After hitting .333 with 16 homers, 62 RBIs and 23 walks in the first 68 games before the break, Hwang has batted .343 with 10 homers, 42 RBIs and 24 walks in 47 games since. He stole seven bags in the first half but 17 in the second half.
Hwang said it’s been “fortunate” that things have worked out the way he wanted them to. And working daily with the Giants’ famous hitting coach, former major league batting champion Julio Franco, has also helped with his mechanics and mental approach to the game.
Franco remains the hitting coach for the KBO Lotte Giants in 2017. A great conclusion to the story would be to see the Giants having made gigantic advances in hitting and destroying the league with an unstoppable offense. Baseball doesn’t work that way. Franco’s Giants are having a better season than last, and hitting the ball fine, while pulling a perfectly mediocre 50-51 record. Nothing out of the ordinary, but, then again, who knows what craziness lies ahead.
Regardless, if you happen to find yourself in Korea, then make your way over Busan Sajik Baseball Stadium7 a few hours before a game. Walk over to the batting cages, and I’ll bet you a choice 7brau that there’s an older man in them taking some swings. Give him a good ole “Hooooooo-leeeeee-Ohhhhhh!!!!” for me.8
- I understand that he was using PEDs. Do you think he wasn’t using PEDs in any of his other seasons? [↩]
- Santana was 11-for-14 in 2015. Trout was 11-for-18 that season. [↩]
- 77 OPS+ from 192 OPS+ [↩]
- 9-for-28. Yes, I know what happened the rest of that particular season but you cannot take away how he left the game the way he came in. Hitting the baseball. [↩]
- Of all the crazy things about Julio Franco such as being the oldest player to record an RBI in a postseason game (with the New York Mets when he was 47 years old), the craziest might be that his first MLB postseason was when hew as 37 years old with the Cleveland Indians in 1996; 18 years after his professional career began. [↩]
- Korean Baseball’s version of the minor leagues. [↩]
- Considered the Korean Baseball mecca. [↩]
- WFNY made several attempts to contact the KBO Lotte Giants throughout the 2017 season but have not yet received a response. [↩]