Time to kick some Rockie ass? Time for young hurlers to prove something while other young hurlers heal? Time for SNY to bring the HD cameras on the road?
Yes to all of the above. But I'm not talking about those things. I'm talking about a more painful subject.
It's time for Julio Franco to step aside. Definitely for a couple of weeks, possibly for good.
Julio Franco is hitting .188. Slugging .250. Getting on base at a .322 clip. His OPS is .572. As a pinch-hitter, he's doing better but not much better — .250. On defense, he has very little value — if we had a depth chart for first base, he'd be third on it. And now his knee is hurt, so he can't run — witness the final out of our non-sweep in Philadelphia. I have a lot of respect for Julio Franco, and I'm sure if he could have run hard, he would have. But he couldn't.
As written before, as a baseball fan you have to resist falling prey to Not Player X syndrome. Seeing players and their shortcomings up close, it's easy to become irrationally certain that everything will be fine if Player X is excised from the starting lineup, the usual routine, or the roster. Who do I want playing right in late innings? Not Shawn Green. Who do I want coming into this tie game with the bases loaded? Not Scott Schoeneweis. And so on. The absence of an actual player to fill the role instead isn't the point, because that would be rational. No, in our worst moments we just want Player X to be somewhere else, to be replaced by … Schmendrick, as my co-blogger once dubbed the all-purpose replacement.
As sins of fandom go, “Not Player X” is even dopier than sentimental faith in the long-departed (I've heard rumblings of a Draft Edgardo Alfonzo movement among Mets fans, which tugs at my heart but not at my head) or crazy trade proposals. (WFAN voice: “Duh Mets shud send Heilman and Shoanwice to duh Reds for Griffey and that kid Bailey, wit duh Reds pickin' up Junior's salary.” Uh-huh. Take your meds.) But such suggestions are at least proposing alternatives, however fanciful. Not Player X is “we gotta get rid of this guy” and nothing else, as if 24 players would be an improvement.
Julio Franco doesn't deserve that. Because we don't truly want him gone. He earned his contract last April, when he saw Carlos Beltran's career path heading into the dreary subdivision along Robbie Alomar Lane, marked by such gloomy cul-de-sacs such as Booing Fans Court, Sniping Media Path and One Met Said Way. You remember: Beltran was refusing to acknowledge a curtain call, but Franco sent him to the top step, to a peace treaty with Mets fans and an MVP-worthy season. And that, one suspects, was a public example of innumerable conversations held privately in dugouts and clubhouses and hotels. We were never privy to any of them. We should be grateful for all of them.
Julio Franco is a marvelous baseball story. He's a marvelous story, period — a life with lots of chapters written in many lands, revolving around baseball but also quiet exemples of the value of living right, eating right, and drawing strength from within, whether it's from spirituality, self-confidence or both. (The Church of Faith and Fear is nondenominational.) He's given an enormous amount to baseball, and he's pretty far from done with it. You get the feeling he's one of those guys you'll never not hear about — he'll be a roving instructor, or a scout, or a bench coach, or a manager. He'll be having us doing double-takes and looking up his stats and the astonishing roster of his decades' worth of teammates for years to come.
Julio Franco is almost 49. That's not in itself reason to pack him off to the baseball hereafter. But neither should it be a guarantee of employment. That should come down to whether the Mets are better off with Franco as their primary right-handed pinch-hitter and a backup first baseman, or with someone else who could do the job and give them greater roster flexibility. Say, Ben Johnson or Ramon Castro. (A third catcher wouldn't be too different from a backup first baseman.) I have trouble believing the Mets wouldn't be better constructed with one of those guys filling Franco's role. These days the names of Lenny Harris and Rusty Staub are often invoked when discussing Franco. It's meant as a compliment, but when I hear it, my first thought is “two more guys who stayed too long at the fair.”
Sentiment is for fans, and it's a wonderful thing. But general managers (and fans trying to think like them) have to be ruthless. I'm not calling for Franco to be released — ruthless isn't the same as disrespectful. But doesn't it make sense for Franco to go on the DL until his knee is fully healed, with his role filled by Johnson — or Castro with a third catcher added? (As the always-interesting Tim Marchman writes in the New York Sun, “injuries are never good, but they can create unexpected opportunities and lead to surprising things.”) If that doesn't work and Franco heals, activate him — that's only fair. But if it does work, it's time to have a conversation.
One of baseball players' greatest strengths is their immense belief in themselves — a quality that in the best of them is every bit as superhuman as the astonishing things they can do physically. But eventually that strength becomes a weakness — to succeed at this level you need a will strong enough to deny reality, but reality always gets the final word. And it's the player who is always and inevitably the last to hear it.
The Braves are coming to Shea on August 7th. Maybe Julio Franco will be healed that day, and ready to contribute when the game is close and late. Or maybe we'll have seen that we're better off with Johnson or Castro or someone else in that role, with Franco continuing to contribute on our bench — but without leaving it. In which case it could be a perfect day for Franco to doff his hat for the cheers he's more than earned, from both dugouts and from the stands, as he begins the next chapter of a long baseball life.