One year ago tonight, Julio Franco homered off Randy Johnson, right into that silly pool at Chase Field. One year ago tonight, we loved Julio Franco.
One year later, Julio Franco has hung the proverbial 'em up.
He didn't reach his goal of making it to 50 as a player. He fell about four months short. He barely made it to 49 in the Majors last summer, cut by the Mets, picked up the Braves, dazzling no one by September. He was hanging on this spring in the Mexican League with the Quintana Roo Tigers.
They were the last stop in a professional career that began in 1978, when he was 19, and included stints with the Butte Copper Kings, the Central Oregon Phillies, the Peninsula Pilots, the Escogido Lions, the Reading Phillies, the Oklahoma City 89ers, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Cleveland Indians, the Texas Rangers, the Chiba Lotte Marines, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Angelopolis Tigers, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the Samsung Lions, the Atlanta Braves and the New York Mets.
Now Julio Franco is done.
He told Mexico's sports daily the Record that retiring “was the hardest decision in my life. I always said I would be the first one to know the exact moment. I think the numbers speak for themselves, the production speaks and this is the right moment. I understand that my time has passed and the great men and athletes know when to say enough.”
Given that he left the Mets fairly isolated from his teammates, I don't know that Julio Franco would qualify as a great man, but you can't argue the athlete part, not when he lasted for more than 30 years in professional baseball, not when he was playing in the big leagues in 1982 and was still playing in the big leagues in 2007. Though his vaunted clubhouse influence seemed to have waned or turned sour between the beginning and the end of his Met tenure, he seemed like a pretty good guy to have around in 2006 when so much was going so right so soon for his new club. His teammates then called him Moses, not Methuselah.
I'm a little more than four years younger than Julio Franco. I began getting published as a writer the same year he began getting paid for playing baseball. I get to keep writing as long as I like. I hope somebody will continue to pay me for it, as it is my primary marketable skill. Thanks to the Internet, I get to be published as long as I like (Buzz Bissinger's indignant sputterings notwithstanding). There is nothing remarkable about a 45-year-old writing for a living, or a 55-year-old or a 65-year-old.
It is astounding that a few months shy of his 50th birthday, Julio Franco was playing baseball and doing it competently and drawing a check for it. He'd been to bat 128 times for the AAA-caliber Tigres de Quintana Roo and was hitting .250. He homered once and drove in 15 runs. Carlos Beltran, whom Julio famously urged out of the dugout to take a franchise-altering curtain call two seasons ago, has driven in 13 runs over 96 at-bats in his league. A slow start at age 31, however, is worlds apart from any kind of start at age 49, no matter how amazing any kind of start at age 49 should be considered, no matter how tough it has to be say “enough” to doing what you have always done, doing what you have always loved.