Julio Franco was a 155-pound shortstop who hit rockets to the opposite field for the Philadelphia Phillies' Class A Peninsula team in 1980. Twenty-four years later, at age 45, he is a thick, muscled backup first baseman who hits rockets to the opposite field for the Atlanta Braves. And now Franco's goal is to play until he's 50, which seems preposterous until he removes his shirt.
"Just look at him,'' says teammate Chipper Jones. "He's in better shape than anyone on our team.''
Franco is a medical marvel, a freak in the best sense of the word. It seems impossible that anyone his age can maintain significant bat speed, but he has. That was clear April 10 against the Cubs. Franco was pinch-hitting in the ninth inning against Cubs reliever Kyle Farnsworth, whose build is as impressive as Franco's, but he's only 28 years old and he throws almost 100 mph. Franco fouled off multiple pitches before drilling a three-run double to right field to put the Braves ahead for good. How can a 45-year-old man still be playing major league baseball? How can a 45-year-old man catch up to a 100-mph fastball?
"That was quite an at-bat,'' said Cubs manager Dusty Baker. "Julio is so strong, he is so determined and he's really smart. He doesn't get the credit for that. That whole AB, he knew what was coming. He knows what's coming all the time. Man, that guy can really hit.''
Franco is the first non-pitcher to play in the major leagues at age 45 since Carlton Fisk in 1992. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, last year Franco became the oldest player ever to play in 100 games in a season (he turned 45 last summer).
Franco will turn 46 on Aug. 23. Jesse Orosco, a pitcher, holds the record for most games -- 65, last year -- in a season by a 46-year-old. Sam Thompson of the 1906 Tigers holds the record for most games played by a non-pitcher in a season by a 46-year-old: he came out of an eight-year retirement to play eight games that year. Franco surely will obliterate that mark this season.
"I love to play baseball,'' Franco said. "I have always kept my body in good shape to play.''
Franco always has been a great hitter, and he always has had ridiculously strong hands, wrists and forearms, even when he weighed 155 pounds. He always has been able to wrap that bat -- one of the heaviest in the major leagues -- around his head and somehow get it through the hitting zone. This is, after all, the same guy who has been known to hit line drive after line drive to all fields in batting practice with a weighted donut on his bat. Only a small portion of the barrel of the bat is exposed, but Franco always finds the barrel.
"How can he do that?'' Bobby Valentine, one of Franco's former managers, was once asked.
"I have no idea,'' Valentine said in amazement. "I watch it every night and can't believe it. He hits the ball as hard as anyone on a consistent basis. If I were to teach a young kid to hit, I'd tell them to watch Julio. Amazing hands. He keeps them high, then right to the ball.''
Franco's career began with the Phillies in 1982, a season in which Carl Yastrzemski, Luis Tiant, Sparky Lyle, Rusty Staub, Jerry Koosman, Jim Kaat and Mark Belanger were active. Franco or Ryne Sandberg was supposed to be the Phillies' future shortstop, but both were traded, Franco went to Cleveland in 1983 in the Von Hayes deal. Franco won a batting title (.341) with the Rangers in 1991, one of seven .300 seasons in the big leagues. He has played for the White Sox, Brewers and Devil Rays, as well as in Japan, Korea and Mexico.
"I was willing to go to Japan at the end of my career, but I wasn't going to Korea or Mexico,'' said Baker. "(Julio) fought his way back.''
The Braves signed Franco out of the Mexican League in 2001, reviving his big league career at age 43. It was greeted with skepticism by the media, but he has stayed two-plus years, and seems certain to return again next season. He is a fiend in the weight room, teammates marvel at his strength, and he has never lost his love of the game, his strength or his marvelous swing that has produced almost 2,400 hits. Now he's gunning for history, to play until he's 50.