Julio Franco is returning to American professional baseball. Yes, that Julio Franco, the one who last appeared in the majors seven years ago with the Atlanta Braves, as a 48-year-old. Franco, now 55, is plotting a comeback with the United Baseball League's Fort Worth Cats. He will serve as a player-coach through at least the club's next homestand, beginning Tuesday and ending May 28.
By this time, we should know better than to be shocked. "Age is a stereotype," a 45-year-old Franco told reporters at spring training in 2004. "If you can keep playing, why shouldn't you?" And the next year, when asked what got him into another year of baseball at age 46, Franco offered a simple answer. "I got bored." He continued, "Well, I thought to myself, I might as well start playing a little winter ball."
Julio Franco's major league career was seemingly over after the 1997 season. In 120 games between Cleveland and Milwaukee, Franco hit .270/.369/.360, his worst healthy season in over a decade. For the next three seasons, Franco played wherever he could earn a paycheck -- first Japan, then Korea, then Mexico, where Franco showed he still had enough to play in the majors. Through 110 games with the Mexico City Tigers in 2001, Franco was hitting .437/.497/.678 with 18 home runs, 34 doubles and 90 RBIs -- good enough to catch the Braves' attention.
Franco joined the Braves for the end of the 2001 season and hit .300/.376/.444 in 25 games. It was impressive enough when everybody thought he was 40 years old. But in reality, Franco was already 43. Old media guides revealed the 1961 birthdate Franco originally used (which placed him as a 20-year-old when he debuted for the Phillies in early 1982) was false. The Braves then listed him as born on August 23, 1958.
Franco, for his part, has never cared to discuss his age. "Age is only a number," he told journalists prying into his birthdate at spring training in 2002. His manager Bobby Cox agreed. "His age doesn't matter. He can do it."
Franco remained a Brave through 2005, his age 46 campaign, and he consistently proved he could still do it. From 2003 through 2005, Franco hit .295/.367/.447 with 20 home runs and 42 doubles in 849 plate appearances. His age was a clear issue in the field, where he was limited to playing first base, but Franco could still hit like a major leaguer. In 2003, when Franco hit .294 with an .824 OPS, he became the second 44-year-old to take at least 200 plate appearances with an above-average OPS in major league history. The first was Cap Anson, who hit .331/.407/.400 for the 1896 Chicago Cubs. Franco remained an above-average hitter for the next two seasons, pinch-hitting, starting sparingly at first base, and filling the DH role in the Braves' interleague series.
Franco slowed down in 2006 and 2007 with the Mets. He could still draw a walk and find his way on base, posting OBPs of .330 and .328 respectively as a 47- and 48-year-old. But his defensive limits made him untenable on a 25-man roster. Franco played 36 games in 2008 with the Quintana Roo Tigers of the Mexican League, but he hit just .250/.356/.336 and hung up the spikes in May. "It was the hardest decision in my life," Franco said of the decision to retire. "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."
It's been seven years since Franco's official retirement. That's a lot of time to get bored. After three decades around baseball, Franco knows the cure to what ails him. Who knows if, at age 55, Franco has enough physically to play with the young guns, even in the independent United Baseball League. But Franco has yet another chance to prove age is nothing but a number, and knowing Franco's history, we probably shouldn't bet against him.