Happy Birthday, Julio Franco. He turns 47 today, which makes him older than Ryne Sandberg, who was inducted recently into the Hall of Fame, the same age as the Los Angeles Dodgers, Sweet n' Low, Pizza Hut, the Hula Hoop, Toyotas, VISA and American Express, and nearly 30 years older than Mariners right-hander Felix Hernandez.
Franco is the oldest non-pitcher in major league history (not including stunt appearances such as those by Minnie Minoso). Last season, Franco became the oldest player to get 50 hits in a season, and had more than twice as many RBI (54) as any 45-year-old in history (Pete Rose had 25 in 1986). This season, Franco became the oldest player (by more than four years) to hit a grand slam, the oldest to hit a pinch-hit home run, the oldest to have a multi-home run game and the oldest to steal two bases in one game. If he hits another homer, he will replace pitcher Jack Quinn (1930) as the oldest player ever to do so. And he'll become the oldest to hit 10 homers in a season (Carl Yastrzemski hit 10 in 1983 at 44).
Franco will hit another home run because he can still really hit, which is the most amazing part of his being 47, especially when you consider that he still uses one of the heaviest bats in the game. He has always been able to hit, back to the days when he was smoking line drives to right center as a 160-pound shortstop for the Phillies' Class A team in 1980. He is a career .300 hitter with 2,513 hits (3,240 counting those he accumulated in Japan, Korea and Mexico), a batting title and the distinction of being the only major leaguer we've ever seen who sometimes takes batting practice with a batting donut on his bat, and yet still rifles balls all over the field. Bobby Valentine, one of his former managers, was once asked how Franco could do that. "I have no idea," Valentine said, incredulously.
Franco is a medical marvel. Even when he was a skinny teenager, his hands, wrists and forearms were as strong as men 100 pounds heavier. Now he's listed at 210 pounds (he looks bigger than that), thanks in part to being a demon in the weight room for the last 26 years.
"Look at him with his shirt off,'' teammate Chipper Jones said recently. "He's built better than anyone on our team."
Former teammate Paul Byrd attributed Franco's amazing success at such an advanced age to lots of sleep. "He takes a power nap every day on the couch in the clubhouse,'' Byrd said. "He's dead to the world. That must be his secret.''
His secret also is eating a lot of food. Franco told ESPN's Jeremy Schaap that he eats six to seven meals a day, starting with a normal breakfast of 12 egg whites, raisins or strawberries. He drinks a protein shake at 10 a.m. every morning. He eats a steak or fish for lunch, takes his dinner (mostly protein) to the ballpark, then eats dinner again after the game. At 3 a.m., he wakes up, drinks another protein shake, and goes back to sleep.
Eat, lift and be merry. That has been Franco for most of his 24-year career. Franco made his major-league debut in 1982 (Michael Jordan was then a freshman at the University of North Carolina, 39 active major leaguers weren't even born yet) with the Phillies. Other members of that team included Stan Bahnsen, Del Unser, Pete Rose, Bill Robinson, Steve Carlton, Ron Reed and Sparky Lyle, all of whom are now in their 60s. Gary Matthews was on that team; Franco has also played against Matthews' son. And, yes, Franco is old enough to have a grandson.
Franco has been traded twice in his career, once in 1982, from Philadelphia to Cleveland in a deal involving Manny Trillo, George Vuckovich, Jay Baller, Jerry Willard and Von Hayes, and from Cleveland to Texas in 1988 in a deal involving Pete O'Brien, Jerry Browne and Oddibe McDowell. None of those eight players has played in the last 10 seasons.
The year Franco was born -- 1958 -- America was at war in Korea, Elvis joined the Army, segregation was ruled unconstitutional, Dwight Eisenhower was the president of the United States, gas cost 24 cents a gallon and Ted Williams, Sal Maglie and Mickey Vernon were still active. Now Franco is 47, and still a key member of a team that is on its way to the playoffs. Franco says his goal is to play until he is 50 years old, which seems ridiculous. But with the way he's going now, it's entirely possible.
Rumor has it that he invented the rule to run the bases counter-clockwise.