Tradition Field, Port St. Lucie – Being a professional athlete means you are at the top of the game, from little league, to high school, to college, to the minor leagues and then… if your lucky and impress the right scouts and managers… you may get your shot at the big leagues. There are a tremendous amount of talented players who get stuck in the minors. Some don’t get the big hits they need or have the 100+ mile per hour fastball it takes to get a shot at the big time, let alone set foot on the field of any major league stadium. The competitive nature of professional sports seems to focus on the development of young players to build their franchises. With the average age of major league players being in the mid 20s, most professional playing careers last into the early thirties. Only a handful of professional players are fortunate to have careers last into their 40s.
While injuries are the primary reason careers end prematurely, very few players can compete on the highest level required to stay in the majors. However, there is one relentless player who continues to play at the highest level, Julio Franco. At age 48, he continues to defy the clock with his remarkable physical condition and passion for the game.
Franco is entering his 23rd season of professional baseball; he is the designated hitter for the New York Mets. No, he is not a coach, but an important part of the Mets team whose goal is to make the playoffs for the second year in a row. As the DH, he will not play everyday, but when Mets manager Willie Randolph calls on him, he has to be ready. That means being in game-playing shape and having the mental fortitude to be ready at a moment’s notice. Having watched Franco workout with his teammates at Tradition Field, he is in remarkable condition, and still swings an amazingly strong bat. In fact, one would have a hard time differentiating him from some of the younger players on the field. He certainly doesn’t look like the old man on the team, and he says he “still has fun, enjoys coming out to the ballpark, everyday.” Although he does not have the power that he had when he broke in with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1980, he still has enormous energy and enthusiasm playing alongside his Mets teammates.
Randolph sees Franco as a leader in the clubhouse. When asked what he says to the younger players, “I set the example by working hard everyday, when they see me doing the things I do, it makes them work harder.”
Franco made history last season. On April 20, 2006, while pinch hitting for the New York Mets, Franco at age 47 became the oldest player in Major League Baseball history to hit a homerun, a two-run shot in the eighth inning at San Diego’s Petco Park. Some other records he owns are being the oldest player (by more than four years) to hit a grand slam, the oldest to have a multi-homerun game, and the oldest to steal two bases in one game. Old man? Not quite yet! Prior to that amazing feat, the oldest player to homer was Jack Quinn, who at 46 went deep in a game in 1930. The old record had stood for 76 years; the new one may well last another 50.
“I want to play for at least another five years,” he said. If this happens, Franco will be playing at age 55. That would put him in some elite company of players who have played beyond the age of 50. While most of us look forward to retiring after long careers, Franco said, “I want to be playing for as long as I can or until I lose the interest.” This looks like it might be a while, based on his youthful spirit at this year’s spring training camp. He says that God gave him the gift to play baseball, and he credits his spiritual values as another reason for his success.
Of course, it is quite possible that Franco may not reach the record as the oldest player to have played major league baseball. That record is held by Satchel Paige, who in 1965 graced the big league diamond at age 59.
But Franco’s impact on the game and records he holds will be around for a long time.
Beyond playing in the US, Franco has played in many foreign countries (Japan, Korea, Mexico and the Dominican Republic). “Japan is by far the most competitive place to play. The pitching is very dominant.” Whatever league he has played in, Franco has left his mark. In the majors, Franco has played for the Phillies, Indians, Rangers, White Sox, Braves and Mets.
Franco mentioned that today’s players are bigger, stronger and faster than the players from when he began his career. To stand next to him, he is an imposing figure, even at 48. His body is solid, and his appearance youthful. Franco follows a strict diet “…by eating all natural foods, and foods with no preservatives.” He stays away from unnatural foods and takes several vitamins daily, in addition to flax seed and soy milk. Franco also said that he has been lucky to have avoided a serious injury that could have jeopardized his career and that maintaining a consistent workout schedule has helped him to stay in top condition.
Whatever the future holds for Julio Franco, he has accomplished records that are sure to hold for sometime. With such a strong will and determination to remain healthy in body and spirit, he will not compromise his spiritual beliefs. He continues to be an example to baseball fans that age is not a factor when playing the American pastime.