War Hero: Julio Franco

August 01, 2007 | Comments (0) | by Chaim Witz

When I was 10 years old I approached my mother with a list of demands. First and foremost I wanted to address the atrocious bowl haircut that she had saddled me with. This thing had to go. I was no longer in kindergarten and had a reputation to uphold.

I argued with my mother that this reputation would surely be enhanced if I were to change my first name to Julio, in honor of my favorite player at the time, Julio Franco. Now dear readers, I will let you in on a secret. I am not Hispanic. Au contraire, I am as white as virgin snow. So the name Julio combined with my German-Irish last name doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. My mother cast a leery eye towards me, thinking it was a shifty ruse. No. I implored her to take me to the courthouse, post haste. A name change was in order and with it my life would take a leap forward. Alas, much like Theo Huxtable, I moved onto a new obsession a few weeks later and the name change was all but forgotten. In hindsight, the name change may have indeed been a good thing, as I am still waiting for my life to take that leap forward.

But friends, there is still time. It has been 19 years since my initial whim, and my hero (war hero that is), Home Run Julio is still playing professional baseball. This isn't a Bill Veeck gimmick. This isn't Minnie Minoso getting a few courtesy at bats for the record books. No sir. Uncle Julio is a physical specimen. All the man eats is grilled chicken, fish, vegetables and rice. No alcohol, soda or sugar. Somebody get this man an infomerical. Are you listening Mr. Bonds?

I was drawn to liking Julio as a kid due to his unique and unorthodox batting style. I tried myself to emulate it but couldn't get around on that 35MPH heat the third graders were chucking. I settled into a more Jerome Walton-esque stance and achieved success beyond my wildest dreams. No one could spray a ball to to opposite field like a young Chaim Witz.

But back to Julio. This isn't about me. He started off with the Indians, playing second base and shortstop. This was when the Indians had cool hats and Cory Snyder. It was there in the mid-to-late 80's that he made a name for himself. He was then traded to the Texas Rangers where he decided, "Fuck this, I'm going balls to the wall." In 1991, Julio had a career high 201 hits, whacked 15 very long balls, touched home plate 108 times, stole 36 bases (and didn't give em' back) and batted a robust and sexy .341. In Arlington, Julio Franco was a god amongst tan, Wrangler-clad men. Men with mustaches would sit in the crowd, watching Julio bat, a single tear streaming down their rugged, dirt caked faces.

Seeking the respect and money that he truly deserved and wasn't getting in Arlington (curse you George W!) he left for the South Side of Chicago. In the strike shortened year of 1994, Julio had 20 home runs and 98 RBI's in only 112 games. If my math is correct, over a full season he would have broken both the home run and RBI single season records. "Barry who?" your son would ask you today, a tatoo of Julio's face adorning his hairless chest. "Yes son, that's right. That's right." You smile and tousle his hair and stare off into the distance knowingly.

Now if this were a VH1 Behind the Music, this is where the music would get ominous and things take a turn for the worse. Julio made a ill timed decision to play in Japan (and later an even worse decision...the Devil Rays!) and soon the injury bug began to plague him. Not enough fish and veggies kids.

For the next few years he bounced around between Mexico and Japan. He would eat raw fish and practice karate. He opened up Julio's Dojo, where he taught Japanese youth how to fight defensively without inflicting harm on an opponent. He rode on the backs of snubnose dolphins. He hung out in Mexican cantinas with Fernando Valenzuela, drinking tea and learning the mechanics of a screwball. His major league career appeared to be done. He had a good run, but it was time to let the kids do their thing. Julio was content to ride off into the giant red Japanese sunset.

But then fate came calling (on an iPhone none-the-less!). Fate said, "Hello Julio, this is John Schuerholz. I am the general manager of the Atlanta Braves." Julio was confused, as he hadn't known fate to use an alias before. Starting in 2001, Julio Franco spent the next five seasons with the Atlanta Braves, driving in runs, thrilling fans with his glove work at first base and tutoring the next generation of Silver Sluggers. At age 46, Julio batted .309 with 57 RBIs and 4 SB in limited playing time. What a stallion. What a stalwart. Give it up for this guy. Jesus. (Fistpump)

But wait. He wasn't done. (Crowd: "Are you fucking serious?") Yes I am serious! In 2006, "Don't call me Jorge" Julio signed with the NY Mets. In general this proved to be a bad career move. The Mets already had a guy named Carlos Delgado. Julio's playing time decreased, but he was still able to reach some milestones. This year, at age 48, he homered off of Randy Johnson, becoming the oldest player ever to homer in a big league game. And for good measure he stole a base that game to. An old 'fuck you' to the Diamondbacks if there ever was one.

He was released by the Mets earlier this month, but never fear, was picked up by the Braves days later. In his first game back he drove in two runs and earned two standing ovations from the Atlanta crowd. You want your Hallmark moment? There is is my friends. Moses turns 49 later this year and has said he would like to play until he's 50. The man is like an out of control freight train that no one wants to see stopped. Like the one at the end of Back to the Future 3.

Here are a few more interesting tidbits I culled from Wikipedia. For the record, Wikipedia is never wrong.

-Julio Franco is the only active player to face a pitcher who pitched against Hall of Famer Ted Williams, who retired in 1960. The pitcher is Jim Kaat, who played in the majors from 1959 to 1983. Williams had batted against Kaat the final day of the 1959 season, Kaat's rookie year. Kaat walked Franco in the latter's rookie season in 1982.
- He is seventh on the all-time list for 'grounded into double plays' and has just over 300.
-Julio Franco is part shark.

Julio does not have a book out yet. But you can bet that when he puts his life story that it will replace Manute: The Center of Two Worlds as the book that I turn to in times of trouble. I will read his book to my grandchildren, who will sit on my lap looking up in awe at the tales of immortality that I reign upon their small, not fully-formed ears. They will look at me and say "Grandpa, are you serious?" I will look them in the eye and slowly unfold my birth certificate to reveal my legal name change. Julio Handfelt. I will wink and with a smile reply, "Oh, I'm f'ing serious."