Tradition Field, Port St. Lucie – Being a professional athlete means you’re at the top of the game, from the minor leagues, to high school, to college, to the minor leagues, and then… if you’re lucky and impress the right scouts . and managers… you can have your shot at the big leagues. There are a lot of talented players who get stuck in the minors. Some don’t get the big hits they need or don’t have the 100+ mph fastball it takes to put together a big time, let alone set foot on the field of any Major League ballpark. The competitive nature of professional sports seems to focus on developing young players to build their franchises. With the average age of Major League Baseball players in the mid-20s, most professional player careers last into their thirties. Only a handful of professional gamers are lucky enough to have careers that last well into their 40s.
While injuries are the number one reason careers end prematurely, very few players are able to compete at 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 48 years old, he continues to challenge 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’s 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 a designated hitter, he won’t play every day, but when Mets manager Willie Randolph calls on him, he has to be ready. That means being fit to play and having the mental toughness to be ready at a moment’s notice. Having watched Franco work out with his teammates at Tradition Field, he is in remarkable condition and still hits an incredibly strong bat. In fact, it would be hard to tell him apart from some of the younger players on the field. He certainly doesn’t see himself as the old man of the team, saying that he “still has fun, he enjoys going to the stadium every day.” Although he doesn’t have the power that he had when he broke through with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1980, he still has tremendous energy and enthusiasm playing alongside his Mets teammates.
Randolph sees Franco as a leader in the clubhouse. When asked what he says to younger players, “I set an example by working hard every day, 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 history to hit a home run, a two-run homer in the eighth inning at Petco Park in San Diego. Some other records he holds are being the oldest player (by over four years) to hit a grand slam, the oldest to have a multi-home run game, and the oldest to steal two bases in one game. old man? Not yet! Before that amazing feat, the oldest player to hit home runs was Jack Quinn, who at age 46 went deep in a game in 1930. The old record stood for 76 years; the new good may last another 50.
“I want to play for at least another five years,” he said. If this happens, Franco will play at 55 years old. That would put him in an elite company of players who have played for more than 50 years. While most of us hope to retire after long careers, Franco said, “I want to play as long as I can or until I lose interest.” This seems to take a while, based on his youthful spirit at spring training camp this year. He says that God gave him the gift of playing baseball, and attributes his spiritual values as another reason for his success.
Of course, it’s entirely possible Franco won’t hold the record for the oldest player to ever play major league baseball. That record is held by Satchel Paige, who in 1965 graced the major league diamond at age 59.
But Franco’s impact on the game and the records he holds will be around for a long time.
Beyond playing in the United States, 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 made his mark. In the majors, Franco has played for the Phillies, Indians, Rangers, White Sox, Braves and Mets.
Franco mentioned that the players of today are bigger, stronger and faster than the players of when he started his career. To be next to him, he is an imposing figure, even at 48 years old. His body is solid and his youthful appearance. Franco follows a strict diet “…eating all natural foods and foods without preservatives.” He stays away from unnatural foods and takes several vitamins a day, along with flaxseed and soy milk. Franco also said that he has been lucky to have avoided a serious injury that could have put his career in jeopardy and that maintaining a consistent training schedule has helped him stay in top condition.
Regardless of what the future holds for Julio Franco, he has achieved records that are sure to stand for some time to come. 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.