Friday, July 13, 2007

In A Perfect World, Franco Would Decide When "It's Time"

I hope this isn't how it ends for Julio Franco. I hope the last at-bat he had -- albeit a base hit in Houston on July 7 -- isn't the last of his career and he didn't know it. I hope HE gets to decide when it ends -- and with the proper send-off by fans across the country.

Franco, who'll turn 49 next month, was cut by the New York Mets yesterday. Officially he was "designated for assignment." Same thing. He certainly won't be sent to the minors. His hit in Houston only raised his BA to .200 this season (10-for-50), so once again the emotion-less baseball decision had to be made. Such decisions have no room for nostalgia or warm-and-fuzzy feelings.

A couple years ago, Franco -- whose first MLB game was April 23, 1982 for the Phillies -- said in an interview that he'd like to play in the majors until he was 50. And who could have snickered at the time, for as recently as 2004 -- at age 46 -- Franco was hitting .309 in over 300 AB for Atlanta. Even last season, with the Mets, Franco hit a respectable .273 in 165 AB. He was a serviceable player -- a backup first baseman and pinch-hitter -- for a playoff team. None of this half-a-player, DH stuff. He came within a whisker of playing in his only World Series.

Franco as a Phillies rookie in 1982 ...
... and as a 48-year-old Met in 2006

I'm not delusional. I knew that one day, this day would come -- the day when Franco's employer decided that there was no longer a place on the roster for his battle-weathered body. But I guess I always hoped it would happen in the offseason -- if at all. I always wanted Franco to be the one to decide when his career was over, not some general manager.

The funny thing is, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays brought him into a game as a pinch-hitter once, to give him one last at-bat in the bigs. He struck out. That was on September 22, 1999. He returned to the bigs two years later, and has been there ever since -- until yesterday.

Maybe this isn't the end of the line. The pennant races are heating up. Maybe another team -- indeed even an AL club so that Franco could go the 1/2-player route and be a DH -- will take a flyer on him. Or maybe he'll keep himself in shape over the winter and put out feelers to other big league clubs for at least a spring training invite. Maybe.

Julio Franco might not be a Hall of Fame player, in some people's eyes. I think with nearly 2,600 hits, that he is Cooperstown-worthy. But I would challenge you to refute this: Julio Franco was a player with Hall of Fame dedication and commitment.

I hope I can stop using past tense, and only use it when Franco himself decides it's time. I know baseball doesn't work that way. I wish it did.


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