I am primarily a set collector, a hobbyist who tracks down every card from a particular issue. This includes the stars, commons, and random one-hit wonder rookies that make up a set’s checklist. This also includes cardboard of cringe-inducing players like Lenny Dykstra or Pete Rose, athletes so annoying that I find myself wishing they were overlooked when the cards were issued. The only joy I get from cards of those players is the satisfaction of checking off a box. Cheering their accomplishments leaves a dirty feeling. Quite simply, they’re not fun.
The cards I most prize are the ones with a seemingly endless procession of interesting stories, few of which approach unseemly subjects. The players these cards portray are the ones I feel good about cheering for and look forward to seeing come to the plate. One of those players appears in the 1993 Finest set and I frequently find myself skipping past cards of guys like Roberto Alomar and Chad Curtis to view it.
What makes Julio Franco so fun to watch? Starting with the most recent developments, he’s old. I don’t mean this in a disparaging way, Franco simply continued to play at a high level beyond the limitations of age to the point where it became a distinct point of interest. He is the oldest player to hit a Major League double, drive in a run, smash a grand slam, and hit a home run. The latter is even more impressive, coming off Randy Johnson and arriving in the same game in which he became the oldest to steal a base. He even had a grandson in the stands watching the hit clear the fence. Watching Franco makes people eager to speculate what he will do next. Minnie Minoso famously made several appearances for the White Sox each decade as he approached his 90s and I view Franco as a viable competitor in this regard. I half expect a publicity stunt at-bat a decade or two into the future considering he has already batted in five consecutive decades.
Not completely a saint, Franco’s off the field issues remain in the realm of cartoon-level novelty. Tantrums against scoring decisions were common in the early parts of his career. He matured as he shifted into a multi-decade role as a veteran ballplayer, eventually setting aside a party-loving reputation as he made the transition. His shopping habits were odd and included a tendency to pick up oversized souvenirs on road trips that were nearly unable to accompany him back home. He kept exotic pets, including a wolf and a tiger. The latter made a public appearance when it accompanied him into the Texas Rangers clubhouse. Wade Boggs famously ate a whole chicken before each game, Franco ended each contest with a pizza.
An Unexpected Challenger
Pete Rose is baseball’s all-time hit king with 4,256 to his credit across 24 seasons. Add in another 400+ hits from a few minor league seasons and he is well past 4,600 professional hits. Ty Cobb is a few hundred behind him by this measure, as is Ichiro Suzuki.
Baseball Reference gives Julio Franco credit for 4,008 professional hits across stints in MLB, Japanese, Korean, Mexican, independent, and minor leagues. Nearly 300 hits from Dominican winter leagues take his professional total to almost 4,300, bringing him within sight of Rose and in line with some of the game’s greatest contact hitters. Franco’s longevity certainly helped his cause, though it should be noted his career .298 batting average is only a few points behind Rose’s .303 mark. While Rose edges Franco out in terms of extra base hits, it is Franco I find myself happily collecting.