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Playing the Braves makes me think about Julio Franco

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If you've ever attended a game with me when the Marlins played the Braves (or any of a number of other games when Julio was with other teams), you've surely heard me tell one variation or another of this story, so bare with me - or wait for another post or something. For those of you who haven't heard it before, maybe you'll enjoy it. If not, head over to Gaslamp Ball and leer at Anna Kournikova or re-live a pretty funny foul ball situation (Gaslamp is fast becoming one of my favorite daily reads - the Barry Bonds and opening day video are pretty funny too, but I'm too lazy to link to all of that right now).

Anyway, here's my Julio Franco story. But to tell it, we have to get in the way back machine, and go all the way back to March of 1988, when I was 10 years old (the story probably makes much less sense if you don't know my age)...

Now you can continue reading the setup for the story, or you can click here to go right to the Julio Franco part (eventually you'll have to click read more to find the conclusion anyway (but I think the setup is worth reading).

As a kid (and still today actually) I've always enjoyed Spring Training. It's cheap, the rules are lax (and I always seem to have an issue with stadium policy, so this is a good thing for me), the players and coaches are accessible (I had more than one encounter with Willie Mays - then a Giants coach - as a kid), and you're usually a little closer to the action than during the regular season.

I was also fortunate enough to have been a kid before Spring Training took off. A few weeks back I came across some old ticket stubs and I noticed that our Giants Spring "season" tickets were $3.50 each. This was for second row tickets immediately behind home plate (closer to the action than the Giants owners sat). Today, you can't sit on the berm for that price.

Before things took off too, you could be a batboy. Now, I didn't know that until I lucked into it one day (which is a theme in my life), but it worked out really well for me (which is another theme in my life).

One day I talked my parents into taking me to Chandler, which was where the Brewers then trained. Chandler was not close to my house mind you. Back then, Chandler wasn't close to much of anything except for dirt. Everything in Arizona was like that back then. Now it's probably covered with houses, golf courses, and businesses. Anyways, we went to Chandler because the Brewers were playing the Cleveland Indians (this was before they moved back to Florida, obviously), who had Ron Kittle, my all-time favorite player (which is another long story for another day) on their roster.

So we showed up in Chandler at an ungodly hour (for everyone else at least) - even before the Indians bus arrived. I had hoped to get an autograph and maybe talk to Kittle a little. Little did I know I was in for much more than that.  

Dressed in a 1983-style road White Sox jersey, fully outfitted with Kittle's name and number on the back (which I believe was a going away present or a birthday gift from a girl named Kelly when we left Chicago a few years earlier) and a mesh, adjustable Indians hat (obviously this was before my GQ fashion sense kicked in), I must have looked very pathetic that day.

I think it was my pathetic-ness, and keen ability to be in the right place at the right time, that turned this day into a very eventful day.

You see, at the Brewers old Spring home, the teams' clubhouses were up on the main concourse level and they weren't connected to the dugouts. As you can imagine, this is not the most favorite thing of the players, as they have to walk through the crowd to get to and from the field. This is perceived as a negative by the players because little dorks like me (big ones too, I suppose) lineup outside of the clubhouse and wait to harass ballplayers into giving them autographs as they make their way to the field/dugout.

Luckily for me these were the Cleveland Indians that were the inspiration for Major League, so there weren't too many of us (possibly any others) lined up outside of the Indians clubhouse (plus, we were in Brewer-ville, effectively, and Paul Molitor and Robin Yount - who might be fodder for yet another story on another day - were going to have to make the same walk from their clubhouse to the field).

So as I stood there, waiting for Kittle to come out, the Indians clubhouse manager walked out and asked me if I'd like to be a batboy for the game. After regaining the ability to speak, I said something like "Would I?" or "Of course I would." This was huge for getting the opportunity to talk to Kittle and the like - not only was I going to get to batboy for the game, but I got to hang out in the clubhouse before the game (which is probably the coolest thing in the world when you're 10 years old - or even 27). (There was however talk that Kittle might have to make call home to his wife in case she caught the game on TV or radio to explain in advance why the batboy was wearing a White Sox jersey and Indians hat)

So how does this turn into a Julio Franco story? Well, here's how...

So we're in the clubhouse, waiting for the game to start. The coaches are getting anxious, because not everyone is there - well, only one person is missing. So someone says to me that when we leave for the field I should bring Julio Franco's jersey down to the dugout. Now, I knew who Julio Franco was because we'd followed the Indians well enough by that point, but I didn't realize that he wasn't in the clubhouse. And when you're ten years old and someone in a uniform tells you to carry a jersey down to the dugout, you just do it and you don't think about it (other than that it's the coolest thing in the world to do).

Apparently this wasn't something I was really supposed to do. I was supposed to acknowledge the order but leave the jersey behind. Later I would learn that this could have saved Mr. Franco some embarrassment.

Eventually the game started and eventually (although somewhat later) Julio Franco appeared. As the folks at Gaslamp would say, the first thing you noticed about him then - when he was hatless and not in the batter's box - was that he had "major league hair." He was also apparently hung over or otherwise partied out, and that was why he was so late.

And now he was in the dugout, but without his full uniform, because of course, I had brought his jersey to the dugout. So he had to finish dressing himself in the dugout.

This had the effect of making it nearly impossible for Franco to sneak into the dugout unnoticed and then play it off later to the coaches as if he had arrived at a more reasonable time (although still not the two or three hours before the game that the rest of the team did).

Eventually Franco got into the game - and if my memory is correct, he even got a hit or two. Later in the clubhouse after the game, I had my second encounter with Julio.

While I wasn't expecting anything, although I think I knew I was going to get to take home any bats of my choosing that were broken during the game, I was told that my payment for my batboy services was an autographed ball. Better still, to collect the autographed ball, I had to go around the clubhouse and ask each player to sign it, one-by-one.

Had their not been so much nudity involved, this would have been something great to have captured on video. Sure, these were the Indians, who were not highly regarded - despite their hot start later that season - but there were a lot of big leaguers in that lockerroom who you'd recognize. Kittle, of course, the 1983 AL Rookie of the Year, and my all-time hero. Future World Series hero Joe Carter. The highest draft pick ever out of the state of Utah, Cory Snyder. Young shortstop, who went on to a lengthy career, Jay Bell. Young Greg Swindell would become the ace of the staff. Tom Candiotti, who seemingly pitched forever, was also on the staff. Doug Jones, who was a good closer, was also an Indian that year. Even current Giants pitching coach Bud Black was an Indian back then.

All of them signed for me that day. Whether they were getting changed, eating food, doing an interview, or doing anything else, everyone stopped to sign my baseball. Everyone that is, except for Julio Franco.

Franco said that he didn't sign baseballs. Actually, he didn't tell me that. He just ignored me. He told the clubhouse manager that he wouldn't sign. Apparently this wasn't because of the jersey issue earlier, but just a personal Franco policy.

Manager Doc Edwards thought otherwise of the situation and ultimately made Franco sign the ball for me.

While the encounters I had with Julio Franco that day were very odd, at best, I walked away really liking Franco (and a number of other Indians) a lot. I've enjoyed following his career since.

It's also been interesting for me, having that glimpse of him as a 29-year old in 1988. That would be his 6th full year in the majors, and at that time, I doubt anyone would have predicted that he'd go on to a 20-year (and counting) major league career that would span (at least) three decades. Actually, at the time there were doubts as to how long he could stick in Cleveland because he seemed to spend more time partying and living the good life than focusing on playing baseball. Of course, there was talk about changing his long swing then too (which I would swear was even more exaggerated back then - I think he's dialed it down a little as he's slowed with age).

Today, Franco is regarded as a solid player who's had a great career. Depending on how things end up, he may have a shot at the Hall of Fame one day. For that to happen though, he'd have to retire - which doesn't seem to be likely to happen anytime soon. A lot of that is due to Franco's determination and work ethic, and how well he takes care of his body. It has always impressed me how well he has done this, especially later in his career, because when I first met him in 1988, he sure didn't seem like a guy who would take that path in life at all.