One of the most prolific hitters to emerge from the Dominican Republic, Julio Franco started out as one of the best offensive middle infielders of the 1980s, and gradually, due to a bad knee and weak fielding, switched over to the designated hitter position in the 1990s, thriving there as well.
Franco broke in with the Phillies in the early ’80s, but didn’t last long thanks to his multitudes of errors at shortstop. One of five players sent from Philadelphia to Cleveland for Von Hayes in 1982, Franco soon switched over to second base, thanks to the advice of his friend Manny Sanguillen. Some said the Dominican’s immaturity made him a divisive presence during his six years with the Indians, but he was an easy target on losing teams with his weak defense and flamboyant style. Hitting from a distinctive knock-kneed stance with his bat wrapped high behind his ear, he earned raves in 1985 when he drove in 90 runs, taking advantage of a very high 244 opportunities with runners in scoring position. Franco batted .303 or better in 1986-88, but the Indians continued to lose despite high expectations (one national magazine picked them to win the WS in 1987).
In his early years, Franco was considered a huge defensive liability, leading led AL shortstops in errors in 1984 and 1985, but as the years went on, he made fewer after his fielding percentage was used against him in arbitration hearings. His powerful bat only partly compensated for his lack of range, and he gained a reputation of being unable to make the big play defensively.
In May 1985 the Indians acquired shortstop Johnnie LeMaster and asked Franco to move to second base. Franco balked at taking the job from his friend Tony Bernazard, and LeMaster was sent packing three weeks later. Franco was finally moved to second base in 1988 after Corrales was fired and Bernazard was traded. Before the 1989 season, Franco was traded to Texas for Pete O’Brien, Jerry Browne, and Oddibe McDowell before the 1989 season. He soon emerged as a Rangers team leader and mentor to Rafael Palmeiro and Ruben Sierra. His first year in a Texas uniform, Franco hit .316 with 92 RBI and stole 21 bases in 24 attempts. In 1991, Franco notched his best year, tallying 108 runs, 201 hits, 15 dingers, 36 steals, and a league-leading .341 batting average. He also had a little post-season thrill that year, becoming an American citizen at the end of October. In December of that same eventful season, Franco found God, and became a devout Christian.
Unfortunately, the following year, he missed all but 35 games due to a damaged right knee. Speedwise, Franco never recovered, and was shifted to designated hitter and first base for good following his comeback. When the Rangers didn’t resign him after the ’93 season, Franco joined the Chicago White Sox, and immediately performed well: In the strike-shortened ’94 campaign, Franco was on pace for his best offensive year, slamming twenty dingers before the strike and tallying 98 ribbies by mid-August.
When the work stoppage began, Franco wisely packed up and headed for Japan, playing the 1995 season for the Chiba Lotte Marines; the next year, he was back in America, DH-ing and playing second for the Indians once again. However, after a productive 1996 season, his numbers dropped and he was released in August of 1997. Milwaukee picked him up, and he finished the year with the Brewers before heading off for a second tour of duty with Chiba Lotte. In 1999, Franco played for Tampa Bay’s Triple-A Mexico City affiliate, before getting called up to the majors for one at-bat (he struck out). On June 20th of that same year, fellow countryman Tony Fernandez surpassed Franco as the all-time hits leader for a player from the Dominican Republic.
Franco’s seemingly dead career was revived for a last hurrah in 2001 by the Braves. Needing a first baseman for the stretch run, Atlanta signed the 40-year-old Franco out of the Mexican League on August 31st. In 25 games with the Braves, he batted .300 with three home runs and 11 RBIs.