It’s always bittersweet looking back at the 1994 season.
The Chicago White Sox were 67-46 when the strike, well … struck.
Future Hall of Fame first baseman Frank Thomas was in the midst of a potential Triple Crown season. All-Star third baseman Robin Ventura was putting together another solid campaign, along with future Hall of Fame left fielder Tim “Rock” Raines and “One Dog” Lance Johnson. Alex Fernandez and “Black” Jack McDowell led the way on the bump.
The ’94 squad was the one that cemented my South Side fandom. At nine years old, and hailing from the North Side with an entire family and group of friends composed of Chicago Cubs fans, it was the 1994 White Sox that roped me in for good.
The unsung hero of that team, for me, has always been designated hitter Julio Franco. The three-time All-Star was having arguably the best season of his career while protecting the “Big Hurt,” hitting .319 with 20 home runs and 98 RBI through 112 games. In his single season at Comiskey Park, Franco wound up setting his career highs in both homers and RBI.
With Franco only spending, essentially, five months in the black-and-white jersey and Topps Now not yet being around to print new cards on a nightly basis, finding Franco cards in a White Sox jersey was not an easy task for my nine-year-old self. As a matter of fact, it took me several years to finally obtain this one in a trade with a neighborhood collector.
Besides the gold signature and plating that made this insert kind of “rare,” the back of this card (which contains a photo of him playing first base, where he only spent parts of 14 games that season) became comedic gold as the years passed and Franco continued to play.
Franco joined the White Sox for his age-35 season, with many pundits wondering what, if anything, he had left in the tank after a successful five-year run with the Texas Rangers and an injury that limited him to just 35 games in 1992.
When the ’94 season abruptly ended, Franco had finished his 13th season in the big leagues. He had played in 1,658 games with 1,922 hits, 120 home runs and 861 RBI. Had he returned following the strike for only a few seasons it would have made sense. Heck, had he retired due to the length of the strike, it wouldn’t have come as much of a shock.
But Franco wasn’t a typical mid-30s ballplayer with thoughts of riding off into the sunset with their best days behind them. Oh, no.
Hold on, this gets a little crazy.
In 1995, Franco played in Japan. Then, at age 37, he came back to the majors for a couple of years. At age 39, he went back to Japan. At 40, he played for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays — and in the Mexican League. At 41, he went to Korea to play.
So, maybe that wasn’t the craziest path. After a lockout, head overseas to play, dabble back in the majors, DH for the Rays at age 40.
OK, now it gets really crazy.
From age 43-48, Franco remained a major leaguer. And what’s more, he was a major leaguer in the National League. That means no designated hitter: Franco was valuable enough to take up a roster spot and primarily function as a pinch-hitter or late-inning/rarely used first baseman.
After his White Sox stint, Franco would go on to play more than a decade longer, with his last MLB action in 2007.
The front of this card always brings a smile, as it’s easy to ponder what Franco is thinking about as he looks out at the diamond and awaits his next plate appearance — one of the 9,731 of his career.
Did he know, at the time, that he wanted to devote another 13 years of his life to the game he clearly loved so much? Or was he simply studying the opposing pitcher, defensive alignment and intricacies of the game that undoubtedly made him a valuable piece to any roster?
Regardless of what he was thinking, everyone has to agree we’ll never see another Julio Franco.