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JULIO FRANCO HAS a translator standing a few feet away, but at the moment, he doesn’t need him, yelling to his players in Japanese. The three hitters taking batting practice in the grassless infield seem hesitant, so Franco switches to English and lowers the volume. His translator, a 25-year-old former salesman named Keita Sugano, jumps into action.
“Relax your knees and set your feet like this,” Franco calls out to one batter. As Sugano translates, he imitates the relaxed stance with his legs. Franco pushes up his chin before reminding the players, “Get your head up!” He wants them to hit without fear.
The next batter steps to the plate and, on his first swing, knocks the ball over the center-field wall.
“See!” Franco says, clapping and nodding.
After most of the players have batted, Franco, who last played major league baseball in 2007, when he was 49 years old, picks up the heaviest bat available — an ounce lighter than the 36 he preferred in the U.S. He steps to the plate and signals to the coach on the mound that he’d like a few pitches. The players around him stop what they’re doing and turn to watch. Cicadas buzz in the trees just past the outfield fence.
Franco lifts his bat, and there it is! That stance. It is perhaps the strangest batting stance in the history of baseball. His toes are pointed inward. His butt is way out- — as is his back elbow, which he keeps higher than his ear. His fingers are an overlapping tangle on the bat, and the bat itself is up over his head, like he’s pointing the tip at the pitcher’s face. From a distance, he looks like a knock-kneed pelican curiously leaning over potential prey. Up close, he looks more like a coiled snake.
Franco’s chest and arms are massive — maybe the biggest they’ve ever been. He’s thicker in the middle than he used to be, a little more barrel-shaped, but when he holds a bat, when he wiggles into that stance, he’s unmistakable. It’s the same stance he had when he debuted with the Phillies in April 1982 during the Reagan administration. The same one he had 25 years later, when he became the oldest position player in major league history to have 100 plate appearances. (He holds MLB records for oldest player to hit a grand slam, oldest player to steal two bases in a game and perhaps for being the only player to hit a home run with a grandchild in attendance.) He played against at least one pitcher who faced Ted Williams. He’s still married to that stance.
Now 57, Franco is in his first season as the manager of the Ishikawa Million Stars, in a Japanese independent league. The team is based in Kanazawa, a two-and-a-half-hour bullet-train ride from Tokyo. Being here means almost no money. It means almost no Americans. It means long practices in the sun, long bus rides through the countryside and playing before smaller crowds than he did as a teenager. But for Franco, it also means a chance to play a role in the game he’s loved since he first picked up a bat 48 years ago as a kid in the Dominican Republic.
He shifts his shoulders and stops, taking the first pitch without swinging. On the second pitch, he uncoils, smacking a line drive over second base. Several players clap. The next one he hits to the wall in left-center, what would have easily been a double in his prime — the days when he was winning a batting title with the Rangers. There are more claps. A few gasps.
“Look at that,” Franco says, as if he expected it all along, as if hitting a baseball were as natural as blinking.
He believes that being on this field is his destiny. It’s God’s plan. He tells his players that his body comes from God. That they too should believe in his God, and in Jesus.
When asked what he and the players think when Franco says these things, Sugano, who perfected his English as an exchange student in Alaska, pauses for a moment. “He is,” he says, “very different from the people here.”
Still, just like his players, Franco is trying to work his way up, first to the big leagues here, then, if he’s successful enough, to America. And he’s not just coaching. He’s playing too.
FRANCO SITS IN the living room of his apartment, which is small by American standards and huge by Japanese. He’s in the corner, wearing glasses, with his knees pulled to his chest and his ankles crossed. The boy who once worked in a Dominican factory just to play for the company’s baseball team has become something of a baseball sage, dispensing wisdom and philosophy. It’s a far cry from his early days in the game.
Franco used to scream at scorers and pretend he didn’t speak English to reporters. When he played with the Indians in the late 1980s, he had a reputation for arguing and sometimes going missing. He brought a gun into the clubhouse, and at least once, when he was in Texas, he brought his pet tiger. “Jana was only 3 months old,” he says. “Not much larger than an average house cat.” At one point, he also owned a wolf.
In the early 1990s — he struggles to recall the exact date- — he says he was born again and started living according to the Bible. He believes that his stance and quick hands come from God, that God has rewarded him with great endurance.
At the height of his career, Franco won five Silver Slugger awards. He was an All-Star three years in a row, and in 1990, he was the MVP of the All-Star Game. (He still brags about how heavy the trophy was.) He ended up with more than 2,500 major league hits, but if you add up all of his professional playing days, he’s closing in on 4,000. He was a star player in his prime, but when they celebrate him outside the stadium in Kanazawa, it’s for his longevity. A T-shirt for sale lists the clubs Franco has played on, starting with the Phillies in 1982 and including the Rangers, White Sox, Brewers, Devil Rays, Mets, Mexico City Tigres, Fort Worth Cats, Puebla Parrots and Samsung Lions (in Korea), plus two stints each with the Indians, Braves and Chiba Lotte Marines (in Japan). His first stint in Japan was in 1995, after the MLB season was cut short by the strike. He says he was originally offered $7 million to play for two years. “For $7 million,” he says, “I’ll play against Martians on Mars and use a green ball.”
In 2007, he tried retirement, filling his time with golf and scuba diving. But he missed the game. He missed the competition on the field, the camaraderie of a team, the chance to astonish people with a bat in his hands. So he played first for a few Mexican teams, then last year in a few games for the Fort Worth Cats, in something called United League Baseball. Then he got a call about coming to Japan, a chance to manage. He was eager for an opportunity, so it didn’t take anything close to $7 million to get him to accept. “Almost no money,” Franco says. (One report says he’s making $60,000.)
Franco made the move and prepared for his first managing opportunity, not expecting to play much when the season started. But injuries forced him onto the field. He played in 10 of the team’s first 14 games, hitting .333 with four RBIs and six runs scored. The 57-year-old baseball player. He says he can keep playing because he’s willing to put himself out there, to get hurt, to look silly. He also has some tricks in his cabinet.
Franco likes to tell his players that “a man’s body is his greatest investment.” (He also tells them, “When I started playing professional baseball, most of you were still in your fathers’ balls.”) He played with Rafael Palmeiro, Jose Canseco and a few other known performance-enhancing-drug users but swears he never took any kind of steroid or growth hormone. “Anybody who ever did that got caught,” he says. “Their names came out.”
Back in his apartment in Japan, Franco tours the kitchen, dishing out holistic health tips and paging through four binders that he keeps on a shelf, each full of recipes he’s seen online and printed. He takes assorted supplements from around the world. He insists they’re all natural and within the rules of the game. He doesn’t eat meat. He doesn’t drink soda or sports drinks or cold water. He likes it warm, with lemon.
“He’s a very simple man,” says his wife, Yarisis, who speaks Spanish but not English or Japanese. She attends all of her husband’s home games, watching from the top of the stadium and waiting in the hall when he’s done.
The Francos cook most meals at home, rarely going a day without brewing tea that Franco blends himself. He doesn’t go to doctors. “Not if they don’t practice TCM,” he says, referring to traditional Chinese medicine. “Like baseball, I like to pull the best from everywhere.” He uses herbs, mushrooms and teas from Peru, India, China and Thailand. He’s particularly fond of matcha, a powdered green tea popular in Japan.
Franco goes on for some time about how only people who work in corporations and in cities die of cancer. The men working in rice fields and along the mountainsides in the country, he reasons, never die of cancer. “They die at 100 of old age,” he says. He flips through some more of his binders and shares more of his theories, at times sounding more like a kooky uncle than a wise guru. “People in America are too caught up in their routines,” he says. “I live in a cocoon.”
Suddenly, Franco stands up. He has something else he wants to show. He walks across the room and lifts a large glass jar full of an amber-colored liquid. At the bottom of the jar are the bodies of two dead vipers, their fangs intact, their coiled, scaly bodies glowing beneath the light of a nearby window. He puts the jar on his glass coffee table and lifts a metal ladle. It’s hard to tell what he’s doing, which is how he likes it. He smiles and asks: “Are you brave?”
A FEW HOURS after batting practice, the Million Stars prepare to face off against the Fukui Miracle Elephants. Franco walks out to meet the opposing manager at home plate. They remove their hats, bow and shake hands before returning to their respective dugouts. A mix of American and Japanese pop music plays over the stadium PA system. The Million Stars have a losing record heading into the game, and fans don’t come in droves. A few dozen people settle into seats while a Little League team hits balls off a tee along the first-base line before the first inning. One boy does his best Julio Franco impression, tying himself into a knot and eventually hitting nothing but the side of the tee.
Each team’s cheer squad — a group of enthusiastic fans with scarves, shirts and drums — takes its spot in the stands. The Miracle Elephants’ section sings a different song for each of its batters, sometimes working in nicknames and rhymes. Two trumpeters play walk-up songs for the Million Stars — “When You Wish Upon a Star” and the original Mickey Mouse Club theme song.
Franco isn’t playing tonight. He stands watch at the edge of the dugout, his arms crossed in what looks like deep contemplation. He’s pitching Ryan Searle, a 26-year-old Australian-born player who spent seven seasons in the Cubs organization. Another Australian, catcher Jack Daru, is behind the plate. Some days, Daru stays in the clubhouse for hours after games, with Franco pitching him baseballs and advice. They also work out together. The team’s most well-known Japanese player is 23-year-old knuckleballer Eri Yoshida. When she was 16, Yoshida became the first woman drafted by a Japanese men’s professional league. Tonight she welcomes the crowd before the game but spends the rest of the evening in the dugout.
The Million Stars manage two early runs, but Searle, who leads the league in strikeouts this season, never gets an easy inning. The Miracle Elephants start sacrifice-bunting in the first. Before the night is over, Searle will give up at least five infield hits. Franco claps and cheers when things go well and shakes his head, stern and stoic, when they don’t. The argumentative young player of the past is noticeably absent.
In the third, a Miracle Elephants bunt results in a runner safe at first, and Franco walks over to the umpire, who looks to be about 18. Sugano, the translator, follows a few steps behind. Franco shakes his head and wags his finger the way American managers so often do, while Sugano politely tries to explain to the umpire that Franco has a difference of opinion on this call. After a minute of strained cultural exchanges, Franco returns to his perch at the top of the dugout.
The game stretches on for a painful four and a half hours, and the Million Stars lose 5-2, an ugly loss full of amateur errors. At one point, Searle is heard screaming and punching a door in the clubhouse. Franco is calm. After 48 years of this, he knows there’s always tomorrow.
The next day the team has an afternoon game against the Fukushima Hopes. Following batting practice, Franco pulls aside his bench coach and they sit face-to-face in plastic chairs behind the dugout. With Sugano seated between them, it looks like a small prayer circle.
“We need to push it,” Franco tells the coach. “We need to go from first to third. We need to go from second home.”
If the team had more power, Franco explains, it might be different. But the Million Stars don’t. They have speed. So he wants to use that, and he needs everyone to buy in to his approach. “I want to take the best from the Japanese way and the best from the American way,” he says.
Sugano says that for the most part, the players are receptive to the changes. “They know he brings something they don’t have,” he says. “They know he’s had great success. They value that and want to learn from him.”
Still, despite the calm exterior, Franco’s patience is waning. After such a miserable loss, he can’t stand by and watch anymore. He wants to play. So today, although he’s recovering from a hamstring injury, he puts himself in the lineup as the designated hitter. He bats fourth.
In the first inning, Franco steps up to the plate with two outs and a runner on first. He tips his cap and bows to the catcher. He tips his cap and bows to the umpire. He turns, loosens his knees, sticks out his butt and winds himself up.
Trumpets blare and drums beat. Another youth baseball team — the Sun Boys — cheers from just above the dugout.
The first pitch is a ball, high and outside. The second is a strike. The third comes down, and Franco turns on it. One second he’s coiled. The next his body has shifted, the bat has connected and the ball is rocketing by the shortstop.
He hustles, as much as a 57-year-old DH can hustle, around first. The runner on first stops at second. Franco waves his hands, exasperated. The next batter hits a double, and this time, Franco gets the signal to stop at third. He shakes his head. He’s stranded. Luckily, by the end of the game, it doesn’t matter. Franco goes 2-for-4, and the Million Stars win 3-0.
After the game, Franco says his body feels good. “No stiffness,” he says. “No aches.” He bows to the field and takes off for a run in the afternoon sun.
The story Franco tells is that he’d like to spend the next 10 years managing in Japan, then 10 years managing in America, then three more years in a front office somewhere. At 80, he says, he’d be content to retire to a remote hillside somewhere, to grow his own food, make his own medicine and drink his matcha. The gap between that dream and this reality doesn’t seem to matter to him. He’s playing baseball.
The laws of the universe dictate that there will come a day when he takes his last at-bat. It might be next week. It might be a decade from now. But this much is certain: When it comes, he will coil up, like a viper in a jar, and he will smile and ask the pitcher: “Are you brave?”