Veterans take center stage
Showdown between Franco, Johnson worth price of admission
PHOENIX -- When Julio Franco came up to hit against Randy Johnson during the second inning of Friday night's game at Chase Field, the more than 93 years of age between the two of them marked the oldest hitter-pitcher match up in Major League Baseball history."It's only numbers," Franco said after the Mets defeated the D-backs, 5-3, their 12th consecutive win in Phoenix since May 11, 2004. Moments later, Franco, nearing 49, became the oldest hitter to homer against the oldest pitcher, Johnson, who is a mere babe at about four months shy of his 44th birthday, the Elias Sports Bureau confirmed. Franco's two-run shot, coming on an 0-2 fastball that was high, but not high enough, landed in the pool to the right of center field some 418 feet away. It scored Paul Lo Duca, who had singled off the venerable Johnson to open the inning. At 48 years, eight months, 12 days, Franco extended his own mark as the oldest player to homer. When he stole second base in the ninth inning, he also remained the oldest to swipe a sack since the advent of the 20th century. It is an understatement to say that Franco should be coaching by now instead of going 1-for-3 with the homer, a walk and a stolen base in a Major League game. And immediately afterwards what did he do? He walked down the hall to the weight room to pump some iron for 20 minutes. "I worked out," Franco said. "Anybody can lift weights." Johnson, at 43 years, 7 months, 25 days, is still rounding into form after offseason surgery to fix a herniated disc in his lower back. Friday night marked only his third start since he returned from the disabled list, and he was at times Johnson-like and at times mediocre enough to allow five runs on nine hits -- including homers to Franco and Lo Duca. He also walked one and struck out seven, giving him, 4,563 in his career. R.J. is now 41 behind the currently dormant Roger Clemens, who at 4,604 is second on the all-time list. Johnson was none too happy about allowing the homer to Franco, who was born in the Dominican Republic during the summer of 1958 when Dwight Eisenhower was the U.S. president and the Yankees were about to vanquish the Milwaukee Braves in the second consecutive World Series between the two teams. "I didn't throw the pitch where I wanted it, and inevitably I'm upset during the course of the game when that happens," said the Big Unit, who's now 0-2 with a 6.50 ERA since returning on April 24. "You look at the final outcome [an Arizona two-run loss] and it was a big part of the game." Johnson lost that battle, but won the next two, striking out Franco swinging in the fourth and sixth innings, the radar gun registering fastballs as high as 97 mph in the process. And yes, the left-handed Johnson, conversely, then became the oldest pitcher to strike out the oldest batter in baseball history. But age, evidently, is only in the eye of the beholder. "People put everybody in the same basket, in the same category, and we're all different," said Franco, who came up with the Phillies in 1982 and is in his 23rd season. "With all the technology now, you're going to see more and more guys playing into their 40s. But it's hard to do." To offer some perspective, the Phillies traded Franco at the end of the 1982 season to Cleveland in the infamous deal for outfielder Von Hayes, who was supposed to be their new savior. Hayes, who retired in 1992, is eight days younger than Franco. Johnson, who came up with Montreal in 1988, was traded a year later to Seattle in the deal that netted the Expos stud left-hander Mark Langston, who was 38 years old when he retired in 1999. Those were the days. "It's amazing, it really is, man," said Willie Randolph, the Mets manager whose fine 18-year playing career ended when he was 37. "Anytime Franco is involved, it's really something. He just loves to beat you. He's just one of those guys who'll surprise you. He wants attention, because he's proud of the fact that he's done what he's done. And he wants people to know it." Talk about a stage, Franco was in the lineup on Friday night because regular first baseman Carlos Delgado is hitting .196 with a homer and 13 runs batted in this season. Against Johnson coming into the game, Franco's career numbers weren't anything special: .235 (8-for-34) with three RBIs. It was his first homer in his 35th at bat against the Unit. But then again, as Franco mused, "it's only numbers."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.