Published: May 6, 2008


Baseball players everywhere should have
given their caps a heartfelt tip over the weekend when they learned
that Julio Franco had stepped to the plate for the last time.

While the sport was preoccupied with the young season and the continued demythologizing of Roger Clemens, Franco the elder announced his retirement from Mexico’s Quintana Roo Tigers, one year after going deep for the Mets against Randy Johnson at the sprightly age of 48.

He was already the oldest major league player to hit a home run, to
pinch-hit a home run, to do many things that won’t get him into the
Hall of Fame but earned him universal respect from the Americas to Asia
and all the way back to Altoona, Pa.

“You could tell he loved the game, and that’s all he wanted to do,”
said John Wilson, a self-described “baseball fanatic” and Franco fan
from afar.

Above all, players had to know that about Franco,
especially Wilson, who said he considered himself in the Franco mold
for the last four years as a seasoned spare outfielder and first-base
coach for the Penn State Altoona Lions.

“The way his younger teammates could look up to him, go to him if they
had something they needed to talk about, I felt as if my situation was
similar,” Wilson said Monday in a telephone interview, one day after
his own career, at least the collegiate portion of it, happened to
conclude, at 53.

The world would run out of oil before there was
a shortage of baseball people happy to give Franco his due, but Wilson
seemed like an interesting choice after his name popped up during an
Internet search of “oldest baseball players.” You don’t have to have
some gray in your hair to appreciate Franco’s 23 years of major league
service, his 2,586 regular-season hits and his willingness to carry on
elsewhere, wherever the game would have him, but it helps.

John Wilson’s story made a few rounds late last winter, before the
start of a senior season in which he batted eight times; had three
hits, including a double; and went the distance leading off and playing
right field in Penn State Altoona’s doubleheader sweep of Franciscan
University on Senior Day, April 27.

“For all he’s meant to us, I
thought that was the way for him to go out,” Wilson’s coach, Joe
Piotti, said Monday by telephone. “He made this unbelievable catch in
right, and some of the kids were teasing me that he should have been
out there all along. But I saw him today, a week later, and he said,
‘I’m still sore.’ ”

Wilson and Piotti, who are the same age, met
several years ago playing summer league ball, but that is not the most
compelling aspect of Wilson’s road traveled. He grew up in Pittsburgh,
no baseball star, a high school bench player, but he loved being around
the game, especially the dearly departed Forbes Field, chatting up
players, Pirates or not.

Decades ago, before alcohol and drug addiction took hold of his life
and before he saved himself at 32 by checking into the Gateway
Rehabilitation Center in Aliquippa, Pa., Wilson had a knack of
developing unlikely, enduring relationships.

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