Another year older and clearly wiser

Another year older and clearly wiser

ATLANTA -- When the Braves conclude their season, people will look back and wonder just how they were able to persevere with such a young roster. But as long as Julio Franco is in their camp, he's certainly their most astonishing age-related story.

While Jeff Francoeur might be wowing people with the success he's found during his first seven weeks in the big leagues, Franco is doing things people his age have never done and quite possibly will never do again.

"He's different," the 21 year-old Francoeur said. "He's incredible, that's what he is."

The "I-word" is an adjective people have been using to describe Francoeur. But when you consider that Franco celebrates his 47th birthday on Tuesday by getting ready to play in his 2,354th game in the Major Leagues, the adjective is much more appropriate when referring to him.

"He's a consummate professional and a man of very high character," Braves general manager John Schuerholz said. "When you have a man around like that, that's going to do nothing but help everybody else who is around him. He's had a very positive impact on the Braves' organization and this team."

When Schuerholz rescued Franco from the Mexican League late in the 2001 season, it seemed like a pretty desperate attempt to find a first baseman. Franco had just celebrated his 43rd birthday and spent much of the previous four years looking for employment in Japan, Korea and Mexico.

Now four years later, it seems to be one of the most successful risks Schuerholz has taken in his highly successful career. Since arriving in Atlanta, Franco has batted .297 (336-for-1,132), proven to be strong defensively in a first-base platoon and been a reliable pinch-hitter.

"We needed a bat and we thought he'd be a bat that could carry us through the [2001] playoffs and hopefully through the World Series," Schuerholz said. "He gave us that bat and continues to give it."

Yet Franco's greatest contributions might be the knowledge he's provided, especially this year to the team's many rookies. Having started his big league career in 1982 as a top-notch shortstop with the Phillies, he's had plenty of experiences that he gladly passes on to the young players and anyone else who is willing to learn.

"That's been the history of baseball," Franco said. "I'm just doing what the older guys did with me. All of the experience that I got, I'd like to pass that on so that [the young guys] can do the same thing."

Those "older guys" who helped Franco include the likes of Mike Schmidt, Manny Trillo and Tony Bernazard. At the time, they were trying to guide a talented kid who enjoyed the nightlife as much as he did the baseball diamond.

Current Braves bench coach Pat Corrales was Franco's manager with both the Phillies (1982) and Indians (1983-87). He had to fine Franco for things ranging from showing up late to not showing up at all -- a transgression that occurred one Saturday afternoon at Yankee Stadium.

THE FRANCO-FILE
Julio Franco made his Major League debut with the Philadelphia Phillies on April 23, 1982, going 1-for-4 against Bob Forsch of the St. Louis Cardinals. Here is a cultural snapshot for that time.
Price of gasoline: $1.20 a gallon
First-class postage: 20 cents
Price of milk $2.24 a gallon
Movie ticket: $3
Top-grossing movie: "ET"
Rocky was up to only III
Top-rated TV show: "Dallas."
The Nielsen Top 10 also included "The Jeffersons," "Joanie Loves Chachi" and "The Dukes of Hazzard."
Monday Night Football games were called by Howard Cosell, Don Meredith and Frank Gifford.
MVPs: Dale Murphy (NL), Robin Yount (AL)
Cy Youngs: Steve Carlton (NL), Pete Vuckovich (AL)
Homer kings: Dave Kingman, 37 (NL) and Reggie Jackson, 39 (AL)
Elected to the Hall of Fame were Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson
Also making their Major League debuts in 1982 were Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn, Frank Viola and Don Mattingly
Cal Ripken Jr. was 11 days away from his next off day; his record streak of 2,632 consecutive games would begin on May 6

"I didn't know if he'd even be alive at 37," Corrales said. "He was different back then. Then something just clicked." As he reached his 30s, Franco found religion and began treating his body much different. Now, instead of enjoying the nightlife at 3 a.m., he routinely awakens at that time to enjoy a protein shake. It was his commitment to fitness that has allowed him to impress so many with what he's still doing.

"Anybody that started in 1982 and is playing at this level, and you tell them you're going to be playing now at this level, they would have thought you were crazy," Franco said. "That's why I thank the Lord each and every day for the ability He has given me and for this training ... and to stay healthy and continue to stay at this level."

Franco's current level is much higher than somebody who might be just playing out the final days of his career. Already this year he has become the oldest player to hit a grand slam, steal two bases in a game and hit two homers in a game. His next home run will make him the oldest to ever hit one. Suddenly, his goal of playing until he's 50 years old doesn't seem too far-fetched.

A few weeks after Francoeur began his career, Franco said, "I'm looking forward to seeing what he does over the next three years."

Each of his long-term plans takes into account that he'll be playing baseball for at least three more seasons.

"He could play until he's 55," Francoeur said. "That wouldn't surprise me, either. To play with a guy like him is an honor and it is fun."

Franco doesn't have any aspirations to continue playing that long. His current plan is to find a managerial job when he's done playing. In the meantime, he's gaining some on-the-job training. He's getting to watch Braves manager Bobby Cox on a daily basis and at the same time play for a team whose players want to learn from him.

"When he's speaking, I'm all ears," said rookie reliever Blaine Boyer, who remembers when Greg Maddux used to tell him he could learn a lot about pitching by learning how hitters think.

Boyer was less than a year old when Franco made his Major League debut. In other words, he's older than Francoeur, Brian McCann and Joey Devine, current Braves who weren't even born yet on April 23, 1982, when Franco singled off St. Louis' Bob Forsch in his first career at-bat.

Most of the Braves rookies knew Franco because of his patented, odd batting stance that was displayed on most of his baseball cards. Some have very faint memories of him being the American League batting champion in 1991, the same year current Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton won the National League title.

"He's continued not only as a good player, but as a leader on that team, as a guy who takes young players under his wing and teaches them how to play," said Arizona broadcaster Mark Grace, a former Cubs and Diamondbacks first baseman whose 16-season big league career lasted until he was 39.

Franco motivates and teaches in many different ways. He jokes with Francoeur about not having power to the opposite field. When not swinging his big and productive bat, he can often be found talking about what to expect from certain pitchers or in certain situations.

One way or another, Franco is making daily contributions to a Braves team that never knew just how influential a 47-year-old first baseman could be.

"I think he's just such an instrumental part of this clubhouse," Francoeur said. "The leadership he brings and the ability to play as hard as he does is just amazing. I think it's just an inspiration to everybody in how hard he works."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.