Originally created 02/29/04

Franco, 45, enters 2004 as majors' oldest player



KISSIMMEE, Fla. - Julio Franco plopped down in a seat behind the batting cage, right next to Terry Pendleton. They looked on attentively as some young whippersnapper took his swings.

A couple of coaches, right?

Well, you're half-right.

Pendleton, the younger of the two, has been retired as a player for six years. He's now the Atlanta Braves hitting instructor.

And Franco? Well, he climbed down from his seat, stepped into the cage and began stroking the ball to right field like some sort of hitting machine.

Yep, he's still going strong at age 45 - the oldest player in the big leagues.

"Age is a stereotype," Franco said. "If you can keep playing, why shouldn't you? This is my 21st year, but I can still compete at this level. Hey, if you're 21 and hit a double or you're 40 and hit a double, it's still a double."

Still, few players make it to 40. For position players, the odds are even longer.

Reliever Jesse Orosco retired this winter after pitching at 46. Carlton Fisk (1993) and Pete Rose (1986) were the last non-pitchers to play at 45, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Franco's teammates - some of them young enough to be his sons - are amazed.

Take Adam LaRoche, who likely will split playing time with Franco at first base this season. The rookie was born in 1979 - by that time, Franco already was in his second professional season.

"No way you would think he's been around so long from the way he looks," LaRoche said, glancing enviously across the clubhouse at Franco's chiseled physique. "Once I get to know him a little better, I'm going to try to find out his secret."

It's not really all that complicated.

When the season ends, Franco takes 20 days off. Then he calls in his trainer to oversee a rigorous weightlifting regime that consumes most of the winter. A month before camp opens, Franco shifts gears - runs on the beach, swimming, plyometric exercises. By spring training, he's ready.

"The one thing I invest in royally is my body," he said. "If you want your body to respond, you have to treat it well."

Franco's dedication to fitness and venerable clubhouse demeanor is certainly a far cry from his younger days. He was well known for feuding with managers, breaking rules and thoroughly enjoying the nightlife.

"Cocky" and "rash," in the words of Braves coach Pat Corrales, who managed Franco during the 1980s in Philadelphia and Cleveland.

"He liked to have a beer. He liked the pretty girls," Corrales said. "A typical young guy."

One day, after coming through with the game-winning hit the previous night, Franco didn't bother to show up for a game at Yankee Stadium. Too much to see. Too much to do.

"It was my birthday," Franco said.

While certainly past his prime, he's hardly hanging on.

Last season, Franco played 103 games for the Braves, batting .294 with five homers and 31 RBI. At first base, he made only one error in 465 chances. In a playoff loss to the Chicago Cubs, he was one of Atlanta's few effective hitters, going 4-for-8 with two walks.

"He looks great again," manager Bobby Cox said. "He's one of those guys who can't work enough. Also, the way he eats, his nutrition. He does a lot of his own cooking. He does it the way everyone should do it."

Franco's career in the majors seemed over after 1997. He spent most of the next four years on a world tour, playing in Japan, Mexico and South Korea.

All along, he never gave up on the idea of getting back to the big leagues.

"I figured I could open some eyes if I was still playing," Franco said. "If I had gone home to wait, everyone would have said, 'Well, he retired.' "

Late in the 2001 season, the Braves noticed Franco's .437 average in Mexico and signed him to a contract. The move was met with plenty of snickers, but Franco batted .300 over the final month of the season.

Having proved he could still play, Franco saw no reason to discuss his real age. At first, he was supposedly born in 1961. Media guides from earlier in his career proved that was a ruse, and the Braves now list his birthday as Aug. 23, 1958.

Of course, no one is quite sure how accurate that is, either.

"He was 63 the last time I checked," Pendleton quipped. "Anyway you put it, he's collecting a pension."

Franco has had plenty of fun with his age. When Fox sent out a questionnaire as part of its preseason preparations, Franco couldn't help but notice one of the queries.

"They asked me to tell them something nobody knows about me," he said. "You know what I put? My age."

And don't even bring up the subject of retirement.

"Retirement is not on my mind," Franco said. "Why should I? I'm having fun."