Old-timer's Game

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I am 47 and just introduced prunes into my diet.

Julio Franco will be 47 this season, his 21st in the big leagues. I am 47 and in my 29th straight year out of baseball. Hell, I stopped playing softball 10 years ago. It just got too hard to take the extra base with a walker.

Julio Franco will be 47 this season and still looks like a Chippendales dancer. I am 47 and look like a Chippendale credenza.

Franco is still smiting line drives off pitchers who weren't even born when he got his first hit. Seriously, 33 players on major league rosters at the end of last season weren't alive when Franco played his first big league game, in 1982. Forget that. Franco is older than eight managers.

Franco is so old his ears still hurt from the Big Bang. His first baseball card was carved. He passed Pie Traynor on the alltime hit list last year and said, "Hey, I roomed with him!"

If it were allowed, Franco could become the first guy to get four hits in a game and cash a pension check on the same day. No, really. Retired players can start drawing their pensions at 45. It's just that nobody thought baseball's Dick Clark would come along. Do you realize Franco played at the same time as Ferguson Jenkins? And Jenkins was born during World War II!

Here's how old Franco is: When he broke into the majors with the Philadelphia Phillies, there was a lefty reliever with the New York Yankees, Dave LaRoche, who had a two-year-old he'd bring to the clubhouse. Today that toddler, Adam LaRoche, platoons with Franco at first base in Atlanta. Adam is 25. Franco has leftovers older than that.

Get this: After being traded to the Cleveland Indians, Franco finished second to Ron Kittle in the 1983 AL Rookie of the Year voting. Kittle retired 14 years ago! Franco came up the same year as Oil Can Boyd (hasn't been in the majors for 14 years), Don Mattingly (10) and Frank Viola (nine). Those guys are somewhere ordering creamed corn.

Four times in baseball history a player 43 or older has hit .284 or better in a season. Franco accounts for three of them. I'm telling you, the man will last longer than Friends reruns.

Franco is so old nobody can remember how old he is. Once, the Braves asked the players to fill out a questionnaire. One of the questions was, "Can you tell us something about you that nobody knows?" Franco wrote, "My age."

Hell, he might be 58 for all we know. One, he's Dominican, and a birth certificate to a Dominican is like an odometer to a used-car salesman. Two, he doesn't celebrate his birthday -- only Jesus's. When the Braves looked at old media guides from some of the 10 teams in four countries Franco's played on, they realized he was three years older than they had him listed. So what? Arguing about three years on Franco is like worrying about three missing swallows at Capistrano.

Franco hit the bigs at 23, weighing 155 pounds and hiding $5,000 in a sock. His first question was, "Where are the casinos?" He also loved a cocktail, a cigarette and a blonde, not necessarily in that order. But at some point Franco started taking mad care of his body. Within seven years he was cut, 215 pounds and healthier than an organic-produce section. He hasn't changed much since.

Until they find out this guy was injecting steroids in Ty Cobb's butt, he is my hero. I asked him how he does it. He says he eats six or seven times a day, and that includes 24 egg whites. No yolk.

He works out harder than anybody on the team, no longer drinks or smokes and takes only 20 days off between seasons. Plus, nobody laughs more than him.

"Most of my buddies look 10 years older than me," Franco says. (I was praying he wouldn't ask me my age.) "I tell them, 'You can do the same thing as me.' But they don't do it!"

The sloths.

If he quit now, his lifetime average would wind up .300 on the nose. He doesn't care. "I want to play until I'm 50," he says. That would be a record, unless you count hokey stunts by guys like Minnie Minoso and Satchel Paige. This is not a stunt. This guy is the real thing, a bench-pressing beast, a Maxi Minoso. After he turns 50, Franco wants to start managing.

As it is, he is the oldest regular position player in 75 years. "Someday," Franco says, "when I'm old and gray, I want to be able to put my grandchildren on my knee and tell them about my long career in baseball."

Of course, afterward he'll have to bump them off his knee and hurry to the ballpark.

He'll be hitting third.

Issue date: February 21, 2005