Franco an inspiration to Mets
Veteran continues to amaze teammates as he approaches 50
LOS ANGELES -- When the Mets were last in the postseason, Julio Franco was nearly a forgotten character in the world of Major League Baseball. The year was 2000 and Franco was playing for the Samsung Lions in the Korean Professional League.
Six years later, the 48-year-old wonder finds himself back where he's been each of the past five seasons. After participating in the postseason just once in his first 13 full big-league seasons, Franco finds himself in the playoffs for a sixth straight year.
Only this time, he and his Mets teammates are on the verge of doing something he never did with the Braves during the past four postseasons, which is advance to the National League Championship Series.
Up 2-0 in their best-of-five Division Series against the Dodgers, the Mets need just one more victory to make this a reality.
"I'll take my chances to win with the guys we have here," Franco said. "I don't see any reason we can't win it all."
When the Mets signed Franco to a two-year deal on Dec. 9, it certainly seemed like they were taking a big chance. But, regardless of his potential to physically break down at any time, it's quickly become obvious that the $2.2 million that they'll pay him over the course of two seasons will be money well spent.
"I love him," Mets left fielder Cliff Floyd said. "I really do. It was a great pickup for [Mets general manager] Omar [Minaya] to get him over here."
When Minaya signed Franco, he knew he was weakening the Braves and, at the same time, strengthening his own team. He didn't envision the veteran first baseman playing nearly as much as he had in a platoon role in Atlanta.
Instead, Minaya envisioned Franco contributing the occasional timely hit and being a definite clubhouse leader.
Throughout the season, Franco verbally expressed his leadership to youngsters like Lastings Milledge and Jose Reyes. And at the same time, through his limited playing opportunities, he motivated some of the younger players by showing them what the old man can still do.
"He prepares himself just as well as anybody in this clubhouse," said 23-year-old Mets third baseman David Wright. "The guy is nearly 50 years old and he's still doing things that guys that are 23 or 24 years old are having trouble doing."
Franco's continued determination was on display during the two-run sixth inning that provided the Mets some further comfort in their 4-1 win at Shea Stadium on Thursday night. After hitting a grounder that seemed destined to be turned into an inning-ending double play, the ageless wonder raced down the line to beat the throw to first base.
With the at-bat, Franco became the oldest player in Major League history to appear in a postseason game. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Jack Quinn had held the record, having appeared in his final postseason game 91 days after his 47th birthday.
With Franco's hustle on Thursday, he turned what would have been a scoreless inning into one that gave his team some breathing room for the final three innings. Considering his age and the fact that he'd grounded into 11 double plays in just 165 regular-season at-bats, this obviously was a welcome surprise for the Mets.
"Those are the things that seem to be so important in the postseason, especially from a guy like him," Mets left-hander Tom Glavine said. "You don't expect a 48- or 49-year-old guy to be legging out a ground ball that prolongs an inning for you.
"I think you come to realize you have to expect the unexpected out of him."
It's been that way ever since the Braves found Franco in the Mexican League and signed him on Aug. 31, 2001. At the time, he was 43 years old and hadn't recorded more than one at-bat in the Majors since the 1997 season.
His presence, through the end of the 2005 season, helped the Braves run their unprecedented streak of division titles to 14. Along the way, Franco gained a fondness for Braves manager Bobby Cox and the city of Atlanta.
But when the Mets came calling with a two-year deal, Franco put his allegiances aside and headed to Queens. While never specifically admitting it, he obviously had a feeling the Mets were ready to end the Braves' National League East dominance.
"If there had been a one-year deal [from the Braves] and a one-year deal [from the Mets], I'd be here," Franco said. "If you asked me, 'Would you trade winning for playing more games?' I'd say no."
Had Franco remained in Atlanta, he'd have continued his regular platoon at first base and consequently received more playing time than he has in New York. But when he signed with the Mets, he knew Carlos Delgado was in place and that his biggest asset would be provided through clubhouse leadership.
"He's been through a lot in his career," Floyd said. "You can talk to him about hitting and you can talk to him about adversity. When you have a guy like him, the manager doesn't need to talk as much. He allows everybody to just relax. You can go to him. [Heck], he's the manager, really, in the locker room."
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When Franco made his Major League debut in 1982, Mets manager Willie Randolph was still 10 years away from ending his playing career. Twenty-four years later, Randolph has been retired for 16 years and Franco is still two years away from reaching his goal of playing until he's 50.
"It's amazing how he competes," Randolph said. "He tends to have a little bit extra every once in a while."
Having hit .273 in the 95 games he played for the Mets this year, Franco proved he hasn't reached the point where he's become a burden. But even if he'd hit closer to .250, he'd have still proven valuable just based on his ability to be an extra coach.
"By helping guys, I'm also learning how to approach different parts of the game," Franco said. "I think that is helpful because of what I want to do in the future."
First and foremost, Franco wants to reach his goal of playing until he's 50. But when it's time to hang up the cleats, he wants to become a manager. It will be a role similar to the one he currently has, absent those occurrences when he's forced to race down the line to beat out a double play in a postseason game.
"He's doing things that nobody at his age in this game has done," Glavine said. "Every time he does, you just kind of chalk it up as something else you have to respect the heck out of him for being able to do."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.