NEW YORK -- For weeks, Julio Franco had spoken privately of the need to find work elsewhere and the need to get enough at-bats to allow him to continue his career and reach his objective of playing at age 50. He was convinced that remaining in what he considered a role more limited that he had anticipated would undermine his chances.

He planned to ask for his release.

The Mets reached the same point, but from a different direction and for a different reason, and they designated Franco for assignment Thursday. On the day WCBS-FM, New York's longtime, but temporarily unplugged, oldies station was resurrected, the Mets severed ties with their oldie-but-goodie. They played "Hit the road, Julio" some 5 1/2 weeks short of Franco's 49th birthday.

Franco now is a former Met. If no other club trades for him or claims him off waivers -- and if the Mets don't reverse the process, which is quite unlikely -- he will become a free agent in 10 days and begin looking for a place where he will be likely to be given more opportunity to swing for 50.

Franco was pleased in a way Thursday afternoon, but a little off balance.

"I thought I would surprise them," he said by telephone, "But they surprised me. It's what I need to do, so that part is good for me."

"It gives Willie [Randolph] some flexibility," general manager Omar Minaya said. "The other option was to send down Sandy Alomar. In this situation, we have three catchers, and it gives Willie a little more flexibility."

Not to mention more power off the bench, because now with three catchers, Ramon Castro will be freed of the No. 2 catching restrictions and be available for pinch-hitting.

Franco, who had been the Mets' primary right-handed pinch-hitter, had played sparingly in his 1 1/2 seasons with Mets, starting seven of the Mets' 87 games this season -- four at first base, two at third and one as the DH -- and batting .130 in 23 at-bats in that role. His work as a pinch-hitter was more effective, seven hits in 26 at-bats, .269. He played in 95 games last season, starting 25, most at first base. He batted .273 with 26 RBI in 165 at-bats and was disappointed by the number of opportunities.

Despite the disappointment, Franco considered seeking a contract extension during Spring Training. He never made the request, and when he found his playing time unsatisfactory, he reversed this thinking and weighed leaving.

Now he is gone, though not by his own hand.

"It feels funny," he said.

And Alomar, 41, is in his place, lowering the average age on the Mets' roster and disabled list from 32 years, 62 days to 31 years, 133 days. No matter, the Mets still are oldest team in the game.

The Mets wanted Alomar Jr., son of their third-base coach, because of his catching skills and influence in the clubhouse and with Latin players. He replaces Franco in the latter area.

"We're going to miss Julio," Randolph said. "But we wanted more flexibility in some of our players, and with Alomar being our third catcher we're able to do some things. I'm always disappointed. I miss my players, you become a family you're with them all the time. That goes without saying."

So in a way, the Mets have upgraded their bench offensively by deciding to retain a catcher, Alomar, for defensive reasons. While Franco had success as a pinch-hitter, in terms of average, he didn't provide extra-base hits. All seven hits were singles.

Now, with Castro in that role, the chance for extra-base hits is enhanced. Before the game Thursday, he had driven in 17 runs in 19 starts and has 11 hits -- six for extra bases -- six runs and six RBIs in the last eight games in which he'd batted.