Franco eager to teach younger Mets

Franco eager to impart wisdom on young Mets

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Julio Franco sees the entire baseball world as one large classroom. If that's the case, then school is now in session.

Franco -- at 47, the Majors' oldest active player -- joined the Mets on Monday, beginning what will be his 29th season as a professional.

By far the elder statesman of a roster that has taken great pains to infuse youth in recent years, Franco arrives not only as an experienced bat off the bench, but as a valuable resource in the game of life.

"It's the same thing I tell my son," Franco said. "You go to school, and you sit in class from kindergarten all the way to college. You sit, you listen, you learn, you do."

Always an imposing offensive presence and a serviceable first baseman, Franco signed a two-year contract with the Mets in December, ending a run of five successful seasons with the Braves.

It is the Mets' hope that Franco, an all-around contributor who comes into 2006 with 2,521 Major League hits, will be able to help mold and provide a positive influence for young players like shortstop Jose Reyes.

Franco says he does not view himself as a clubhouse leader, but said he tries to help as much as he can. When Franco was a rising talent with the Phillies and Indians in the early '80s, he recalls being tutored by players like Bobby Bonds, Manny Trillo and Tony Bernazard (now an assistant to Mets GM Omar Minaya).

"They helped me to become a better person and a better player," Franco said.

Now, it is Franco's turn to pass lessons on to the next generation. Former Braves infielder Rafael Furcal received a crash course, sans notebook, in recent years, and Franco believes he can repeat the instruction in Reyes' case.

"Furcal and Reyes are almost the same type of player," Franco said. "They're aggressive, play the same position, they're both switch-hitters and they're fast with great arms. I told Furcy to be patient at the plate, because pitchers don't want to see those guys on base."

Tom Glavine, a Braves teammate in 2001 and 2002, said Franco's true contributions to a club cannot be measured in hits or years. Of course, Franco does have his fair share of each.

"He gives you his presence, his demeanor, his work ethic," Glavine said. "He demands respect. He has respect for the game, and wants it played right."

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Youth met age briefly on Monday, with Franco and Reyes sharing a short conversation in the clubhouse at Tradition Field. Pointing out that Franco is not just a star, but an icon in his native Dominican Republic, Reyes said he could see himself in class on a regular basis.

"He's great," Reyes said. "He's been around a long time in this game. He's going to give a lot of advice about baseball. I'm going to take everything he tells me."

In astonishing physical condition, Franco is a daily inspiration to teammates, many of whom cannot even fathom being active -- and effective -- in the game at such an advanced age. Mets ace Pedro Martinez lumped Franco in with veteran stalwarts like Bonds and Glavine, a group he respectfully acknowledges he will never enter.

"They're freaks," Martinez said. "I don't know what they're made of."

"[He is] 47 years old and still in this game, that's amazing," Reyes said.

Over the years, Franco said scores of people have come for his advice, as though he is hiding a secret key or the true location of the Fountain of Youth. Ponce de Leon, Franco says he is not.

"People think that I'm the missing link or a freak of nature," Franco said. "It's not that way. It's a gift from God."

While physically blessed, Franco is also passionate about his workout program and pays special attention to his food intake. Once content to consume six or seven large meals per day, Franco said he still eats often, but now breaks his diet down into complex meals of proteins, carbohydrates, fibers and other groupings.

He's not fanatical and will permits himself to indulge in the occasional slice of pizza, but holds a special disdain for processed foods, preferring to consume products that are as close to nature as possible.

"It's like a car," Franco said. "If you treat it well, it's going to respond."

Simple math tells all you may need to know about why Franco is revered as a fatherly influence on teammates. When Franco made his Major League debut on April 23, 1982, in Philadelphia against St. Louis, nine of the players in camp with the Mets this spring hadn't been born.

Taking it a step further, the combined age of the left side of New York's infield -- third baseman David Wright (23) and Reyes (22) -- does not even equal Franco's age.

"It's just the total package to me," said Mets manager Willie Randolph. "The leadership is very important. He's been around a long time and knows how to communicate with players young and old, and he can still swing a bat. He's the kind of guy who brings a lot to the table."

Once an on-field foe -- Franco edged Randolph for the 1991 American League batting title ("I won't hold it against him," Randolph joked) -- the second-year Mets manager may come to see Franco as something of a player-coach by season's end.

Franco said Monday he has aspirations for staying in baseball once he achieves his goal of playing to age 50, suggesting he could coach in the Minor Leagues, "go back to school," and eventually make it back to the Majors as a manager.

Randolph said he wouldn't be surprised to see Franco in control of a roster somewhere down the line.

"He's not afraid to express what he feels," Randolph said. "He's going to look you in the eye and ... be straight and honest about how he feels. That's something that's lacking in a lot of clubhouses."

Explaining just why the Braves have been so successful in recent years against the Mets, Franco said the keys had been in preparation and trusting instincts -- two handy tools for any person in charge of a team.

If the Mets have their way, Franco might just be able to pull a few other tricks out of his lengthy resume this year.

"You have to do the things that other people aren't willing to do," Franco said. "You have to go the distance in everything. You have to take chances. You have to take that book and throw it away sometimes."

Bryan Hoch is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.