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08/16/07 11:13 PM ET
Veteran Franco begins Class A stint
Tenure with Rome Braves aimed at return to Majors
By Guy Curtright / Special to MLB.com
ROME, Ga. -- The temperature on the scoreboard read 101 degrees when Julio Franco stepped into the batter's box Thursday night for his first Minor League at-bat in the United States since 1982. "The heat doesn't bother me," said Franco, who will turn 49 on Aug. 23. "I'm a Caribbean." The Rome Braves' newest oldster remains determined -- no matter the odds or the conditions -- to play in the Majors at 50. That's why he's willing to take a step back and join a team where none of the other players are even half his age. "I'll know when it's time to quit," Franco said. "It isn't." Franco -- already the oldest player to homer in the Majors - is working his way back to the Atlanta Braves in the Class A South Atlantic League 26 years after first reaching the Majors. "I never thought I'd be managing a player my age," said Rome's Randy Ingle, who is actually eight months older than Franco. Serving as the designated hitter for his first game, Franco was 1-for-3 with a walk in Rome's 5-0 victory over the Greenville Drive at State Mutual Stadium. Franco received a standing ovation from the crowd announced as 2,710 when he stepped to the plate for the first time as Rome's No. 3 hitter, lining out to second base against 2006 Boston Red Sox first-round Draft pick Daniel Bard, 22. Franco's ground single in the fourth inning came off Chris James, 23, and generated a loud round of applause, as well as a few shouts of "Julio!" "I could have started somewhere in Triple-A, but I didn't want to do that," said Franco, who lost his roster spot in Atlanta when first baseman Mark Teixeira was acquired from Texas on July 31. "This is a stepping stone." Not just back to the Majors, but for a future career as a manager as well. "I want to teach what I know," Franco said. "This is where players learn." The young Rome Braves seem eager to get all the lessons they can right now. "I hope he gives me some nutrition tips," second baseman Travis Jones, 21, said. "Did you see his body?" first baseman Tyler Flowers, 21, said. "Amazing!" "How do you look like that when you're 48?" outfielder Jon Mark Owings, 22, said. "I was going into high school when he joined the Braves." Franco went around the clubhouse and shook hands when he arrived at the ballpark. "I know when Major Leaguers go [for a rehab assignment] to the Minors, sometimes the players can be a little shy," Franco said. "But I want them to understand that I'm one of them." Well, not exactly. Flowers will lose his spot at first base when Franco plays there Friday night. "I sure don't mind moving for someone like that," Flowers said. Rome's Danny Brezeale, 21, already accommodated Franco, who got the third baseman's No. 14. "You have to make way for your elders," said Brezeale, given No. 34. Franco didn't get to Rome -- 75 miles northwest of Atlanta -- until about 5 p.m. ET, just two hours before game time. "I thought it would be closer," said Franco, who is commuting from the Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta and had trouble with both directions and traffic. Franco will play with Rome through the four-game series, but may not travel with the team to Savannah for three games beginning Tuesday. After that, Rome has a seven-game homestand. Asked about his schedule for the rest of the month, Franco said, "It's up to the organization." Franco must be returned to the 40-man roster and brought back to Atlanta before Sept. 1 to be eligible for the postseason. Braves manager Bobby Cox has said that he would welcome Franco coming off the bench. "He was good with us," Cox said. "Julio can play. We just didn't have a spot for him." Franco, who started the season with the New York Mets, had eight hits in his last 24 at-bats with the Braves. "I showed I can still hit," Franco said. Franco went from Triple-A Oklahoma City to the Majors with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1982, but he has gone everywhere from Mexico to Korea to keep his long career going. Franco is looking at his stay with Rome as a chance for his 13-year-old son, Joshua, to glimpse life in the Minors. "This gives him a chance to see what it will be like for him," said Franco, already envisioning a baseball career for his son. "He's a switch-hitter."
Guy Curtright is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.