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09/18/07 6:07 PM ET

Franco's faith key to long career

Veteran infielder hopes to play until he is 50 years old

When Julio Franco was rescued from the oblivion of the Mexican League late in the 2001 season, few knew exactly what to expect.

Even Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox wondered.

The one-time American League batting champion had been out of sight and out of mind that long.

"I thought he might be fat," Cox said.

Far from it.

The native of the Dominican Republic arrived at Turner Field six years ago with a chiseled physique that would have made a 25-year-old proud.

Questions remained about his real age, though. Was he actually born in 1959 or 1961?

Asked by a reporter about the discrepancies in his birth dates, Franco replied:

"How old do you want me to be?" he said.

Told it really wasn't up to a reporter, Franco said: "Only God knows for sure." Age and faith remain a big part of the Julio Franco story.

No Major League hitter has ever done more at such an advanced age, and had to overcome as much along the way as Franco, who officially turned 49 on Aug. 23.

Pat Corrales, the former Braves bench coach, was Franco's first manager with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1982, and also managed him -- or at least tried to -- for several seasons with the Cleveland Indians during Franco's wild years.

Asked a few seasons ago if he every thought Franco might be still playing in his 40s, Corrales said, "I never thought he'd live to 40."

But Franco rededicated his life after winning the American League battling championship with a .341 average for the Texas Rangers in 1991.

Despite the title, Franco said he felt empty. He had been the Most Valuable Player of the 1990 All-Star Game and hit .300 four consecutive seasons over one stretch.

But something was missing.

That December, Franco had a religious conversion. "Jesus took over my life," he said. "God was now in control."

But Franco's baseball career -- hampered by injuries -- bottomed out just as his life was being uplifted.

By 2000, he was playing Korea. The next year it was Mexico, where he hit .437.

That's when the Braves, desperate for someone to play first base, rescued his career.

Franco batted .300 in 25 games during the final month of the 2001 season. Suddenly, he wasn't washed up after all.

Franco hit .309 with the Braves in 2004, the year he turned 45. He is the oldest player ever to hit a Major League home run, among many other distinctions.

One goal remains. Franco wants to play until he is at least 50. He turns that next season.

"I'm going to go out in style next year," said Franco, who would eventually like to manage. "God has taken me this far. Why would he stop now?"

But Franco has been dropped by both the New York Mets and Braves this season, only rejoining the Braves after rosters could be expanded in September.

Still, Atlanta fans love the Major's oldest player. Each appearance as a pinch-hitter is impassionately greeted with chants of "Julio! Julio! Julio!"

Franco's career average in the Major Leagues is just under .300, and he has nearly 2,600 hits -- the most ever for a player from the Dominican Republic.

If Franco does ever stop playing, will his career be deemed up to Hall-of-Fame caliber?

"Unfortunately, you can't count those hits he got in Japan and Korea and Mexico or whatever," Cox said. "But Julio has had an amazing career. He definitely belongs on the ballot for consideration."

Under the steroid cloud, Franco joked a couple of springs ago that he was juiced. "Jesus juice," he said.

But he has prolonged his career by doing more than reading the Bible daily.

After two hours of prayer each morning, he works out in the gym at least as long.

He has a special diet that includes little sugar, salt or fats. He rides a stationary bike after games or before bed, burning off any extra calories."

"God gives us just one body to use," Franco said. "You have to take care of it."

"I wish I was in that good shape," said 23-year-old Braves outfielder Jeff Francoeur. "He works harder than any of us."

Franco sleeps just three hours or so a night, but he says that it's a peaceful sleep.

"I know who is in control of my life and what is ahead for me," Franco said.

But can the ageless one really make it to his off-stated goal of playing until he's 50? A team may be reluctant to give him a chance next spring.

"I wouldn't bet against him," Mets pitcher Tom Glavine said earlier this season.

"Nothing should be considered impossible with Julio," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "The man has already shown that."

Guy Curtright is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.