<
>

Mets, Franco agree to two-year, $2.2 million deal

NEW YORK -- General manager Omar Minaya and the New York
Mets wanted Julio Franco so badly they gave a 47-year-old backup a
two-year contract.

"There are guys that are special as far as longevity,'' Minaya
said. "The only way we were going to be able to get him here was
for two years.''

The Mets agreed to a $2.2 million, two-year deal with Franco on
Friday, luring baseball's oldest player away from NL East rival
Atlanta and giving them a, well ... 'mature' backup for new first
baseman Carlos Delgado.

Most free agents in their mid-to-late 30s can't attract a
multiyear offer. Franco has one at age 47 -- and he wants to keep
playing until he's at least 50.

"I think age is a stereotype, I always say that,'' said Franco,
who keeps his body in incredible shape all year. "The only thing
that matters is if you can play or you can't.''

Franco hit .275 last season with nine homers and 42 RBI in 233
at-bats for the Braves, and he was surprised when they didn't offer
him arbitration after four-plus years in Atlanta.

That gave the Mets a better opportunity to land him, something
Minaya tried to do last year. After taking over as GM, he said
acquiring Franco was one of the first thoughts that entered his
mind in trying to build a winning environment.

Next season, Franco could fit well as a right-handed hitter who
can occasionally spell Delgado, a left-handed swinging slugger.

Franco, who will turn 48 next August, would like to become a
major league manager when his playing career is finally over, and
he believes Minaya can help him do that.

"I've told Julio that as long as I'm in the organization I
think I want Julio Franco to be part of my organization,'' said
Minaya, who is about 2½ months younger than Franco and has known
him since his own playing days more than 20 years ago. "When Julio
Franco sets a goal, he usually gets his goal.''

With his next homer, Franco would become the oldest major
leaguer to hit one. He already is the oldest player to hit a grand
slam and a pinch-hit homer.

One of Franco's first jobs will be to set an example for New
York's young players, especially shortstop Jose Reyes and third
baseman David Wright. In fact, Franco is old enough to be their
father -- he's even older than Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg.

That kind of maturity and experience is what Minaya had in mind
when putting together a bench that also includes 36-year-old Jose
Valentin, who agreed to a $912,500, one-year deal on Thursday.

"There's a plan in place here. What you have here is a couple
of young guys who have to learn how to play the game,'' Minaya
said. "Our bench can pick us up. ... What these guys bring to the
party I think is important.''

A three-time All-Star and 1991 AL batting champion with Texas,
Franco was released by Cleveland in August 1997 despite his .284
average. He spent the rest of the season with Milwaukee, then
headed overseas.

He had one at-bat with Tampa Bay in 1999 and spent about 3½
years in Japan, South Korea and Mexico before Atlanta acquired him
on Aug. 31, 2001. Since then, he's been a reliable player in a
part-time role with the Braves, who have won 14 consecutive
division titles.

"He has a situation where he's been very productive with Bobby
Cox and he's been a big part of their team in helping develop their
young players. They win,'' Minaya said. "If I was him, why would I
leave for one year?''

Franco said he learned a lot about training while he was in
Japan. He does a lot of cardiovascular work, plus swimming, weights
and yoga. He also does plenty of stretching.

"I don't work out and train and eat like this because I play
baseball, I do this because I've got one life to live,'' Franco
said during a conference call from the Dominican Republic. "When I
stop playing baseball, I'm going to continue to do this. I think
everybody should take care of their body. It's your best
investment.'

In other team news, minor league pitcher Gaby Hernandez and
outfielder Dante Brinkley were dealt to Florida, completing this week's trade
that sent catcher Paul Lo Duca to New York.