Friday, April 21, 2006

Old Man River is in the Books

There aren’t many guys still playing from the height of my baseball card collecting years. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Terry Mulholland, Curt Schilling and several other pitchers. Barry Bonds has recreated himself into Lou Ferigno and Omar Vizquel is still going strong in terms of position players. But one man that I grew up watching is older than all that I have mentioned. Julio Franco is 47 years old and going strong…and also playing for my favorite team the Mets.

Last night in San Diego against the Padres Julio put a 1-0 pitch from reliever Scott Linebrink into the seats down the right-field line at Petco Park. It vaulted the Mets ahead 3-2 and gave Franco a spot in the record book that had been belonged to Athletics pitcher Jack Quinn. Quinn had been the oldest major leaguer (46 years and 357 days) to hit a homerun when he went deep on June 27th, 1930. But now the record belongs to Mr. Franco who will turn 48 on August 23rd.

Julio’s long career started when he came up late in the 1982 season with the Phillies. Way back yonder Julio was a middle infielder, specifically a shortstop. He was traded that December with five other Phillies to the Cleveland Indians for Von Hayes where he spent six very good seasons. In December of 1988 the Indians sent their best hitter, now a second baseman, to the Texas Rangers where he had the most productive seasons of his career. In 1989, 1990 and 1991 Julio was an American League All-Star, in 1990 the All-Star game MVP. In 1991 he led the Major Leagues with a .341 that gave him his only batting title.

In 1992 he suffered the only real significant injury of his career and at 33 years old he played in just 35 games. Two years later he signed a one-year deal to be the Chicago White Sox DH. He had a fine season hitting .319 with career bests 20 HRs and 98 RBIs. The Sox couldn’t renew his contract after the season and he returned to Cleveland in 1996. Then Cleveland release him in August of 1997 and he signed with Milwaukee to finish the season. Nobody wanted the 39-year old and he went and played a year in Japan. After good success in Japan the Tampa Bay Devil Rays gave him a shot, for one game. The 40-year old struck out in his only at bat and was in the minor leagues most of the season. In 2000 and 2001 he played for the Mexico City Tigers of the Mexican League. He still was hitting with success when the Atlanta Braves in desperate need of some help at first base gave him a contract on August 31st of 2001. In 90 ABs he hit .300 and won over the respect of Braves Manager Bobby Cox.

He spent the last four years in Atlanta as a back-up first basemen and pinch hitter. But Mets GM Omar Minaya jumped at the chance to sign him last offseason because he thought Julio’s coach-like presence on the Mets would help several of the Mets younger players. Minaya and the Mets signed him to a two-year guaranteed contract that is already paying dividends. When this contract expires Franco will be 49 years old – if he can get one more year out of his body he’ll make it to fifty…which is what his goal is. And why not? He’s in better shape than most 30-year olds and is a positive influence on and off the field.

He’s a physical specimen with a love for the game of baseball that is second to none.

Great job last night Julio – and keep it up.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Great Column - I couldn't agree more...

Stephen A. Smith Star's next absence may be permanent
By Stephen A. Smith
Philadelphia Inquirer Columnist

There's no need to waste time debating the latest transgressions of Allen Iverson and Chris Webber. To not show up on time for the last home game of the season - on Fan Appreciation Night, no less - not only delivered a slap in the face to 76ers fans, it did the same to team president Billy King and coach Maurice Cheeks.
It appears that neither Iverson nor Webber knew much about the position they put King and Cheeks in. Worse, it appears that they didn't care. If such an act of disrespect leads to King's exodus or questions about whether Cheeks is the right coach for this franchise, that's a problem King and Cheeks have to deal with. Not Iverson and Webber.
To be honest, on the surface it simply makes no sense. It can't. Not if we take into account the way Iverson has repeatedly supported King's stewardship over this franchise. And not if we recall Iverson's desire for Cheeks as a head coach over Jim O'Brien.
That is, until you consider that the Sixers entered last night's game eliminated from the playoff picture, saddled with 43 losses, mired in speculation as to whether Iverson, Webber or anyone else would be traded. And they know in all probability that's exactly what will need to be done to get this franchise pointed in the proper direction.
After all the heroics, all the highlights, all the scoring titles, and another 33-point-per-game average this season, here's the bottom-line feeling most fans have about Iverson on the Sixers right now: You can miss the playoffs without him.
You don't need Iverson to finish below .500. You don't need Iverson to finish with a worse record than the entire Central Division. You don't need Iverson to lose to Charlotte, Atlanta and New York, or fold and wither away down the stretch the way the Sixers did during the latter part of this season.
Webber's questionable athleticism will accomplish that for you. So will Andre Iguodala's passivity. Samuel Dalembert's attitude, Kyle Korver's non-defensive ways or, dare we say, Cheeks' coaching style.
Cheeks all but admitted as much during Tuesday night's fiasco at the Wachovia Center, saying, "There are things I should have done differently this season. I should have been on top of things a little bit more, should have held people more accountable. I apologize. We're going to fix this."
Somewhere, Jim O'Brien is laughing, folks.
He's laughing because his stubbornness may have been what this team needed: Some discipline. Some focus. And unwillingness to befriend anyone.
Let the coaches coach and the players play. That way, the only expectation would have been results.
I don't particularly agree with that being a long-term philosophy, but the fact is it would have worked perfectly for these underachieving Sixers, a team that now finds itself in a quandary, wondering what it is going to do about Iverson.
King is many things, but stupid isn't one of them. He knows Iverson's agent, Leon Rose, came to him before the trading deadline for a reason. He knows Iverson was relishing the thought of heading to Denver, not giving two hoots about the garbage the Sixers were going to get in return.
Now that the off-season is upon the Sixers, King also knows that unless he can get his hands on the likes of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen or that caliber of player, Iverson is going to let Rose and Gary Moore, his No. 1 confidant, do all of his talking for him.
Iverson's not going to care about three years at $66 million remaining on Garnett's contract in Minnesota, or the four years and $67 million left on Allen's contract with Seattle, either. And, judging by his actions, Iverson's not going to be so apt to hold on to Webber, Iguodala or anyone else on this roster, either.
"I love this franchise, this city," Iverson told me a month ago. "They've been great to me. My hope is that we can win right here. But the older you get, the more you question how much time you have."
Moore added, "Allen's not about to complain about the fans or this city because he knows how great Philadelphia has been to him. But he's not getting any younger. So..."
Moore has his ideas but won't say. The same could be said for Iverson and his agent. The thing is, it's obvious.
Iverson doesn't have a desire to leave Philadelphia; he has a desire to win. Unfortunately at the moment, those two issues are mutually exclusive.
He knows it, but maybe he suspected the Sixers weren't aware of it.
Chances are, they know now. Let's see what they do about it.

Contact columnist Stephen A. Smith at 215-854-5846 or