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Tradition Field, Port St. Lucie – Being a professional athlete means you’re on top of the game, from minor leagues to high school, college, minor leagues and then … if you’re lucky and impress the right scouts . and coaches … you can get your shot in the big leagues. There are a tremendous number of talented players who get caught up in the minors. Some don’t get the big shots they need or have the 100+ mph fastball it takes to shoot big, let alone set foot on the field of any major league stadium. The competitive nature of professional sports seems to focus on developing young players to build their franchises. Since the average age of Major League Baseball players is in their twenties, most professional careers last into their early thirties. Only a handful of professional gamers are lucky enough to have their careers last into their 40s.

While injuries are the main reason races end prematurely, very few players can compete at the highest level required to remain in the majors. However, there is a relentless player who continues to play at the highest level, Julio Franco. At 48, he continues to challenge the clock with his remarkable fitness and passion for the game.

Franco is entering his 23rd season of professional baseball; is the designated hitter for the New York Mets. No, he is not a coach, but an important part of the Mets team whose goal is to reach the playoffs for the second year in a row. As a designated hitter, he won’t play every day, but when Mets manager Willie Randolph calls him, he should be ready. That means being in game shape and having the mental toughness to be ready at any moment. Having watched Franco train with his teammates at Tradition Field, he is in remarkable condition and still batting an incredibly strong bat. In fact, it would be difficult to tell him apart from some of the younger players on the field. He certainly doesn’t look like the old man on the team, saying he “still has fun, enjoys going out to the stadium every day.” Although he doesn’t have the power he had when he stormed with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1980, he still has enormous energy and enthusiasm playing alongside his fellow Mets.

Randolph sees Franco as a leader in the clubhouse. When asked what he says to younger players, “I set the example by working hard every day, when they see me doing the things I do, it makes them work harder.”

Franco made history last season. On April 20, 2006, while pinch-hitting for the New York Mets, Franco at age 47 became the oldest player in Major League history to hit a home run, a two-run throw in the eighth inning at Petco Park in San Diego. Some other records he holds include being the oldest player (by more than four years) to hit a grand slam, the oldest to have a multi-homer game, and the oldest to steal two bases in a game. Old man? Not yet! Before that astonishing feat, the oldest player in home runs was Jack Quinn, who at 46 hit bottom in a game in 1930. The old record had been held for 76 years; the new good may last another 50.

“I want to play at least another five years,” he said. If this happens, Franco will play at 55. That would put him in an elite company of players who have played past 50 years. While most of us hope to retire after long careers, Franco said: “I want to be playing for as long as I can or until I lose interest.” This looks like it could be a time, based on his youthful spirit at spring training camp this year. He says God gave him the gift of playing baseball and attributes another reason for his success to his spiritual values.

Of course, Franco may very well miss the record as the oldest player to ever play major league baseball. That record is held by Satchel Paige, who in 1965 appeared on the Major League Baseball diamond at age 59.

But Franco’s impact on the game and the records he holds will last for a long time.

Beyond playing in the United States, Franco has played in many foreign countries (Japan, Korea, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic). “Japan is by far the most competitive place to play. The pitching is very dominant.” In whatever league he’s played in, Franco has made his mark. In the majors, Franco has played for the Phillies, Indians, Rangers, White Sox, Braves and Mets.

Franco mentioned that today’s players are bigger, stronger and faster than the players from when he started his career. Standing next to him, he is an imposing figure, even at 48 years old. His body is solid and his appearance is youthful. Franco follows a strict diet “… eating all natural foods and foods without preservatives.” He stays away from unnatural foods and takes various vitamins on a daily basis, in addition to flax seeds and soy milk. Franco also said that he has been fortunate to have avoided a serious injury that could have endangered his career and that maintaining a consistent training schedule has helped him stay in top condition.

Whatever the future holds for Julio Franco, he has set records that are sure to stand for some time to come. With such a strong will and determination to remain healthy in body and spirit, you will not compromise your spiritual beliefs. He continues to be an example to baseball fans that age is not a factor when it comes to playing the American pastime.

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