Veteran first baseman Julio Franco no longer denies that he is 45, but he doesn't like talking about his age. The repetition is irritating, for one thing. And then there's the age prejudice.
"I don't think it's age prejudice at all," Braves assistant general manager Frank Wren says. "In our profession, we depend on history. Historically, when players get to be 40 years old, they're not playing on a higher level.
"When you're making judgments on how much to pay a player, how much to depend on a player, what position you expect him to play and do, you rely on past experience, and past experience for 40-year-old players is not that great.
"Julio is the exception. There are fewer and fewer opportunities for those players. Defining a role and finding that spot for them is hard. [Teams] start balancing salary, role, all those things, it gets harder.
"What happens is, from year to year, it's kind of cyclical. There may be years when there are no first basemen's jobs open where they see enough playing time for a guy like that. Therefore, the offers aren't there.
"[After the 1994 strike] he decided to go to Japan where he could get a better offer, more playing time. Those are the kinds of decisions veteran players have to make. When you get past your prime, now you're trying to pick your spots. It's not that unusual. The unusual part for Julio was that he was out of the big leagues for so long and he's come back to play as well as he has."
Things you need to know...
- Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton on veteran first baseman Julio Franco: "[If he played every day] I think he could hit .300. I think he really could."
- Ted Turner's son, Beau, has joined the eight-man group buying the NHL Atlanta Thrashers, the NBA Atlanta Hawks and the operating rights to Philips Arena, where the teams play. Turner's son-in-law, Rutherford Seydel, is one of the leaders of the group.
He said what? "I do weightlifting, I do yoga, I do power pilates, I eat well, I don't drink, I don't smoke. Once in a while I eat dessert but I don't like sweets. I don't like chocolate and I don't like sugar. I take vitamins. I eat red meat, [beef] filet or bison." - Julio Franco, on how he stays fit.
Former Phillie Tony Taylor is returning to the Marlins coaching staff. Fired by owner Jeffrey Loria's new administration just before the 2002 season, Taylor, 67, was hired back as bullpen coach. Jeff Cox, Florida's bullpen coach for most of last season, will be the new third-base coach, replacing Ozzie Guillen, who left in November to manage the Chicago White Sox.
A native of Cuba who played 19 major league seasons, Taylor also will serve as a mentor to Florida's Latin players, many of whom know Taylor from his nine seasons working in the organization.
Taylor was the major league team's infield coach from 1999-2001, a period in which he also spent limited time as bench coach and bullpen coach.
"With Tony's experience, a mentor-type label comes along with that," said general manager Larry Beinfest, who noted Taylor's long friendships with shortstop Alex Gonzalez and second baseman Luis Castillo.
"His relationship and knowledge of players who are here will be beneficial. He's a friendly face, someone they are comfortable with. We know the players enjoyed that with Ozzie, so it's beneficial for players to have Tony back."
Things you need to know...
- The World Series champions are tentatively scheduled to make the obligatory trip to the White House on January 23rd.
- Marlins pitchers and catchers are to report for spring training in Jupiter on February 21st, with position players due three days later. The club will hold its first full-squad workout on February 26th.
The exhibition season begins March 3 against the University of Miami.
- Marlins special assistant Andre Dawson questioned the standards of Hall of Fame voters when two players considered specialists became the latest to achieve baseball's highest honor roll.
"If you put in the Hall of Fame a guy who was primarily a designated hitter, then you have a tendency to knock other designated hitters who have had fine careers," said Dawson, who was passed over for the third year in a row.
"I don't know what the criteria is. The one thing (voters) are failing to realize is I was a 'five-tool' player, I was a consistent player. One (writer) said I only had one monster year, but I was a consistent player.
"The game is changing. Numbers are changing. For one, the writers aren't going to change their attitudes about anything. With that in mind, maybe I'm just good enough to be on the ballot but not good enough to be in the Hall."
A player must receive 75 percent of the vote from the Baseball Writers Association of America. Dawson received 253 votes (50 percent). In 2002, his first year of eligibility, he received 214 votes (45 percent), and in 2003 he got 248 votes (50 percent).
He said what? "I was given budget parameters [from owner Jeffrey Loria]. If you're talking about a big-ticket item, that's not something I've been authorized to do." - GM Larry Beinfest, dashing speculation the Marlins planned to go after a big-name free agent such as Vladimir Guerrero or Greg Maddux.
Six weeks away from the start of spring training, the Expos see a couple of positions that have to be filled.
Brian Schneider is the only catcher on the 40-man roster. Schneider started 95 games in 2003 and proved he can do the job defensively.
"Schneider is our everyday guy," Expos assistant GM Tony Siegle said. "In all probability, we'll try to get a veteran-type catcher to back up Schneider."
Then there is the matter of center field. Ideally, the Expos want to fill the spot with someone who will hit leadoff.
Siegle is certain that someone is right there on the roster.
"We have several good candidates, but I think Endy Chavez is the man," Siegle said of the little speedster who won the job last year after a brilliant 2002 season when he led the Triple-A International League in hitting. He followed by sparking a strong Expos finish in September.
But given the job last spring, Chavez hit .251 and scored 66 runs on 121 hits in 483 at-bats. He walked 31 times and had 59 strikeouts. He stole 18 bases in 25 attempts.
"I maintain Chavez can be every bit as good as Juan Pierre," Siegle said, referring to the sparkplug at the top of the batting order for the World Series champion Florida Marlins. Pierre hit .305, had 204 hits, scored 100 runs and stole 65 bases while being caught 20 times last season.
"He has to realize he's Endy Chavez, not Vladimir Guerrero," Siegle said. "He takes that big, long swing instead of taking advantage of his speed the way Pierre does. He's a much better fielder than Pierre with a better arm and superior range.
"There's no question he can be a class A center fielder if he stays within himself offensively."
Things you need to know...
- After averting arbitration and signing SS Orlando Cabrera, the Expos had four players still eligible -- closer Rocky Biddle, RHP Tomo Ohka, RHP Tony Armas Jr., and recently acquired 1B Nick Johnson.
- With C Michael Barrett injured twice, Brian Schneider started 95 games last season and led MLB catchers by throwing out 46.7 percent of would be base stealers. Schneider is the only catcher on the 40-man roster.
He said what? "I maintain (Endy) Chavez can be as good as Juan Pierre." - Expos assistant GM Tony Siegle, comparing the team's center fielder and leadoff man to the sparkplug at the top of the World Series champion Marlins' order.
NEW YORK METS
Mo Vaughn won't even have to report to spring training to collect his $15 million from the Mets.
The slugger and the team confirmed what has long been assumed: He will not play next season or likely ever again because an arthritic left knee.
"You have to know when it's time," said Vaughn, 36.
But Vaughn is not officially retiring. The Mets will place him on the 60-day disabled list before the season starts.
"Mo is not suggesting or announcing he is retiring," agent Jeff Moorad said. "Call it a fine line of distinction."
By not retiring, Vaughn will still collect the $15 million he is owed for 2004 and a $2 million buyout of his $14 million contract for 2005.
An insurance policy will pick up 75 percent of the money owed Vaughn. The Mets had already figured that savings into their 2004 budget.
Mets general manager Jim Duquette said team physician Dr. Andrew Rokito recently examined Vaughn and determined he would not be able to play this year.
Vaughn didn't even attempt to put a happy spin on the news. The former Seton Hall star seemed resigned to never playing again during a conference call with reporters.
"Everybody has to get up and get on with their lives and keep moving," he said. "If I continued to go out there and play, they were talking about knee replacement at a very young age. ... The fact of the matter is it doesn't look good for ever playing."
Former general manager Steve Phillips traded for Vaughn before the 2002 season. Out of shape and often injured, he hit .249 with 29 homers and 87 RBI during his tenure in New York. For that he will ultimately be paid $42 million.
Vaughn played 20 games last season before going on the disabled list. He has played only 166 games since 2000.
Vaughn is a career .293 hitter with 326 home runs.
Things you need to know...
- OF Cliff Floyd missed the Mets' minicamp after initially planning to attend. Floyd had personal matters to attend to. Duquette said Floyd's sore right Achilles tendon responded well to the surgery done in August, and he should be ready for spring training.
- The Mets made a three-year, $30 million contract offer to free-agent outfielder Vladimir Guerrero that could have been worth as much as $70 million over five years, but it was rejected.
- Tug McGraw, the zany relief pitcher who died of brain cancer on January 5, was a fan favorite during his days with the Mets. "It's nice to know people care," he said last May. "Being a flake and kind of a goofball who lives life on the edge, you don't know the impact you have on people." McGraw pitched for the Mets from 1969-74, going 47-55. His most memorable moments came in 1973 as the fiery leader of a Mets team that came from last place to win the National League pennant before losing a seven-game World Series to the Oakland Athletics. "Tug McGraw was one of the great characters of the game of baseball," said Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, the ace of that team. "He just had a joy for life and living. But what people sometimes overlook because he was always happy go-lucky was what kind of competitor he was on the mound. No one competed with more intensity that he did."
- The Mets are considering extending a spring training invitation to right-handed reliever Turk Wendell. The former Met is a free agent.
He said what? "I had a lot of wars, a lot of battles. I made a lot of friends, met some good people. What I will miss most of all is being in the clubhouse, being with the fellas on the road, on the planes, on the buses. As a man you know you made the decision. I have to accept this." - Mo Vaughn on not being able to play in 2004 and likely ever again.
For the first time in years, the Phillies should report to spring training as legitimate favorites to win the National League East.
They still have to perform on the field, of course. But the additions of closer Billy Wagner, starter Eric Milton and setup reliever Tim Worrell have raised expectations sky high.
It doesn't hurt that they retained right-hander Kevin Millwood, giving them four former All-Stars in the rotation, and will be moving into brand new Citizens Bank Park in April.
"They have to be among the top four or five clubs in baseball," Tampa Bay Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella said during the winter meetings.
Manager Larry Bowa, who has been quick to point out what he considered to be deficiencies in his team in the past, is openly optimistic.
"We're ready to win right now," he said. "We're overdue, I think. We've got a lot of momentum going into the season right now. We've got a lot of people talking baseball even though the Eagles are having a great season.
"This is as good as I've seen it in awhile. But we still need to go out and do it."
The biggest thing the Phillies need to do is stay healthy. Second, they need left fielder Pat Burrell to bounce back from a season-long slump. Third, they need third baseman David Bell, who had back problems last season, to be fully recovered.
"This is the best team I've had since I've been here," said Bowa, who will be starting his fourth season. "This is the best team, depth-wise, since I've been coaching."
But that doesn't mean he'll feel any added pressure, Bowa insisted. "I don't care who your team is, what your payroll is, whether you have rookies or veterans," he said. "As a manager, you always want to win every game. Bad. I badly want to win every game."
Things you need to know...
He said what? "If I was that bad a manager, why do all these free agents want to come here?" - Larry Bowa, on the signings of LHP Eric Milton, RHP Todd Worrell and IF-OF-C Shawn Wooten.