By Jim Caple
Page 2

Hall of Fame ballots were delivered last week and among the usual difficult decisions, there is the Albert Belle riddle. Where does one of the most feared hitters of the '90s fit? He had more home runs (389), RBIs (1,239) and a higher OPS (933) than Kirby Puckett, who was a no-brainer first-ballot. But does Albert belong in? Do the math -- a score of 100 is necessary to get to Cooperstown.

Sportoon

 

(Illustration by Kurt Snibbe)

And now our regularly scheduled column …

Forget the $47 million deal the Blue Jays gave B.J. Ryan a couple weeks ago. Forget the $121 million package the Rockies gave Mike Hampton. Forget the $252 million deal Tom Hicks gave Alex Rodriguez or the first-class plane tickets guaranteed to Kevin Brown or the clause giving Troy Glaus' wife $250,000 a year for equestrian pursuits.

Forget every outrageous, over-the-top contract you've ever read about before. Because this one beats them all.

In the most wonderfully ludicrous contract in baseball history, Julio Franco just signed a two-year deal with the Mets. Yes. That's right. The Mets just gave a two-year contract to a 47-year-old first baseman. By the end of the contract, Franco will be the oldest thing in Shea Stadium, other than the hot dogs revolving on the concession stand warmers. Anna Benson better start stocking up on Cialis, just in case.

A two-year deal for Franco? Nolan Ryan not only didn't get a multi-year contract at that age, he was already retired. A two-year contract for a 47-year-old ballplayer? This is so audaciously optimistic it's like selling a 50-inch plasma screen to death-row inmates and then hitting them up for the extended warranty plan.

I'm not sure where Franco is going to fit into a Mets lineup that includes Carlos Delgado, but I love this deal anyway. If Franco can get a two-year contract at age 47, there's hope for the rest of us. My cholesterol is rising, my waistline is growing and although I have an iPod, I have trouble turning it on and off. But so what? Franco just signed a contract that runs until he's 49 and I suddenly feel young enough to dance in a Gap commercial or date Demi Moore.

Franco is so old that when he began his career, Mr. Met had a full head of hair. He already is the oldest position player in major-league history and if he reaches the end of this contract, he'll match Hoyt Wilhelm as the only big leaguer to make anything more than a cameo appearance at age 49 (see below). Not that he plans on quitting then -- he's said that his goal is to play until he's 50.

Will he make it? On the one hand, he hit .275 and slugged .451 last year. On the other hand, he hit under .200 the final month and drove in just two runs after Aug. 21.

Regardless of how long he plays, he's had an amazing career. Franco signed his first contract in 1978, when Jim Lonborg still was playing, and he was the runner-up for the rookie of the year award in 1983 -- the year Mets shortstop Jose Reyes was born. Pete Rose and Steve Carlton were his teammates on the '82 Phillies. George Bush was once his employer. He played in Mexico and Japan. Twice. He's hit .300 eight times and won the 1991 American League batting crown. Count his seasons in Mexico and Japan and he has more than 3,000 hits. He's played 28 pro seasons and stepped up to the plate nearly 10,000 times in the majors without ever reaching the World Series.

But there's still time for October glory. After all, he has a two-year contract. Although there is one small drawback to this deal. Because of it, Roger Clemens is now going to want a five-year package.

Lies, damn lies and statistics
After 17 seasons, John Olerud retired last week the same way he went about his entire career: quietly. Olerud won the AL batting title in 1993 with a .363 average, two World Series with the Blue Jays, three Gold Gloves and finished with 2,239 hits, but the quiet man probably will be best remembered for wearing a helmet at all times on the field because of a brain aneurysm suffered when he was in college at Washington State. That helmet prompted the widespread but unfortunately false story about Rickey Henderson meeting Olerud when he joined the Mariners in 2000 and supposedly saying, "Hey, I played with a guy in New York who always wore a helmet," with Olerud supposedly replying, "That was me." Olerud says the story isn't true, though acknowledged it certainly sounded like something Rickey would say. Sadly, Olerud never pitched in the majors, despite one of the most incredible seasons in collegiate history in 1988, when he nearly won the Pac-10 triple crown in batting and pitching (he went 15-0 and hit .464). He also had never played in the minors before appearing in three games with Pawtucket after signing with the Red Sox midway through the 2005 season. Good luck with the rest of your life, Ollie. … While Franco goes on at age 47, Jamie Moyer re-signed with the Mariners to pitch next year at age 43. Moyer also has had an incredible career. In Moyer's first decade, he won just 59 games, never won as many as 13 games in a season, was 17 games under .500 and had been let go by four different teams. In his second decade, he's gone 146-76, won at least 13 games every season but one and won 20 games twice.

From left field
How will Franco do next season … and the year after? We'll see. But of the dozen players who appeared in the majors after the age of 47 only Wilhelm, Jack Quinn and Phil Niekro made much more than one-game cameos.

The oldest players in major-league history:

Player Age The Skinny
Satchel Paige 59 Pitched three innings in 1965, struck out one
Minnie Minoso 57 Pinch hit in 1980 to become five-decade player
Jim O'Rourke 54 Oldest player to ever hit safely, in 1904
Charley O'Leary 51 Singled in 1934, 21 years after previous big-league game
Hoyt Wilhelm 49 Retired just days shy of his 50th birthday
Jack Quinn 49 Oldest pitcher to win a game
Hughie Jennings 49 Batted occasionally while managing Tigers
Arlie Latham 49 Nickname: "The Freshest Man on Earth"
Phil Niekro 48 An incredible 121 wins after age 40
Gabby Street 48 Batted once while managing Cardinals in 1931
Deacon McGuire 48 Occasional at-bats after career as regular ended
Johnny Evers 48 One at-bat 12 years after his career ended
Kaiser Wilhelm 48 Pitched in one game as manager
Julio Franco 47 Still going and going and going …

(Sources: Wikipedia, Baseball Encyclopedia, Baseball-Reference.com)

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," is on sale at bookstores nationwide. It also can be ordered through his Web site, Jimcaple.com.




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