MAYAGUEZ, Puerto Rico -- Fit and trim at the age of 52, former Major Leaguer Julio Franco is probably in better physical condition than many of the Venezuelan players whom he manages.
In fact, the baseball marvel might be in better shape than many of the players on any of the four rosters at this week's Caribbean Series at Isidoro Garcia Stadium.
It's true, the fitness guru and yoga enthusiast might look like a player -- but he thinks like a manager. Franco said he hopes to return to the big leagues one day, this time as a skipper, and he's hopeful the experience he's gained managing in Venezuela's Winter Leagues will help get him there.
There is a precedent. Cleveland manager Manny Acta and former Giants skipper Felipe Alou, who like Franco are also from the Dominican Republic, led teams in Venezuela and later managed in the Major Leagues.
Will Franco follow the lead of his countrymen? He's off to a good start. In his first year as a manager in any league, the former infielder led Venezuela's Caribes de Anzoategui to its first league title in franchise history -- and first-ever appearance at the Caribbean Series.
On Friday, Mexico defeated Venezuela, 7-3, in the first game of the day. Mexico improved to 2-1 with the victory, while Venezuela fell to 1-2.
In the second game of the day, the Dominican Republic rallied for three runs in the top of the ninth inning for a 4-3 come-from-behind victory against Puerto Rico. On Saturday, Mexico will square off against the Dominican Republic (2-1) in the first game, followed by Puerto Rico (1-2) and Venezuela in the evening.
Franco wants a title, but the Caribes have a difficult task ahead of them -- though they have a winning history on their side. A team from Venezuela has won the Caribbean Series seven times, with the last victory coming in 2009. The country played host to the round-robin last season on Margarita Island, but Caracas, last year's league champion, finished in last place with a 1-5 record.
"There were people that didn't think we could win. Moreover, there were some in baseball that would not give me the opportunity to manage," said Franco, who played 16 years in the Dominican Republic Winter League. "Obviously, they were mistaken. The doors were never open for me to manage in the Dominican, but I thank God that I was given the chance in Venezuela. And for that, I am very grateful."
A deeply religious man, Franco says he has plenty of reasons to be grateful.
Signed by the Phillies as a teenager in 1978 out of San Pedro de Macoris, Franco earned his nickname "El Eterno," the eternal one, during a long career that seemed to last forever.
During his heyday, he hit at least .300 in three of his six years with Cleveland from 1983-88, and was later a three-time All-Star while with Texas. He was named the All-Star Game MVP in 1990, and earned a batting title along with his fourth straight Silver Slugger award in '91. Franco also played for the White Sox, as well as in Japan, Korea and Mexico.
You can argue that the beginning of Franco's managerial career started before his playing career ended. The first-year skipper says he learned how to manage by watching former managers Bobby Cox and Willie Randolph operate, when he was a bench player with the Braves and Mets during the final years as a player.
"I've always said I wanted to manage in the Major Leagues when my career was over," said Franco, who retired after the 2007 season. "I spent my last seven years on the bench learning, and now I can put that knowledge into action."
While Franco admits he's still mastering the art of field managing, he's proud to be an expert in the field of physical fitness since the 1980s.
He starts each day with yoga at 5 a.m.
"I've always been disciplined in my diet and in my life," he said. "Your body is a machine, and you have to take care of that machine. Everyone in life has to choose a style of living. I opted to live a healthy one."