Andruw Jones (.256) was hitting 47 points lower than last year. Lopez (.256, 15 homers, 57 RBIs) struggled during the first half of the season, and leftfielder B.J. Surhoff, brought in from the Baltimore Orioles in July 2000 to help protect Chipper Jones and Jordan, has been a bust. In a 13-game span extending through Sunday, Atlanta scored more than five runs twice. Production got so low that against the Montreal Expos on Sept. 5, Cox started Ken Caminiti (a midseason import after being released by the Texas Rangers), who was hitting .232 at the time, at third base and moved Chipper Jones, who hadn't played the outfield since 1997, to leftfield. Caminiti went 0 for 4, and the Expos romped 10-4.
The most glaring hole has been at first base, a position that, throughout Atlanta's run since 1991, had been pridefully passed on from Sid Bream to Fred McGriff to Galarraga to Klesko to Galarraga. Last off-season, Schuerholz didn't re-sign the then 39-year-old Big Cat and instead handed journeyman free agent Rico Brogna a one-year, $1.5 million contract. Brogna hit .248 with three homers in 72 games, was demoted to third string and retired in July. He now coaches high school football in Waterbury, Conn. Cox gave rookie Wes Helms, a third baseman, 47 starts at first, during which Helms batted .211 with four homers. Caminiti, 38, who had played exclusively at third in his previous 14 big league seasons, started 33 games at first and was inept at the plate and in the field, committing six errors. "That didn't work," says Schuerholz. "Ken was very uncomfortable. The ball came at him backward, considering what he was used to at third."
Says Caminiti, simply, "I was not good."
Through Sunday, Braves first basemen collectively ranked 15th among all National League teams' first basemen in batting (.235) and 14th in homers (15) and in RBIs (65). A couple of weeks ago Schuerholz was told by his scouts about an intriguing prospect playing first for the Mexico City Tigers who had quick hands and unshakable poise. He led the Mexican League with a .437 average and then hit .477 hi the playoffs. His name: Julio Franco. According to The Baseball Encyclopedia, Franco is 43 years old. According to the Baseball Register, as well as several major league media guides, he's 40. Atlanta didn't care how old he was: It signed him to a one-year, $450,000 contract on Aug. 31. Franco, who coyly says that he's 40 and 43, is one of 18 players age 30 or older on the Braves' 36-man roster.
Through Sunday, Franco had started eight games and batted .250 with a homer and five RBIs. In Saturday's win, he drove in two runs with a single and double. He also had played nearly flawless defense. "You look at Julio, and there's no way he can be so old," says Atlanta outfielder Dave Martinez, no spring chicken himself at 36. "Clearly he's a man who's kept himself in fantastic shape."
Franco's physique is amazing. His body looks like that of a light heavyweight, with thick arms and bulging muscles. On his first day with the Braves, Franco shocked hitting coach Merv Rettenmund by swinging his 36-inch, 36-ounce bat onehanded during soft toss. "To take a real swing like that with a 36-inch bat... I've never seen anybody do it," says Rettenmund. "That's extreme strength."
Ten years ago, as Texas's second baseman, Franco led the American League with a .341 average, but after the 1994 season, when he hit .319 in 112 games for the Chicago White Sox, he became a free agent and went unsigned. Since then, he has traveled around the baseball world, playing two seasons in Japan, two in Mexico and one in Korea. Except for one at bat with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in '99, Franco hadn't appeared in the major leagues since '97, when he hit .270 for the Indians and Milwaukee Brewers. "When you are young and natural, you take for granted the beautiful joy of playing in the major leagues," says Franco, who broke in with Philadelphia in '82. "I always knew God would lead me back, but it was long and difficult. I was sure I could help someone. To be here, in a pennant race, is a blessing."
It will take more than Franco's efforts for Atlanta to return to the World Series. Whereas it used to be that National League contenders dreaded having to travel to noisy, tomahawk-stuffed Atlanta- Fulton County Stadium for the playoffs, the Braves no longer enjoy a home park edge. Through Sunday they were 34-38 at Turner Field, with the Phillies having come into town for a three-game series beginning on Tuesday. (The clubs are to play four games in Philadelphia next week.) Attendance in Atlanta had dropped to 34,907 per game, the lowest for the franchise since 1991.
"Every year I've been here, people have said that we're a boring team to watch because we rely on great pitching," says Chipper Jones, who joined the Braves in '93. "I'm not sure I can argue. From the fans' perspective, we don't play an exciting brand of baseball. We don't have a big bopper; we don't score a ton of runs. The majority of Americans need to see 12-10 games, and we don't offer that. To be honest, I wouldn't want to watch us on TV, either."