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So who is going to poision his tea?


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Diet keeping Franco at focal point


NEW YORK -- Julio Franco doesn't play a game without it.


Before he even puts on his uniform, Franco stands in front of his locker and scoops a few spoonfuls of a powdery, dirt-like substance into a cup, fills the cup with cold water and sticks in an odd straw with a strainer attached. He gives the muddy concoction a stir as he walks around the clubhouse, then, brew prepared, he sits back and sips.


Franco starts every game day off with this cup of tea. He keeps the ground-up leaves in a paper sack in the top corner of his locker, and he brings it on the road. It's all a part of his routine.


During what is approaching three decades in the big leagues, tea has become a part of Franco's ongoing mission to keep his body in the best shape possible. Now the oldest active player in the Majors, the 48-year-old has played for eight different Major League Baseball clubs and organizations in Japan and Korea.


This year, the newest of Franco's favored remedies sits in the cup with the filtered straw. Franco started drinking the South American tea, called yerba mate, at the beginning of the season after learning about it from a friend who grew up in Argentina.


"It cleans you out," Franco said. "It gives you a lot of energy."


Containing caffeine and tannin as stimulants, the tea is the most recent in a long list of things Franco believes keeps him in top shape for games. He also stocks up on supplements high in antacids to keep his heart strong, like flaxseed oil and omega-3, which sit next to the yerba mate bag in his locker.


Franco doesn't usually take vitamins -- "I get my vitamins from vegetables," he said -- and stays away from soda, alcohol and coffee most of the time. His favorite meal, rice and beans and usually chicken or fish, is completely organic.


He doesn't eat dessert and even shies away from fruits because they contain too much sugar. Franco won't eat anything processed, anything that includes preservatives or anything that's high in fat.


"I've been doing this for such a long time," Franco said. "It's a process of trust. I trust Mother Nature. Anything that's natural, it's good for you. It doesn't matter how it tastes. That's the way I see it."


The yerba mate, Franco said, doesn't necessarily taste good.


"It tastes strong," Franco said. "You have to get used to the taste. It's like drinking something sour without sugar."


And there'll be no spoon full of sugar to help this medicine go down. Sugar is one another thing Franco tries to stay away from, especially before a game when he's looking for an energy boost.


"When I drink tea, I don't want to put sugar on it, because tea already has caffeine in it, and when you add sugar you skyrocket and then you come back down," he said. "This kind of tea brings you up little by little."


It may be habits like this one that have brought Franco up to where he is now. This season, the Mets have regularly called upon Franco as a designated hitter. Franco is batting .196 in 46 at-bats this year and .298 for his career.


In his 26-year career, Franco has become a distinguished hitter, totaling more than 4,200 hits during his time in professional baseball, and he is the oldest regularly playing non-pitcher in Major League history. The veteran is also the oldest player to hit a grand slam and the oldest to hit a home run.


In the 1990s, Franco spent two years playing for the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan, during which he began drinking tea. He's now expanded his palate to seven different varieties and makes a point to try new ones when he travels. When the Mets were in Los Angeles earlier this season, Franco went into Chinatown and bought an expensive bag of fine green tea to sample.


"I've been trying to drink tea from all over the world," he said. "I drink tea wherever I go."


Other facets of Franco's nutritional regimen, however, aren't always as easy to follow. In Japan, it wasn't tough to stick to his organic staples of rice, poultry, fish and vegetables, but in the United States, Franco finds it difficult to find the untainted foods he is looking for -- too many preservatives and chemicals, he said.


"In this country, it's hard to trust a lot of things," Franco said. "In the orient, in Japan and Korea, everywhere you go it's the same thing -- all natural fish, vegetables and white rice."


But even though it may require a little extra effort, Franco won't be breaking his strict diet any time soon.


"There's a lot that isn't good for you," Franco said. "You don't have to eat it."

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