Julio Franco asked the question, even though he already knew the answer. "Should I retire after this year or come back?" he blurted out in the Atlanta Braves' clubhouse.

That's an easy one.

At an age when most players have long since retired, Franco shows no signs of slowing down. Heck, he's only 46. He'd like to play at least four more seasons.

"I don't care what people say. I don't care about the stereotypes," Franco said. "Age is just a number."

Here's a number that's more important: Baseball's oldest player batted over .300 -- .309 to be exact -- in a full season for the first time since 1996. Now, it's off to the playoffs, where Franco could play a key role in the Braves' best-of-five series against the Houston Astros.

"Not bad," he said yesterday, flashing a satisfied grin as he sat at his locker. "Not bad at all."

It's been a season of milestones for Franco, who became the oldest position player since 57-year-old Minnie Minoso in 1980 (and that was just a pinch-hitting publicity stunt) and the oldest to hit a grand slam in major league history. Platooning at first base, Franco had six homers and 57 RBI, not to mention three triples and four stolen bases.

Not bad, indeed.

"He's one of the reasons we won this year," Braves Manager Bobby Cox said. "His clutch hitting was unreal."

A-Rod Looks to Jeter

Derek Jeter bounded up the dugout steps and onto the Yankee Stadium field with Alex Rodriguez trailing a few strides behind.

"Very excited, very excited," Jeter shouted back, welcoming Rodriguez to his first postseason with New York.

Beginning tonight, when the Yankees face the Minnesota Twins in Game 1 of the best-of-five division series, Rodriguez hopes he won't need guiding.

"The barometer is always set here in terms of winning," Rodriguez said yesterday. "That's why you see guys like Reggie [Jackson] and Jeter, those guys are legends and icons in New York. You measure yourself with winning."

Winning a championship is why Rodriguez, the 2003 AL most valuable player and a two-time Gold Glove shortstop, agreed to switch to third base for a chance to play with Jeter and the Yankees.

Rodriguez arrived in the fourth season of a $252 million, 10-year contract. His statistics were ostentatious -- six straight seasons of 40-plus homers and more than 110 RBI -- and he was widely regarded as the best player in baseball.

But A-Rod struggled with the Yankees. He went 1 for 17 in a four-game series at Fenway Park in April. And he failed repeatedly with runners in scoring position, batting just .197 as of Aug. 26.

Rodriguez finished the season with 36 homers, 112 runs, 106 RBI and a .286 batting average, not quite the numbers he put up with last-place Texas but impressive enough to make Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire envious.

"I've heard A-Rod hasn't done this and hasn't done that. I looked up the numbers the other day: he has 100 RBI, 30 homers. . . . Good God, I don't have a guy with 90 RBI," Gardenhire said. "I think he's done a lot of great things for his team."

Platooning at first base, Julio Franco had six homers and 57 RBI, not to mention three triples and four stolen bases while batting .309 this season while the Braves won their 13th straight division title.