Imagine for a second that you’re a first-round draft pick, selected 23rd overall by your favorite hometown team. Just over three years later you’re making your major league debut, hitting a three-run home run for your first hit. In your first 39 games in the bigs, you slash .359/.380/.669, with 10 home runs, 13 doubles, triple, 31 RBI, and 29 runs scored. Then two days later you’re featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the words “The Natural” placed directly below your image. Sounds surreal, right?
That is exactly what took place for a 21-year-old outfielder named Jeff Francoeur. Frenchy, as he was affectionately called by fans and teammates, had an unbelievable start to his major league career; finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting in ’05, finishing with the second most home runs in the N.L. (14) behind Ryan Howard, third among all rookies in fWAR (3.0), and making the postseason his first year with the team he grew up rooting for in his own backyard.
A cannon for an arm and a joyful personality, Francoeur offered more to the game than just raw numbers, he played the game with a passion and appreciation that was instilled in him as a young kid by parents who both worked in the school system. Hustle and showing respect were two expected traits of Francoeur, whether on the field or off it.
New York got to experience Frenchy in parts of 2009-10, and he fared well early on. In 75 games with the Mets in ’09, Francoeur slashed .311/.338/.498, with 10 home runs and 41 RBI and playing a strong right field for the team. He posted double-digit assists in ’09 between Atlanta and the Mets, his fifth year in a row with double-digit assists, and he’d make that eight years with his 19 assists in 2012 with the Kansas City Royals.
After 12 years with eight different organizations, Francoeur is calling it a career. He embarks on a new chapter in his life, one that involves being a more present family man and also trying out broadcasting with the Fox Sports South and Fox Sports Southeast broadcast teams starting in June.
I had the privilege of speaking to Francoeur late last week, where we discussed his MLB debut, his time with the Mets, and some of his favorite moments from his career.
MMO: Who were some of your favorite players growing up?
Jeff: First and foremost was Murph, I loved Dale Murphy. Growing up as a Braves guy, and the thing I admired about him the most was the fact that he was on some crap teams man (Laughs). But he still found a way to go out, play hard, and do his thing. I’m still convinced that if he was on some teams that went to the playoffs more and he was seen at a national level a lot more I think he would’ve been in the Hall of Fame or at least knocking on the door. But Murph was one of my guys that I loved watching as a kid, and I loved Cal Ripken Jr. I don’t know exactly what my number was but I know that I started close to like 500 games in a row or something like that, or played in. And so you start looking and it’s like he did five times as much as this and it’s amazing!
MMO: I actually saw a stat that among qualified players from 2006-09, you played in 636 games which was tied for second in baseball with Prince Fielder and behind only Adrian Gonzalez. So you definitely were consistent and is a testament to your health.
Jeff: Yeah, and you know that was kind of my thing. I always took a lot of pride in that, showing up every day. It’s one of those things that I think looking back sometimes I think to myself you know, could my numbers have been better if you took some days off and took a breather? Probably. But there’s something to be said for being on the field and being with your team. And I had great examples of that in the early nineties growing up a Braves fan when you saw Smoltzie, Maddux, Glavine and those guys taking the ball every five days. And I think I got spoiled because I used to think pro baseball games were only about two hours and twenty minutes because of watching those guys pitch (Laughs)!
I grew up about twenty minutes from Turner Field in Fulton County and I remember I used to be able to go to a 7:05 game and I honestly could be back in my house by 10:00 pm. That’s crazy these days thinking about it. But I grew up with a lot of people that I enjoyed watching. You know my dad grew up in Boston, so he was a Red Sox fan, and I enjoyed watching those guys, Jim Rice and some of those guys which was always fun too.
MMO: Growing up a Braves fan and then to be drafted by your hometown team in the first round had to be special. What do you remember from the draft?
Jeff: Well it was big. I remember, I don’t even know if I ever told anybody this story, you might be the first one to get it, so out of high school I wanted to play for the Braves bad, or the Red Sox, those were the two teams. The year of the draft in ’02 the Red Sox didn’t have a first round pick and so they weren’t picking until 38th or 39th. I remember we sent out a thing, I had my agent/representative send out a thing that we wanted $4 million bucks and to play football at Clemson (Laughs). We scared a s*** ton of teams off. So I ended up going to the Braves at 23rd (pick), and I loved it because I always wanted to play for the Braves, it’s where I grew up, and all of their minor league affiliates were in the Southeast. So when I got that call from Schuerholz it was great, and people forget that the draft back in ’02 you saw it on a computer, it’s not like today where you’re up there and you go up on stage and the commissioner says your name. So we were just waiting on the computer and by pick 21 we got a call from Schuerholz saying that he would be taking me in the first round, and it was awesome.
MMO: You also were a big football player in high school, and had a scholarship to Clemson as a defensive back. Was it tough to pick baseball over football and was there ever any consideration to play football in college if the Braves didn’t take you in the first round?
Jeff: There was a little bit but I knew for the most part that you get drafted in the first round, even if it was with another team, you’re going to get every opportunity to get to the big leagues and show what you can do. So for me, it honestly wasn’t that big of a decision. At the time I made it act like it was just because you don’t want to give them the upper hand, but really I pretty much knew I was going to sign, it was just a matter of when.
MMO: You made your MLB debut on July 7, 2005 against the Chicago Cubs in the second game of a double-header. You hit a 3-run home run in the 8th for your first major league hit. What are some of your memories from that day?
Jeff: Man it was a whirlwind because we were in Montgomery, Alabama and we got rained out the night before (in Double-A). So we were all eating at a Japanese steakhouse when my phone rang and it was probably 8:00 at night because Brian Jordan went down that night. So they were like hey, they need you in Atlanta, they got a double-header tomorrow. All of a sudden one of our scouting guys was there so he drove me all the way back to Atlanta. I remember I got home at like one in the morning and then I had to wake up and of course you don’t sleep a lick because you’re so excited. I remember I had to get up at eight and I get to the field at about nine and it’s a day night double-header because it’s the Cubs, and luckily when I got there I got called in and Bobby (Cox) was like listen, I’m going to let you kind of take a breather the first game. And the fact of the matter was we were facing Kerry Wood, so I was kind of like yeah, I don’t exactly want my first game to be against Kerry Wood, I’d like to get my feet wet a little bit.
I remember sitting around all day and then finally getting to play the night game and when I hit the three-run homer it was cool because my dad is a very hard-nosed, tough love, kind of like New York/Boston Northeast type of guy. So even in high school football games he always sat away from everybody. I would score a touchdown and you always knew where your dad was as a kid, and I remember looking up in the stands and he would never clap, he would always just give me the nod like that’s what you’re supposed to do. So I finally remember after that first game coming around third and looking up and my dad was just going crazy in the stands, and it was a proud moment for me because it was like my dad had made my dream come true for me.
MMO: That must’ve been so rewarding to see your dad like that in the stands going crazy.
Jeff: Oh yeah, because your parents are such a big part and my mom lugged me around the Southeast so many days for practices and games. And my dad same thing. And Sunday’s in our family we’d go to church and come home and have a late brunch. Then my brother, myself, and my dad, we’d take a couple bucket of balls and we’d go to the field for three hours and just hit grounders and take BP. Like I said, for me, it was kind of like all that hard work and it was his way of kind of taking it in.
MMO: And then in 2006 you get to play for Team USA in the first ever World Baseball Classic. What stands out from your time with that team?
Jeff: My favorite memory from that is just the fact that I remember the first day I walked in for practice and you look around and see Jeter, Clemens, and A-Rod and all these guys’ names. Then Ken Griffey Jr., and you’re like holy crap! And I always gave Chipper a hard time because I played with Chipper in Atlanta, and I walked around and here is Chipper going to be a first ballot Hall of Famer and I could care less about playing with him in the World Baseball Classic (Laughs).
But for me it was so surreal because you grow up idolizing these guys and to finally be in the same room! I still say I got off to a slow start in ’06 and it was probably because I didn’t play a whole bunch, but I thought I’d go back. And think about Alex Bregman who played in the WBC (in 2017) and barely played. But I wouldn’t trade that for anything because seeing how those guys worked every day enabled me to see where I wanted to be, the work I needed to do, and what I needed to do to be successful.
MMO: And it seems like the WBC has started to gain more traction and become more and more popular among the fans.
Jeff: Absolutely. And I think especially you see the US team finally getting sick of people calling them (out). And it would be great in a few years to see Mike Trout and Bryce Harper play for us, I think it would be really, really awesome! I understand pitchers, it’s a high risk for some guys. You look at a guy like Clayton Kershaw, that’s tough for him to rev it up that early in the year, he’s such a competitor at this. But as a position player I have a hard time with position players that turn it down unless there’s an injury or you’re coming off something like that because it’s no different than playing spring training games for position players. The risk is no different. So I would love to see position players start to play in that because we got some great position players, but how fun would it be to see those guys roaming the outfield? Imagine in four years your outfield was say George Springer, Trout, and Harper? I mean that’s unbelievable!
MMO: That’s the big debate, fans and critics worry that players are ramping it up too early and potentially risking injury.
Jeff: Not position players. You know you go out there for spring training, and honestly yeah, the first three or four weeks of spring training you don’t give a rats ass if you go 0-for-2 in a game, as long as you get your stuff in, especially when you know you’re on the team and you’re starting and playing every day. But there’s no difference, you’re still going out there running down the baseline hard, playing hard in the outfield, so I would like to see position players play. Pitchers I have more sympathy for but not position players.
MMO: You were with the New York Mets in parts of the 2009-10 seasons. How did you like your time in New York?
Jeff: Man, I remember sitting in Colorado in Bobby Cox’ office and he called me in and said we made a trade. And so you’re like, okay, to where? And he said New York. I said really? And he said yeah, the Mets. All I remember thinking is, isn’t that supposed to be our biggest rival and I just got traded to them (Laughs)? But I’ll tell you what man, when you grow up in the South like I did and honestly you grew to dislike the Mets, and play there all the time against them, and have the fans yelling at you, I was like no way I just got traded there.
But let me tell you what, I still tell people today that the Mets organization treated myself and my wife the best out of any organization I played for. They were first class! The way they went about things, the way they treat their players, the security people up there who I still to this day (keep in touch with). Dominic, one of the security guys, we still keep in touch with Dominic, my wife and I. It’s one of those things and I’ve said it from day one, you play hard in New York and you give it everything you’ve got, you’re going to get the benefit of the doubt most of the time. And that’s what they (fans) want, they want someone showing up to play hard and I had an absolute blast playing up there! I wish it could’ve finished a little better for me but at the same time I honestly didn’t play that awful to get myself out of there. (Angel) Pagan ended up playing really, really well.
MMO: That’s right you were traded to the Texas Rangers during their postseason run in 2010.
Jeff: Yeah which ended up being (good). They took care of me, it was a great opportunity because Omar (Minaya) and Jerry (Manuel) really were great to me. I remember one year at the trade deadline Jerry’s like listen, and Jerry knew he was going to be gone, and he was like listen, “I’m a sitting duck and so is Omar, so we know this thing’s going to get blown up, we want to give you a chance to go somewhere if we can and win a World Series.” And hell, I almost did.
MMO: You got to play with David Wright in New York, and obviously he means so much to the fans. What are some of your thoughts on what’s gone on with David and all the injuries and setbacks he’s had?
Jeff: Well I love David, we still go to dinner when we come up and my wife and Molly (David’s wife) are real close. I’ve always said my first and most important thing with David is I just want to see him get healthy whether it’s to play with his kids down the road, I know he wants to be out there and it’s killing him. And I think he will be back. But I’ve said it sucks, you know injuries are injuries.
I look at certain people throughout when I played and you know they’re hurt all the time, but David showed up to play every day and it’s sad to see these injuries get to him. But when you start talking about a spine and back and this and that, I mean that’s your way of life, and so for me I just really hope that they can get that kind of nipped in the bud and he can come back. But more than anything for me I just want to see him be able to live a normal life.
MMO: Absolutely, well said. His personal health has to come before jeopardizing anything on the field.
Jeff: And no one can ever disregard him, if he can play he’ll be out there, trust me. I know tough guys, I’ve played enough football and baseball and he’ll tough through some things.
MMO: He was so loyal to this team during their bleak years, and now when they’re finally competitive he’s been down.
Jeff: Imagine that? That’s what I hate for him, I hate it. My thing is, I’m glad he at least got to play in the World Series in 2015, and be healthy enough for that, but this is killing him. He was waiting to have a pitching staff like that his whole career and he finally got one and now he’s been hurt.
MMO: There’s been fan chatter about him hopefully managing the club one day, can you see Wright in that position?
Jeff: Oh yeah he could, he could. But it’s the same thing, people ask me all the time do you want to manage? And I’ve said I’d love to but it’s time consuming man. I would love to down the road but right now when you think about it, it’s like to be home with kids and to do that, you’re gone even more. So it’s got to fit in with what you want to do and obviously you have to have a very understanding wife.
MMO: Throughout your career you were known as one of the nicest players in the game. How humbling is that, and is it something you took great pride in?
Jeff: Well yeah, the number one thing I’ll tell you my dad… first off my dad would whoop my ass if I wasn’t! That was his main thing, he said there’s two things that I can always do: I could always be a good teammate and I can hustle. You always have those qualities and so there was never an excuse for that, and I enjoyed playing the game and I enjoyed people. The number one thing in our family was my mom and dad were both from the school system and you treat people how you want to be treated. And I never forgot that and I try to do that everyday. And so that part actually came easy to me because of the way I was raised. You’re going to go through slumps, you’re going to make some mental mistakes, some hustle mistakes, but you can always hustle and have a good attitude.
MMO: You also had a cannon in the outfield. According to Fangraphs, you were rated with the best outfield arm runs saved above average from 2005-16, and 9th best in defensive runs saved (DRS) during that span. How important was outfield defense to you?
Jeff: Defense was another thing to me that it’s kind of about the hustle, especially in the outfield, getting the ball and doing that. And as far as my arm, I’m very, very lucky and blessed because I tell people all the time I never, and a lot of people don’t believe me but I never threw during the offseason. I would go to spring training and the first two weeks I’d have a pretty sore arm and all of a sudden after three or four infield/outfields it was like soreness would go away and BAM I was good.
During the year I practiced, I’d go out and throw to the bases twice a week during the season. Went out early, even when I was on the road I’d get there and throw to the bases because that’s one thing that I had a very strong arm but I was very accurate. I took a lot of pride in that. I always tried to tell people I could hit a gnat’s ass from 300 feet. And so I took a lot of pride in that.
MMO: Do you have a favorite moment from your career?
Jeff: Yeah, probably a lot of people don’t know it but in 2006 we played the Nats, and my grandpa was a huge Red Sox fan, my dad’s dad. And we were going up to Boston in ’07 to play but he got really, really sick and so he had never seen me play in the big leagues. And so he would get really sick and he came down to Atlanta which we pretty much knew was going to be his last time down in Atlanta and we were down to the Nats 9-4. He was at the game and I think I made the last out or second to last out in the bottom of the 8th and so they were going to leave and my dad was like let’s stay, let’s just stay and see. And that was the night I hit a walk off grand slam against the Nats, and it was the only game my grandpa ever got to see me play in the big leagues.
And the guy that caught the ball a couple of months later found out we were in Colorado when my grandpa died and so we had an off day and we were going to have the funeral up in Boston. He heard about that being the only game (his grandpa saw) and he overnighted the ball to me in Colorado and I took it up there and put it in his casket. But just to think too about the fan that actually got the ball, heard the story, took the time to overnight it and do all that, honestly, I took care of that fan very well but it was a pretty humbling experience.
And then the next year we go to Boston and my whole family is from up there and I probably left 20 tickets and we left an open seat for my grandpa between my dad and my grandma. And we put his hat there (on his seat) he always had this Braves hat he wore. My first at-bat in Fenway I hit a two-run homer off Daisuke. So that was pretty cool.
MMO: Any favorite teammates that stand out during your tenure?
Jeff: Yeah obviously me and McCann came up together and we’re so close. And two guys that I’m still close with today are Alex Gordon and Luke Hochevar with the Royals, and I’ve always stayed real close with them, so those are probably my top three.
MMO: With your recent retirement news, how hard was the decision to step away from playing, and what are some of the things you’ll miss from playing? And you also signed on to be part of the Fox Sports South and Fox Sports Southeast broadcast team for select games, how excited are you for that new chapter to begin?
Jeff: You know it was hard because you miss certain things, I’ll miss putting the uniform on, I miss being up in a big situation, miss the guys, the team dinners, those were always my favorite! Getting into a city going and getting some cocktails and having a big steak with the guys. But the things that I don’t miss are traveling, I don’t miss the long days at the park, and being away from my kids, as I said I was a very family oriented kid when I was raised.
I got married when I was 23, me and my wife are coming up on ten years in November, so for me that part wasn’t tough, the part of walking away and being with my family. And the fact that I knew I was going to have the opportunity to do some of this stuff. I’m going to come up and be the Braves representative at the draft in June, we’re pick five. So that part wasn’t hard for me because I’m still going to be very involved and I’m going to be doing what I love and I’ll be able to be home and kind of set my own schedule. That’s what I want to do, you know you hear people say you’ve got to work, but you know me I love golfing and I love being at home with my family and doing that so this enables me to be able to do both kind of whenever I want.
So that’s the part I’m looking forward to, I was lucky to play for 12 good years and be healthy. You know one thing I pride myself on is I played for 12 years and I never was on the DL one time in my career. And I would say that’s a lot of good luck too, but a lot of like I said being able to show up and play every day. For me there weren’t many regrets because I left everything I had out there.
MMO: And as far as your broadcasting debut goes, what can we expect to see you as, studio analyst, in the booth?
Jeff: Well I’m doing both, my first studio analyst will be June 5th through the 8th, and then my first game in the booth will be the 16th with Joe and Chip, so going to get thrown right into the fire so we’ll see.
MMO: Jeff, thank you very much for your time and spending a few minutes discussing your career. Best of luck with all your future endeavors!
Jeff: Absolutely man. No problem, you too, take care.
You can follow Jeff Francoeur on Twitter, @JeffFrancoeur