LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The bottom? Las Vegas. Easter Sunday, 2014. Jeff Francoeur was looking and feeling like a career minor-leaguer, a miserable Crash Davis playing outfield for the El Paso Chihuahuas, which wasn’t on his bucket list, nor even his, “It can’t possibly get so bad that I resort to this” list.
“That first month in Triple-A. That was tough,” Francoeur said. “You’re not used to the travel. The 6 a.m. flights to play a game that night. It’s like, ‘Man, do I want to be doing this?’”
He thought about quitting, more than once. He went from being a franchise centerpiece in his hometown, which can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how the rest of the story goes, to a relative pro-sports vagabond (New York, Texas, Kansas City, San Francisco, Cleveland …). Two years ago, short of options, other than stay-at-home dad, he was moved to sign a minor-league deal with San Diego, where upon he became a Chihuahua — the smallest of breeds, the lowest of places.
That’s when Francoeur said his wife, Catie, gave him a choice during the team’s trip to Las Vegas on Easter weekend.
“She said, ‘Either come home and be a dad or bust your ass and get back to where you belong,’” Francoeur said. “She said, ‘If you’re going to do this, do it all the way. Don’t just show up and have a uniform on. Have a purpose.’”
Nobody can be certain how this next chapter in Francoeur’s career will end. Now 32, he’s back in camp with the Braves on a minor league deal, but he won’t be a minor-league player again. It’s either make the big club as an extra outfielder or go home to be a stay-at-home dad, or maybe coach.
“I’ve done the El Paso thing. They know that,” he said. “It has nothing do with being too good for that or whatever. That’s not why I’m here.”
He has a shot. The bloated-salaried Nick Swisher doesn’t really fit in, and Francoeur is coming off a solid year with Philadelphia: .258 batting average, 13 homers, 45 RBIs in 119 games, including .367 with a .922 OPS as a pinch hitter). It was a nice bounce-back for a player, who, as manager Fredi Gonzalez said, “has been through the grind.”
That’s putting it mildly.
“Whatever happens, whatever I decide do afterward, coaching, broadcasting, I have a great story to tell about my journey,” he said. “Ups and downs. Great moments. The World Series. The lows of playing in Triple-A. All of that has molded me into what I am. It toughens you up mentally. Coming here and signing a minor league deal, after everything I’ve been through, it’s like, ‘If you gotta do it, you gotta do it.’”
He is wearing uniform No. 18. He used to wear No. 7.
“(Gordon) Beckham has it,” he said.
Did he consider trying to negotiate for it?
“Naw. I’ll be 18. Peyton Manning.”
Yeah, but isn’t he retiring?
“Yeah, but he’s going out on top.”
Francoeur, who has a double, single and walk in seven spring at-bats, went from Sports Illustrated cover boy to fallen star when the Braves sent him to the minors for a few games in 2008, then traded him to New York in 2009. We can debate why what happened happened, whether he didn’t handled failure well early or if he was just overhyped all along.
But it’s worth pointing out that Francoeur has come through it all despite the scars, matured and has managed to squeeze out an 11-year career. The man deserves credit for that and almost always coming to the ballpark with a smile (early El Paso days notwithstanding).
The Braves talked about bringing Francoeur back as early as November, Gonzalez said, but he “kind of went to the back burner” after a series of deals, including one for center fielder Ender Inciarte. But a week before spring training, Francoeur still was unsigned and, “It rekindled the conversation,” Gonzalez said.
Some of those conversations were started by Francoeur. He phoned both Gonzalez and general manager John Coppolella to express his interest in coming home (he still makes Suwanee his home).
“It feels natural,” he said.
That’s when the Braves extended a spring training invite.
“I have something left,” he said. “But I don’t want to play just for the sake of playing. I want to be a part of something.”
Something bigger than a Chihuahua.
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