Francoeur's career overshadowed by an early label

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Guest instructor Charlie Manuel chats with Jeff Francoeur at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla. (David Swanson/Staff Photographer)

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Jeff Francoeur had taken his final swing during pregame batting practice exactly at 10:30 Wednesday morning, and he was already jogging out to right field when Bright House Field opened to the public for the Phillies' 1 p.m. game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Whenever the Phillies sling open the park's gates, a recorded greeting narrated by Harry Kalas welcomes fans, and Randy Newman's soaring overture from the film The Natural kicks on over the sound system. It kicked on again Wednesday.

The music, one would think, might mean something to Francoeur, might sting him as a pinprick to his ego and pride. In August 2005, after Francoeur batted .432 and hit eight home runs over his first 23 games as a rookie for the Atlanta Braves, Sports Illustrated splashed him on its cover, the headline "The Natural" bisecting his torso like an arrow. The subhead asked the question that established an unreachable standard for him, and that shadowed him thereafter: "Can anyone be this good?"

No, anyone cannot. If one judges Francoeur's career in its totality and against that of the average kid who grew up in suburban Atlanta dreaming of playing in the majors - if one judges Francoeur's career as he himself has come to judge it - then his presence here at Phillies camp, as he competes for a roster spot among their outfielders, is just the latest and perhaps last stage of a satisfying life in the game.

But if one judges Francoeur's career against its blazing beginning, then it's impossible not to hear that music and think of that magazine cover and those expectations that he could never fulfill.

Francoeur did not think of anything. "I'm oblivious to that [stuff]," he said with a big, earnest grin. It's not that he didn't recognize the music. It's that he didn't notice it at all.

The goal of a story such as this one, a profile piece, is to reveal something new and different about its subject. But the truth is - and please, don't log off the Internet or fold up your newspaper after you read the rest of this sentence - someone writes a Jeff Francoeur story just like this one whenever he joins a new team. The Phillies are the eighth major-league franchise he has been with. These stories get written a lot.

There are two reasons for this.

The first is that Francoeur, who turned 31 in January, has an interesting personal history. One example: He was a baseball and football star at Parkview (Ga.) High School, turning down a full scholarship offer from Clemson University to enter the 2002 Major League Baseball draft - and have his hometown team select him in the first round. He's 6-foot-4, 220 pounds; Cecil Flowe, Francoeur's football coach at Parkview, once said Francoeur would have been a surefire NFL first-round pick as a defensive back.

"He could have played defensive end, strong safety, wide receiver," former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden, who recruited Francoeur, said in a 2010 interview. "He could have done any of those things. He was just that talented."

The second reason is that Francoeur is regarded - by his current and former teammates, managers, and coaches; by his opponents; by media; by just about everyone - as the nicest guy in baseball. He's friendly. He plays hard. He doesn't make trouble. Even he acknowledged that his personality has probably extended his playing career, especially after he spent most of last season with the triple-A El Paso Chihuahuas.

"It's definitely helped more than it's hurt," he said.

One example: His El Paso teammates carried out an elaborate practical joke on him over their entire season, convincing Francoeur that pitcher Jorge Reyes was deaf, then filming a seven-minute movie about the ruse that concluded with a shot of Francoeur's reaction when he learned that Reyes actually had perfect hearing.

Here was the most accomplished player on the Chihuahuas roster, an outfielder who had won a Gold Glove, who had hit 140 home runs in the majors, who had driven in more than 100 runs twice, who as recently as 2011 had racked up 47 doubles for the Kansas City Royals, who had played in a World Series, and his teammates felt comfortable mortifying him because they knew how he'd react. His eyes got wide. He sank in his seat. He shook his head and laughed at himself.

It was nice to laugh, he said. There had been too little laughter the previous year. The Royals had released him on July 5, 2013, after he'd hit .204 and struck out 61 times and walked just nine times in 245 at-bats and shown the same flaws - a lack of plate discipline, an inability to recognize pitches, that slow and looping swing - that had hounded him for years. That same week, after miscarrying twice in the previous three years, Francoeur's wife, Catie, gave birth to the couple's first child, Emma Cate.

But the San Francisco Giants signed him July 9, so he was gone, hopping a plane to the West Coast, checking into an Embassy Suites, leaving Catie alone with the baby as he floundered with the Giants, batting .194 over 22 games. On Aug. 21, they released him, too.

"I'll never stay in an Embassy Suites again," he said.

The Cleveland Indians invited him to spring training last year, then cut him. The San Diego Padres signed him, then assigned him to El Paso. "I kind of lost the thrill of playing baseball," he said. But before the Chihuahuas' first game last season, manager Pat Murphy gave a speech to the team that, as Francoeur remembered it, went like this: I'm sure there's not one person in here, player or coach, who couldn't say at one point or another, "I've been screwed. I shouldn't be here. I should be there." So what? That's not the point of any of this. The point is, you're playing baseball for a living. You're lucky. Remember you're lucky.

In 115 games for El Paso, Francoeur batted .289 with 15 home runs. It was enough to earn him a minor-league deal and an invitation to spring training from the Phillies.

"The constant through it all has been being able to stay upbeat," he said. "Not everybody's career is going to be perfect. Some people hit their stride later. Some people hit it early. Each day, you've got to work. Yeah, there are some days where I look back and say, 'I wish I could have done this a little better.' But at the same time, it doesn't do any good to look back and say that.

"I've had a full experience. I'm OK with who I am. Whatever I've got left, I'm just going to ride it out and see what happens."

Francoeur is under no illusions about why he is here and what he might do for the Phillies. He's always had one of baseball's strongest outfield arms, and he has hit fairly well against lefthanded pitching over his career (.283 batting average with a .796 on-base-plus-slugging percentage). If the Phillies want to use him as a situational righthanded hitter or a late-game defensive replacement, he said, he would be happy in that role. Charlie Manuel, here as a special instructor, has become Francoeur's hitting tutor, working with him to tone down his swing's violence and increase his bat control.

"I remember," Francoeur said, "I used to be on deck sometimes with the Braves, and Charlie would look over and give me one of these." He put his hands together as if he was holding a bat and shook them to show how Manuel would encourage him. "And I'd be like, 'Does he want me to hit a home run? What's going on?' I love that he loves to hit."

On Wednesday, Francoeur lined a single down the left-field line - his fifth hit in 18 at-bats this spring - but, in trying to stretch it into a double, was thrown out at second base to end the inning. He lay there on the infield dirt for a few seconds, laughing at himself again, before bouncing up and trotting to right field.

The Phillies break camp April 2. By then, he'll learn whether it's time for him to turn his ear to the music, hear it and face it, and let the game go.

 


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski