Soaked and surrendered in San Francisco

Braves right-fielder Jeff Francoeur tells how an athletic and spiritual slump ended after being . . .

By J. Gerald Harris, Editor

Published: March 15, 2007

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A personable, fan-friendly Jeff Francoeur signs autographs for those attending spring training at Disney’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Fla. The heavy-hitting Georgia native points to a road trip in San Francisco last year when he “gave [himself] one hundred percent” to God and pulled out of an early season slump.

ORLANDO, Fla. — What does a Major League baseball player do when he is submerged in a dismal slump at the plate?

Some of them break their Louisville Sluggers over their knees in a furious rage. Others throw their batting helmets across the dugout in an act of frenzied self-depreciation. Yet others resort to cursing and swearing to vent their despair and frustrations.

One Atlanta Braves player decided to address his temporary lack of production at the plate by taking an introspective three-mile walk in the rain.

Jeff Francoeur, Atlanta Braves right fielder, got his major league career off to an incredible start when manager Bobby Cox put him in the lineup for the second game of a double header with the Chicago Cubs on July 7, 2005. (His debut in the Major Leagues came exactly one year after a pitcher’s 95 mile-per-hour fastball shattered his cheekbone.) In the bottom of the 8th inning in that game against the Cubs he hit a 3-run home run to center field, his first Major League hit, and received a curtain call from the Braves faithful at Turner Field.

His rookie campaign was highlighted by spectacular offense and defense. Francoeur was 3rd in the Major Leagues in outfield assists, despite playing less than half the season. He also compiled 35 extra base hits, including 14 home runs. He finished 3rd in the National League Rookie of the Year voting, having the most second place votes.

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Jeff Francoeur waits for the pitch at a recent spring training game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. “Frenchy” looks to lead the Braves back to the top of the National League East after Atlanta failed to win the division for the first time since Francoeur was seven years old.

Francoeur started his second season in April of 2006 fully expecting to pick up where he had left off in his inaugural Major League season. It just didn’t happen. “Frenchy” started the season with only two hits in his first 36 at bats. His darkest moment came against the San Francisco Giants on April 7 when he had five at bats with no hits. He remarked, “I got punched out (called out on strikes) three times.”

After the game the Lilburn native showered, dressed, and instead of riding back to the hotel on the team bus, decided to make the three-mile trek on foot in a downpour of rain. When the Braves right fielder arrived at the team hotel he was soaked to the bone, absolutely drenched from the long walk through the streets of San Francisco.

Francoeur explained, “The walk had a cleansing effect on my life. I had given eighty percent of my life to Christ, but I had kept back a part of it for myself. That night I decided to give one hundred percent of my life to Him.

Atlanta Braves

“Jacob wrestled with the Lord, and that walk in the rain was my wrestling match with God. He won that contest and I surrendered the rest of my life to Him.”

Francoeur, defined on the front cover of Sports Illustrated as “The Natural,” overcame his early struggles at the plate last year to have a fairly remarkable sophomore season. He became only the fourth player in Braves history to play in all 162 games of a season. He also hit 29 home runs, had 103 RBIs (runs batted in) and had a .260 batting average.

 

Grand slam for grandfather

One of the highlights of the 2006 season for Francoeur came on May 13 against the Washington Nationals. Jeff stated, “My grandfather, my dad’s father, was a big baseball fan and particularly liked the Red Sox, but he had cancer and had not seen me play since I came up with the Braves. My dad had tried to get him to several games, but something always came up to prevent him from being able to get to the stadium.

“So, after several failed attempts to get my grandfather to a game,” Jeff remarked, “my dad was determined to get him to Turner Field to see me play against the Nationals on May 13. He did come to that game and that was the day I hit a walk-off grand slam home run. That was the only game he saw me play as an Atlanta Brave.”

The grand slam home run that “The Natural” had hit into the left field stands was retrieved from a fan in exchange for a bat autographed by Francoeur. Jeff explained, “When my grandfather died, we put that baseball in the casket to be buried with him.”

Jeffrey Braden Francoeur was born to Dave and Karen Francoeur on January 8, 1984. The Francoeurs were a close family, and Jeff’s parents could see that he was a natural athlete and encouraged him to pursue sports. He was particularly infatuated with the Braves in the ‘90s as they continued to pile up division titles. He had a poster of John Smoltz on the wall in his bedroom and dreamed of starring with the Braves one day.

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Jeff Francoeur prepares to go on camera with a television crew for an interview before a spring training game in Orlando, Fla. A favorite of the media, Francoeur makes use of his role model status through ways such as wearing batting gloves with Joshua 1:9 inscribed on them.

Jeff was good at every sport he played, but by the time he got to Parkview High School in Lilburn he had narrowed his favorite sports down to football and baseball.

He led the Panthers to the Georgia State AAAAA championship in baseball and was also a star football player at wide receiver and free safety, leading his team to two undefeated seasons in 2001 and 2002, which included back-to-back state championships.

In his senior year, Francoeur ransacked opposing teams with 15 interceptions while catching 14 touchdown passes. He was offered a full football scholarship at Clemson University. Other colleges expressed a keen interest in his ability on the gridiron, but the Parkview Panther All State athlete decided to pursue a career in baseball.

Francoeur hit .443 with 55 home runs and 164 RBI during his high school career at Parkview.

In 2004 Francoeur was named the top prospect in the Braves organization by Baseball America. He excelled in his brief minor league career and was a member of the Carolina League regular season and postseason All-Star team.

On July 7, 2004 while playing for the Braves Class A team at Myrtle Beach, Jeff had the serious injury, referred to earlier. He was hit in the face while squaring around to bunt the ball. His cheekbone was severely damaged and required reconstructive surgery.

 

Big stage

“I have a couple of plates in my face, and sometimes when it gets stormy or when bad weather comes, I can feel them,” he stated, “but I think it is a good reminder for me, and it keeps me humble to know that this can happen.”

During his rookie season in Atlanta Francoeur became known as a free-swinging fastball hitter, with his first walk not coming until his 128th at bat. He plays the game with reckless abandon and few base runners dare to challenge his pinpoint throws from right field.

As a result of his considerable talents and enthusiasm for the game, he has won the hearts of Braves fans everywhere. He is physically handsome, personally charming, and extraordinarily polite. In short, Francoeur has become the darling of the Braves faithful.

Some of his fans are known as “Francoeur’s Franks” and are often seen in the right field seats holding pictures of him or signs of hot dogs. Since coming to the Major Leagues Francoeur, along with his roommate Brian McCann, has added a spark to the team that has ignited some of the older players with a renewed passion for the game.

Francoeur, who wears number 7 on the back of his uniform, stated, “When I play my last game I want people to know that I played hard, played the game the way it was supposed to be played, and never held anything back.

“Most of all, I want the fans to know that I was a strong Christian and didn’t waver in my faith. I want people to know that I play the game for the glory of God.”

J. Gerald Harris/Index

After winning multiple state titles in football and baseball at Parkview High in Lilburn, Francoeur cruised through the Braves minor league system before being hit in the face while trying to bunt for Class A Myrtle Beach. “I have a couple of plates in my face, and sometimes when it gets stormy ... I can feel them, but I think it ... keeps my humble,” he said.

Francoeur has Joshua 1:9 inscribed on his batting gloves. The Christian Index asked him if the glove manufacturer placed the scripture verse on the batting glove.

“I told Under Armour, the provider of the athletic apparel, that if they wouldn’t put the verse on the glove I would not sign a contract with them,” He explained. “Joshua 1:9 states: ‘Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.’”

The Joshua passage became special to Jeff, because that was the verse his mother, Karen, quoted before and after the surgery required as a result of being “beaned” (hit in the face) on July 7, 2004. Five weeks later he was back in the game, armed with God’s Word.

Francoeur wears as many as a hundred pairs of batting gloves during the course of a season. After most games he gives his batting gloves to some young fan. He considers it one way to express his faith and his commitment to Christ. Other verses that have a special meaning to Francoeur are Matthew 17:20 and Philippians 4:13.

The Braves right-fielder officially accepted Christ as his personal Savior at a Fellowship of Christian Athlete retreat in Black Mountain, N.C. when he was in the 10th grade. His offensive coordinator at Parkview is the one he credits with leading him to Christ at the FCA retreat.

He extols the virtue of having a quiet time each day and avows that he spends the first 30 minutes each day with the Lord. He affirms, “If I don’t do that (have a quiet time) I get going in so many different directions and can easily get lost in every thing else. It makes me feel so alive and more real.”

 

Trusting Him

He unashamedly shares his faith with others on a personal basis and at various events such as the recent Peach Bowl Breakfast. The Atlanta Christian Family magazine recently reported, “Jeff knows what really counts is winning souls for Christ, and even though baseball is an easy platform to get lost in, his heart is right on when it comes to understanding the bottom line in Christianity.”

Francoeur declared, “Baseball is great, but if you lose sight of why you are here, you are in for the wrong reason. Seeing a brother come to Christ or a teammate making a turnaround is probably the most rewarding thing about playing baseball.”

He admits, “I am certainly not perfect and in this environment I am often tempted to use language that would not honor the Lord, but I am trusting Him to give me victory over that. I really am committed to investing my life in godly things, not worldly things.

“That is also my message to the youth of today, because some day the only thing that will really matter in life is our relationship to Jesus Christ.

“In fact, a genuine worship experience with Christ is better than hitting a grand slam.”

The affable Francoeur is engaged to Catie McCoy of Lilburn. They grew up together, have been best friends, and plan to get married in November.

The date has not yet been set, because Jeff wants to make sure that the wedding will not conflict with a possible World Series berth.

J. Gerald Harris/Index