Jeff Francoeur is back where he belongs – with the fanbase that witnessed and worshiped his spectacular arrival and cheered through his first three seasons of stellar baseball, then turned their backs as he failed to maintain the hype he created, and finally watched with sentimental eyes as he drifted stop to stop from the National League to the American League to the Pacific League.
When the news broke that Jeff Francoeur had signed a minor league deal with the Braves with an invitation to spring training, it just felt right. A player, a franchise, and fanbase that have all seen better days were reunited, six years after their initial painful breakup.
The first meeting seems like a lifetime ago, even if it’s a mere eleven years. I was a kid just learning to fully appreciate baseball, and the Braves were desperately trying to cling to a quickly closing Golden Age. Gone were the days of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz, and gone were the days of a top five payroll. Smoltz, Chipper Jones, and Andrew Jones were still there, but in order to keep their 13 consecutive division title streak alive in the 2005 season the Braves would have to rely on a surge of young talent. Adam LaRoche, Brain McCann, Kelly Johnson, and the rest of the “Baby Braves” made solid additions, but they were just background for the unprecedented phenomenon that would occur.
When Jeff Francoeur made his debut on July 7th, 2005, Braves fans were already excited to watch him. He was the Braves’ first round pick only three years before, and he was a hometown player out of nearby Parkview High School where he transcended his competition in baseball and as a wide receiver in football. Fans and the front office had been anticipating a good player, so when he hit a home run in his first game there was an obvious air of excitement. But then “Frenchy” didn’t slow down, and that excitement evolved into something much more.
In his first 37 games Francoeur hit .360 with a 1.067 OPS. He made the cover of Sports Illustrated who declared him “The Natural” while asking, “Can anybody be this good?” To fans, he was the Braves’ savior- a charismatic hometown hero who was going to be the face of the franchise for the next two decades. The mania and adoration that swept Braves country was unlike anything I have witnessed as a fan. With retrospect, it is matched only by Yasiel Puig’s arrival in LA, except without any of the hate. Even all these years later, it’s reasonable to claim that 8 out of 10 Braves fans still have their Francoeur jersey in the back of their closet somewhere, because everyone had one.
But to answer Sports Illustrated’s question, no. Nobody can be that good. Frenchy finished the season with a great line of.300/.336/.549 and homers while helping the Braves extend the streak one final season. He followed up his rookie effort with two seasons in which he hit .260/.292/.449 and .293/.338/.444 with gold glove defense and played every single game. But for a player who had made such an incredible impression and created so much hype, seasons like those that were merely good were a disappointment.
Fans that expected greatness grew even more frustrated as their savior hit just .239 in his fourth season. Fans felt everything from agony to betrayal as the new favorite slipped into mediocrity. As Francoeur and the Braves struggled and the frustration grew exponentially, it was time for a change. In 2009 the Braves traded him to the Mets, and the Atlanta era and its fleeted memories were over.
Francoeur was happy to move on from the pressure of Atlanta, and Braves fans were happy to let go of the painful decline. But we never stopped watching. As Frenchy drifted from New York to Texas, then to Kansas City, San Francisco, Cleveland, San Diego, El Paso, and Philadelphia, we watched. Whether he was making a highlight reel assist with his canon of an arm, being victimized by an elaborate minor league prank in which he believed his teammate was deaf, or pitching effectively in a late inning blow out, we watched. We watched as the kid that was our hero turned into a veteran, without losing that charismatic smile. No matter where he played, Frenchy was still our guy.
Which brings us back to the present. As the offseason winded down, I wondered if this might be the end of the road for the 32-year-old outfielder. With a family waiting at home, plenty of experience, and only a hint of demand for his services, one could understand Francoeur hanging up the cleats. Meanwhile, the Braves are in the midst of a drastic rebuild in which they have traded away just about every fan favorite. Although the 2017 and 2018 Braves can expect to contend, the 2016 Braves will be very bad- and every bad team needs mediocre players to fill the roster.
So when the Braves signed Francoeur to a minor league deal, it made sense from multiple prospectives. Francoeur gets to return to his home city where he still lives. Francoeur is a veteran who has experienced just about everything in baseball, including being a top prospect, making him an ideal clubhouse figure for a team developing a large crop of minor leaguers. And if the Braves are going to sell tickets during the final season at Turner Field, they need names the fans will recognize.
And man will they recognize Jeff Francoeur.