On the day that his Sports Illustrated cover came out, Jeff Francoeur learned just how hard the major leagues could be.
It was Aug. 22, 2005, and as Francoeur and his Atlanta Braves got ready to play the Cubs in Chicago, the then-21-year-old outfielder was being billed to the world as "THE NATURAL," the first baseball player to get that treatment from the magazine since Ken Griffey Jr. Starting with his major league debut on July 7, Francoeur had played like the second coming of Roy Hobbs: a .370 batting average, 10 home runs in 34 games, a starring role on a first-place team. A precocious rookie displaying uncommon power at the plate and brilliant defense in rightfield, Atlanta-area native seemed to have the majors all figured out. “For this child of earth and heaven, life is a happy melody,” Michael Farber wrote in the pages of SI.
“It was a whirlwind,” Francoeur recalls. “You're almost kind of like, man, it's gotta be harder than this! And I knew it was. I knew things weren't obviously going to be like that.”
That night at Wrigley Field, Francoeur received an abrupt course correction when he stepped in against flamethrowing Chicago righthander Carlos Zambrano.
“He was throwing 99 to 100 [mph], [and] he struck me out all three times,” Francoeur said. “And I'm like, okay, now I see what some of these guys can do.”
From the day his cover came out through the end of the season, Francoeur hit .231 in 36 games. The Braves won the National League East—their 11th straight division title—but fell in the Division Series to the Astros, who went on to win the pennant. But Francoeur wasn’t discouraged. The slump was just that, he thought: a slump. He had hit .300, bopped 14 home runs, finished third in the NL Rookie of the Year voting and burst onto the scene as a bright young star for his hometown team.
“To come up and go to the playoffs, for a 21-year-old kid, it was a dream come true,” Francoeur said. “But sometimes you wonder, was it too much too soon? It probably was.”
It’s a late August afternoon in New York, and in the visitors’ clubhouse at Citi Field, Jeff Francoeur is all smiles. That isn’t unusual: The Marlins’ outfielder perpetually wears an expression that suggests someone just told him a delightfully silly joke. His sunny disposition has earned him admirers across the sport—“To know Frenchy is to love him,” said Pat Murphy, his former manager at Triple A El Paso, using Francoeur’s ubiquitous sobriquet—and in the clubhouse. “He is as genuine as they come,” said Blue Jays reliever Jason Grilli, a former teammate of his with the Braves. “Right from the get go, you get a good vibe from him.”
What’s truly remarkable is that Francoeur is among the sport’s most upbeat players, even after a decade that saw him go from household name to baseball purgatory. In the 11 years since SI tabbed Francoeur as one of MLB’s next stars, his career slowly lost air. He bounced from the majors to the minors. He briefly walked away from the game and came back. Last year he was a bench player for a Phillies team that ended up losing 99 games. This season, he held that same role for a Braves team that, at 50–83, is on pace to be even worse, then was dealt on Aug. 24 to the Marlins—his eighth team in the last six years—to occupy that same position.
If any of the strain of life as a journeyman has gotten to Francoeur, it doesn't show. Going around the clubhouse of a team he joined scarcely a week ago full of players he barely knows, he dispenses laughs and hugs to anyone in range of him and exudes positivity over his latest major league stop. Francoeur is no star, but that's alright by him, and in the process, he's made a fresh start on a career that was in danger of disappearing.
“I wanted to play the game that I loved, and I'm still able to do it,” he said. “I may not be the guy who hits 35 home runs, but I know I can be a major league baseball player, and that was my goal to begin with.”
Francoeur never again reached the heights of his out-of-nowhere rookie season, though his second year in 2006 was superficially a success: 29 home runs, 103 RBIs, 59 extra-base hits. But the power display and gaudy RBI totals masked a crippling lack of patience at the plate. Francoeur’s batting average dropped to .260, he struck out 132 times, and he drew just 32 walks, leaving him with a .293 on-base percentage, the sixth-worst in the majors.
“There were signs that I needed to work on some things at the plate,” he said. “But then again, I hit 29 home runs. When you're having success to that extent, it's tough to tell someone they really have to change.”
In 2007 Francoeur pushed his batting average back up to .293, boosted his OBP to .338 and set a career high in RBIs with 105. The next season, however, his average plummeted to .234, his OBP regressed to .294, and he hit just 11 home runs, sending his Wins Above Replacement to -1.7, third worst among all qualified hitters that year. For the first time since his debut, Francoeur was truly struggling, and he was left searching for answers.
“I just was going off raw talent,” he said. “But after a while, you have to be able to hone it in and do something, and at that point, I wasn't able to. For two to three years, it was great and it all worked, and then I didn't know how to handle the failure when it happened.”
Francoeur tried anything and everything to find his stroke. “I'd listen to the guy on the side of the street tell me how to hit if he told me he had something good for me,” he said. A righthanded pull hitter with a massive uppercut swing, he tried to change his approach and hit the ball up the middle or take it to the opposite field, but found he couldn’t change his mechanics easily or effectively. Having built his career on an aggressive approach, it was similarly difficult to respond to the criticism that had followed him since his rookie season: Take a pitch. “It's easier said than done,” he said. “Even in the minor leagues, I've never been a huge walk guy.”
“I don’t think you were ever going to change him or make him a different type of hitter,” said Phillip Wellman, who was Francoeur’s hitting coach at Double A. “There was no reading or recognition of a pitch. If he could reach it, he would swing.”
As Francoeur’s career flatlined, his relationship with his hometown team grew strained. Fans booed him as his numbers worsened. A brief demotion to Double A in July of 2008 rankled him. “I felt a little betrayed,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution upon returning to the majors. “I feel like after three years, I was owed a little more of an explanation.”
Even so, Francoeur still didn’t expect the news he got on the afternoon of July 10, 2009. Hitting in the cage at Coors Field ahead of a game against the Rockies, Francoeur was summoned to manager Bobby Cox’s office, where he was told that he had been traded to the Mets.
“That was the first time I ever really realized that this is a business, no doubt,” Francoeur said. “Any time you go on from your first organization, it's tough, because it's the only thing you've ever known.”
That afternoon, Francoeur returned to his hotel to meet his wife, Catie, who had come on the road trip. They packed their bags and headed out to join his new team, landing at Newark International Airport at 2 am. The next day, he suited up for New York, beginning an odyssey that would take him across the country and nearly out of the game.
It was Easter Sunday, 2014, in Las Vegas, and Jeff Francoeur was fed up. Sitting in a hotel bar with Catie, Francoeur was stewing over his awful day for the El Paso Chihuahuas, the Padres’ Triple A affiliate. His team had lost to the 51s, 11–4, in a game in which he had contributed just one single in four trips to the plate, and Francoeur felt like he had reached his breaking point. The year before, he had spent the second half of the season more or less on a sabbatical from baseball. In the spring of 2014, he had signed a minor league deal with the Indians, been let go and landed with San Diego, which promptly sent him to Triple A to start the year.
But to Catie, the problem wasn’t where her husband was playing, but the passionless way he was going about his work. Sitting at the bar with Jeff, she spoke bluntly to him.
“She was like, 'I'll support you if you want to play, but if you’re going to [sulk], then come on home,'” Francoeur said. "'If not, I’m behind you.'"
Francoeur had every reason to walk away. Over the last five years, he had bounced from the Mets to the Rangers to the Royals to the Giants. Flashes of success (a .311 average and 10 homers over two months with the Mets in 2009, a stint as the Royals’ regular rightfielder from '11 to '13) proved fleeting. Midway through 2011, Francoeur, amid his best season since his rookie year, signed a two-year, $13.5 million extension with Kansas City that ran through the '13 season. He never made it to the end of that deal, getting released on July 5, 2013 after hitting .208 with a .249 OBP that year.
Four days after being cut loose by Kansas City, Francoeur signed a minor league deal with the Giants and was back in the majors by July 13. Just two days after that, Catie gave birth to their daughter, Emma—the couple’s first child after a pair of miscarriages over the previous three years—in Atlanta. Francoeur went back to Georgia to be with his wife and new child and then returned to San Francisco a few days later. But he was miserable both on the field and off, hitting .194 with a .206 OBP over 22 games. It was one of the most difficult times of his life.
“I was honestly depressed,” he said. “I didn't really know what to do. I wanted to be home, I didn't want to be out there. It was tough.”
Francoeur asked the Giants to release him, which they did in late August. He returned to Atlanta, and he and his wife took their daughter to a house they owned on Florida’s Gulf Coast. There, the three spent the next month on the beach as Francoeur mulled over his future.
“I had doubts: Do I want to do this, do I want to play any more?” he said. “I just honestly was fed up with how everything was going. I was done. I was sick of it.”
Away from the game and rejuvenated by the time spent with his family, Francoeur convinced himself that he wanted to keep playing. “I did consider [retirement], but I didn’t want to finish my career that way,” he said. While no teams were interested in giving Francoeur a major league contract after his rough 2013, he was able to land a spot with the Indians for the spring. After ending up in Triple A with the Padres, he was down on his chances once more, but the pep talk from Catie on Easter Sunday was a wakeup call. “That's all I needed to hear,” he said.
Although Francoeur spent the majority of 2014 with El Paso (he made a brief 10-game appearance with the Padres at midseason but went just 2-for-24), he was productive, batting .289 with 15 home runs over 115 games. He even chipped in as a reliever, posting a 3.68 ERA in eight appearances, though that was just Francoeur trying to help his team however he could and bring some fun back into his career. “At no point was I trying to come back in a different [role],” he said. “We were getting blasted one game, and I looked at [manager] Pat [Murphy] and was like, ‘I’ll pitch,’ and then I went out there and actually did good. I enjoyed it.”
“He didn’t give up a run in his first six or seven outings," says Murphy. "He was better than some of the [relievers] we had.”
Despite being in the minors, Francoeur never lost his sense of humor, even when the joke was on him. In their first conversation of the season, Murphy took Francoeur aside and told him that El Paso reliever Jorge Reyes was deaf. Reyes wasn’t; for the last five or six years, Murphy said, he’d been trying that prank out on new players just for fun. Some of them fell for it, but not for long. Francoeur, though, believed it without question—for two entire weeks.
“He’s as gullible as anybody in the world,” said Murphy. “It could have kept going.”
Francoeur only learned the truth when Murphy gathered the team together before a game—ostensibly for a meeting—and showed his players a film that first baseman Cody Decker had put together documenting the prank. As Reyes announced on screen that he was not, in fact, deaf, the clubhouse erupted in laughter as Francoeur sat in silence. Then, with a disbelieving grin on his face, he turned to them and said, “He’s not fooling, is he?”
Then there was the time that teammates locked Francoeur in the manager’s bathroom from the outside using an elaborate series of bungee cords and resistance bands for nearly an hour. He had to escape by hoisting himself into the ceiling and crawling through the vent shafts before coming out into the clubhouse.
Triple A was more than just pranks, however. It was a chance for Francoeur to play pressure-free baseball and take stock of who he was.
“After eight and a half years in the big leagues, you get spoiled,” Francoeur said. “All of a sudden, you're carrying your own bags, [taking] 6 a.m. flights. I think more than anything, it taught me, I will never ever take an at-bat in the big leagues for granted again.”
“He had a lot of days of questioning, and we had a lot of late-night talks,” Murphy said. “I kept telling him, you’re going to get it.”
That winter Francoeur signed a minor league deal with the Phillies, who needed players to fill out their rebuilding roster and wanted someone with a good personality and a positive outlook. Though Francoeur’s role was small—as a fourth outfielder, he made just 326 at-bats on the season—he took to it happily, enjoying the opportunities to pinch hit and help mentor a young team. And despite his modest numbers (.258/.286/.433 with 13 home runs), he got a contract offer in the off-season from a team he never expected would reach out to him: the Braves, who signed Francoeur to a one-year minor league deal in late February. Added to the roster just two days before spring training camp opened, he seemed like a long shot to make the Opening Day roster but ultimately beat out fellow veterans Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn for a bench spot.
With Atlanta, Francoeur joined a team in even worse shape than the Phillies. After losing 95 games in 2015, the Braves had spent the off-season ditching virtually every valuable piece of their roster and pressing forward with an odd collection of prospects, over-the-hill veterans and Triple A filler to keep the franchise afloat as it rebuilt with prospects and draft picks. The prodigal son had returned to find that his house had burned down in his absence. But that didn't matter to Francoeur, who was simply happy to be back where he'd started.
“Atlanta just felt right,” he said.
Francoeur wasn't able to savor the homecoming for long. Late in August, the Braves sent him to Miami in a three-team deal just one week ahead of the waiver trade deadline. The Marlins had been on the lookout for a fourth outfielder after losing regular rightfielder Giancarlo Stanton to a potentially season-ending groin injury earlier in the month, and Francoeur fit the bill.
"He's a guy who comes with experience," Marlins manager Don Mattingly told reporters on the day Francoeur joined Miami. "He's played in the postseason. . . . He has a reputation for being a good clubhouse guy. I know he's excited."
"I'm lucky I'm in a pennant race. It's been a while," said Francoeur, who last played in the postseason with the Rangers in 2010 and hadn't been on a winning team since. "To have that opportunity has been a lot of fun so far."
Once again, Francoeur was an ex-Brave. But unlike the 2009 trade that came out of nowhere, he's at peace with leaving Atlanta for a second time.
"It’s different this time because it was different circumstances," he said. "I knew it was a possibility, so it was pretty easy to accept and move on with. Who knows, I might be back [with the Braves] next year."
With Miami, Francoeur will join a team in the thick of the postseason race—the Marlins are 3 1/2 games back of the Cardinals for the second wild card—but he will do so as a reserve, platooning with Ichiro Suzuki in rightfield thanks to his good career numbers against lefties (.279/.328/.450). But by this point in his career, being a bench player is something Francoeur said he has learned to accept.
“There comes a time where you take a look in the mirror and say, What do I want to do and what do I want to be? And I know that is a great role for me," he said. "Is it playing every day? No, but it's who I am and what I enjoy doing now. I know who I am as a player now, and I didn't for a long time.”
At 32 years old, Francoeur wagers that he has a few more years left in his career. He and Catie now have two children—Emma is three years old, and son Brayden is one—and he is eager to spend more time with them. That was one of the biggest reasons for signing with Atlanta, which remained his off-season home throughout his travels, though for the final five weeks of the 2016 season, his family will spend time with him in Miami. "My little girl is so excited to see the little fish tank [in Marlins Park]," he said. He also wants to stay involved with baseball after retirement, perhaps in coaching or broadcasting.
As he contemplates the future, Francoeur has come to terms with the past. To this day, fans still people ask him to sign his Sports Illustrated cover, on which he stands in closeup in his home whites on a brilliant sunny day at Turner Field, swing completed and looking directly into the camera, bearing his omnipresent smile. To some players, confronting that moment in time might be fraught with bitterness or anger. For Francoeur, who signs those covers with—naturally—a smile, it’s just a part of his life.
“I think sometimes people can put expectations on you that are unrealistic,” he said. “I've had a good career. Maybe not the career that these people had in mind for me, but at the same time, I feel honored to grind it out. Not a lot of people do that.
“I never set out to be the Natural,” he adds. “I never set out to join the 500 home run club. If it happened, great, but I just always wanted to play baseball because I love it. Here I am, still playing, so as far as I'm concerned, I get the last laugh.”
And then, true to his word, he does.