Lake Buena Vista, Fla. — It was a different Jeff Francoeur who took the field Wednesday for the first full-squad workout of 2009. He’s thinner. He has a new swing. Mostly he’s different because he bears a layer of scar tissue.
Last season hurt him. In one flailing summer the Golden Child learned the harsh lessons he’d managed to avoid in the first 24 years of a remarkably charmed life: That fame is fleeting; that people are fickle, and that the child’s game he plays for a living is actually a bottom-line business.
“My first two years [as an Atlanta Brave] were nothing but a fairy tale,” Francoeur said. “But fairy tales end.”
By any standards, he had a terrible year. He hit .239 with only 11 home runs and 71 RBIs. His on-base percentage (.294) was among the worst in the majors. For an athlete who had never failed at any level of any sport, such failure was stunning. That said, nothing could have prepared Francoeur for the rancor directed his way by fans he believed had come to really, really like him.
“In this day and age, it’s, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ and you’re always going to hear the negative,” Francoeur said. “But I was a lost dog for much of last season. I didn’t know how to handle it.”
On the morning of the Fourth of July, the homegrown hero discovered that even his organization had lost faith. The Braves sent him to Class AA for a weekend, and there came a moment late on a Saturday night in Pearl, Miss., when he stood in right field and thought, “What the hell am I doing here?”
Recalling the demotion, Francoeur said: “It was a wakeup call. It made me mentally tough … People ask me about arbitration, and I say, ‘After what I went through last year, I can handle anything.’ ”
Francoeur is scheduled to fly to Phoenix on Thursday for his arbitration hearing. The Braves have offered $2.8 million and he’s asking $3.95 million, and an arbitrator will hear each side’s case and pick one number or the other. Hearing your own club nitpick your worth is never a pleasant experience, and Francoeur was asked if, between the July demotion and the upcoming hearing, he’ll ever feel as warmly toward the Braves.
“I don’t think there’s any way I can 100 percent,” he said. And then: “I want to play here forever; I’ve said that all along. But the business part of it is different.”
(Update: Francoeur and the Braves settled for $3.375 million late Wednesday night, thereby avoiding arbitration.)
Much has been made over Francoeur’s refusal to sign the long-term contract the Braves offered in 2007. Brian McCann, his former roommate, accepted a similar offer, and some bloggers seek to paint McCann as the loyal worker and Francoeur as the prima donna.
“There’s no competition between us,” Francouer said. “Brian’s my biggest fan and I’m his biggest fan. He was my shoulder last year … It’s a business. At no point do I regret not signing that contract.”
As for 2009: “Nobody was more ready for last year to end than I was, and nobody is more ready for the new season than I am … I can’t tell you I’m going to hit 35 home runs, but I am going to get back to smiling on the field … I didn’t smile much last year.”
He arrived in Florida on Feb. 9, nine days ahead of schedule, and he has been working daily to calibrate his new swing. He stands with his feet closer together, his front foot slightly open, and he takes a small stride. He’s also holding his hands lower and pulling them backward in a cocking action. He looks comfortable, it should be said, in the batting cage.
What was the genesis of his redesign? “Some guy,” and on the record he would say no more.
That bit of mystery aside, Francoeur has set this as his spring mission: “I’m going at it as if I have to win the right-field job. I’ve been working my [rear] off.”
The Golden Child just turned 25, and the old tag no longer seems apt. Francoeur no longer seems so golden, nor does he sound as youthful. He has matured in the way that maturity descends on most of us: Via abject disappointment.
“I was bitter for a while,” he said Wednesday, “but last year was last year and that’s where I’m keeping it.”
He unleashed a familiar full-bore Frenchy smile. “Last year,” he said, “is a distant memory.”