Sad to say, in this fairy tale, nobody lives happy ever after. “The Natural” has been water-boarded by the team that brought him in from the suburbs, gloated over him through those first two seasons when he was a steady producer, and then, suddenly, when he lost his game, there was no one to help him. So Jeff Francoeur went searching.
I don’t understand how it came to that. Neither do I understand why a hitting slump can’t be cured like the common cold. At any rate, as the season ended last year Francoeur had made arrangements to go to Texas and spend some curative time with Rudy Jaramillo, the Rangers hitting coach. No guarantee came with it, but Jaramillo had worked wonders with some of Francoeur’s friends, and Jeff was in a listening mood. Mark DeRosa was one, rejected by the Braves, signed by the Rangers and under Jaramillo, as the story goes, found a swing that eventually led to a $14-million contract with the Cubs. Then Mark Teixeira passed that way and….need I say more?
With Francoeur, it was a private project. He did confide in me, I must say, and I did write of his project, but not his mentor. This, of course, was a slap in the face of Terry Pendleton, the Braves hitting coach, naturally close to Bobby Cox. Nothing was said. Nothing was written of Jaramillo. Nothing of it ever surfaced in the Braves clubhouse.
Meanwhile, neither did Francoeur’s batting average show sign of recuperation. If his furtive mission to Texas ever came up, it never surfaced in Cox’s office. Nor with Pendleton. Through it all Terry never mentioned it, nor did it ever come up even in casual banter around the batting cage. He was professional through it all. I did have a brief exchange with Chipper Jones one day, in which I asked, “Who is the best batting coach you ever came across?”
He pondered for a long moment, and then said, “Don Baylor.” Baylor spent the season of 1999 with the Braves, and with other teams in the majors, also as manager.
So, the season opened, Francoeur’s swing still showed some lack of discipline, and his average hovered around .250. He became a target. Meantime, Francoeur had directed Andruw Jones to Jaramillo, and thus the Rangers signed him. Andruw has had mixed results there, even a three-home run game the other day.
Meanwhile, back in Atlanta, you wonder. How would Cox have reacted if Francoeur had told him of his Jaramillo plan? What if he had come back to the Braves hitting .300 with a generous sprinkling of home runs? Would he ever have been traded? Exiled to the Braves’ most despised rival, and in their own division? Frank Wren, of course, handled the deal, but it had to be approved by Cox. The hometown hero, who could have been a Clemson Tiger but chose the Braves, and their sweetened pot of $2-million or so. And all that remains of that class of golden prospects is Brian McCann.
So Jeff was dealt to the Mets and his name is misspelled over his locker. Big deal. I once walked into the Milwaukee Braves clubhouse and Henry Aaron’s name was misspelled. Besides, Francoeur isn’t easy, anyway. Nor is it easy to say goodbye.