February 2, 2011

Frenchy talks fastballs, faith at trade center

When Jeff Francoeur was beaned by a 95 mph fastball on July 7, 2004, while playing Class A baseball in Myrtle Beach, S.C., he needed a lot more than skilled doctors and luck to get back on the diamond.

What he relied on most was his faith.

Francoeur’s mother, Karen, read from the Bible every day during his hospital stay and one verse, Joshua 1:9, has stuck with her son through the years: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed; for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.”

The rocket-armed right fielder, who finished third in National League Rookie of the Year balloting in 2005 with the Atlanta Braves, had two plates inserted around his right eye after the beaning. He fully recovered and is just weeks from reporting to spring training with the Kansas City Royals, his third team in less than two years.

“God has a way of stopping you in your tracks,” said Francoeur, who was a big hit Tuesday night as guest speaker at the 12th Northwest Georgia Fellowship of Christian Athletes Home Team Celebration. “At that time I wanted to give my entire life to God and my faith never wavered, although there were times after I got hurt that I was mad at God. I was a millimeter away from never playing baseball again. But it’s only by God’s grace that I’m still playing this game.”

Francoeur eventually climbed the Braves’ minor league ladder, reaching Double-A Greenville later in the 2004 season. He started at Double-A Mississippi in 2005 and then saw his dream come true to play in the majors on July 6, 2005, when the Braves summoned him to Atlanta. His first major league hit, a three-run homer in the eighth inning, came the next day.

He finished the season batting .300 with 14 home runs and 44 RBIs while playing in 67 games.

A two-sport star at Lilburn’s Parkview High School who helped the football and baseball teams each win two state championships, Francoeur, spoke to a packed house at the Northwest Georgia Trade and Convention Center for Tuesday’s banquet. But he targeted the attending middle and high school FCA students with his inspirational message.

His friend, Dalton’s Mitchell Boggs, a relief pitcher with the St. Louis Cardinals, introduced Francoeur to the audience, which was treated to a baseball dinner of hot dogs, potato chips, peanuts and Cracker Jacks. Boggs, who played a round of golf with Francoeur earlier in the day at The Farm, implored the youngsters to listen to “what Jeff has to say.” They did, and gave him a rousing ovation when Francoeur finished the night off by borrowing a line from famed UCLA basketball coach John Wooden: “If I’m ever arrested for being a Christian, I hope there’s enough evidence to convict me.”

Francoeur’s professional baseball career has had its ups and downs, like any other player, and he spoke of an extended slump in 2008 that saw his batting average dip to .239 after hitting .293 the year before. That skid helped pave the way for the Braves to trade Francoeur to the New York Mets in July 2010.

“I was stunned with the trade,” he said. “That was the worst slump of my life. I just couldn’t get out of it. My pride was broken. But I got over it in about 24 hours because the next night after being traded I was on the field in New York playing for the Mets.”

Francoeur was informed that he’d been traded by manager Bobby Cox while the Braves were was in Colorado.

“A trade puts the game in perspective,” Francoeur said. “You see a lot of things happen, but I know where my faith lies and that has helped me deal with the ups and downs. That’s very important. In the end, you know that baseball is a business.”

Francoeur finished the 2010 season with the Texas Rangers, who lost to the San Francisco Giants in the World Series. Francoeur said his World Series appearance was one of the top highlights of his career thus far.

Now, Francoeur, a Gold Glove outfielder in 2007, turns his attention to the Royals after signing a $2.5 million free-agent contract in December. His deal includes a $4 million option for the 2012 season. The Royals had one of the American League’s worst records (67-95) in 2010 and finished 27 games behind Central Division-winning Minnesota.

Still, Francoeur is enthusiastic about reporting to the Royals’ camp in a couple of weeks.

“We’ve got a bunch of young guys,” Francoeur said. “I’m looking forward to relaxing and playing good baseball. I’ve had good seasons before and hope to do it again.”

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