Francoeur stays positive through struggles

Francoeur stays positive through struggles

Francoeur stays positive through struggles
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Even though Jeff Francoeur has spent most of Spring Training hitting a buck something, he's never lost that million-dollar smile. The Royals' new right fielder is the epitome of upbeat.

"I love this game and I love to be around it," he said.

Simple as that. His father, Dave, was a school principal and superintendent for many years.

"He wore a suit and tie to work every day, and he'd tell me, 'Don't take what you do for granted,'" Francoeur said. "And I think that's what helped me going through a tough time, I've tried to see the positive side, that something good is going to happen. You've got to believe that. If not, you're in the wrong place."

That's why Francoeur is so certain that he'll climb out of the hitting funk that has been a cloud over him in the Arizona sunshine. But not to worry.

"I feel it coming, each day I feel a little better," he said the other day, when he happened to be hitting .105.

Sure enough, two days later he went 3-for-4 against the Texas Rangers, and that included a line-drive double to left on a two-strike breaking ball from veteran right-hander Brett Tomko, a good sign to manager Ned Yost.

"He's a very upbeat guy, always energetic, always working hard, always ready to go," Yost said. "He's gone through some adverse times in his career, but it's never got him down, never affected the game to where his attitude or his mood takes him down. He's the kind of kid that gives you 100 percent every time he goes on the field. That's always been his m.o."

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Those hits and one on Tuesday night got Francoeur's average up to .160 or, as he'd say, a buck-60 with eight hits in 50 at-bats. He figures he needs at least 60 or 65 at-bats in Spring Training to be ready.

"I talked to Mark Teixeira and he's about a buck-60 in April every year in New York. He said, 'I wish I could explain it, but I can't,'" Francoeur said. "Same thing for me, I never play well in Spring Training. I need my at-bats to get my timing and see pitches."

There was a time when Francoeur never seemed to have a concern about hitting pitches. Growing up in Georgia, he led Parkview High School to the 2002 state championship and, in his prep career, whacked 55 homers with a .443 average.

"He had it all," recalled Royals pitcher Blake Wood, a high school opponent. "Fast, power, he also pitched and threw 97. He'd just take over games. He was like the mythical high school baseball figure in Georgia."

Yost, who lives in Georgia, remembered when his son Josh's team, Lassiter High, played against Francoeur.

"Josh, in the state playoffs, was screaming, 'Walk him!' with the bases loaded, and we didn't, and of course he hit a grand slam," Yost said.

Francoeur's hometown team, the Atlanta Braves, made him a first-round pick in 2002 and, instead of taking a football scholarship to play safety at Clemson, he chose baseball. He rose through the system and reached Atlanta in 2005 with a flourish on July 7. Over the rest of the season, he batted .300, pounded 14 homers and drove in 45 runs in 70 games.

So there he was, a Georgia high school legend playing at home for the team that he cheered for as a kid. Naturally, there were two sides to that story.

"It was the worst and the best," he said.

On one hand, he was playing at home with family and friends. On the other, the demands on a hometown hero were many -- he couldn't say no to charities and there were years when he made over a hundred appearances. It got to be too much.

After three successful seasons with the Braves, including back-to-back with 100-plus RBIs in 2006 and '07, Francoeur hit the skids in '08.

"For me in Atlanta, I think the worst thing that ever happened to me was going through that because, all of a sudden, I started listening to so many people," he said. "Everybody had the answer of how to fix me. To be honest, the answer was probably right in front of me from the film on what I had done well, but you overlook everything. You always think there's something better."

Francoeur didn't get fixed that year, or the next, and he was hitting .250 on July 10, 2009, when the Braves traded him to the New York Mets. The Georgia legend went to Gotham and hit .311 for the rest of the season.

New York was "fun" but "crazy" in 2010, and Francoeur was hitting .237 when the Mets swapped him to the Texas Rangers on Aug. 31. Voila! He hit .340 down the stretch and wound up in the playoffs and World Series.

"It was Christmas come early," he said. "For me, that was the most special time I ever had in baseball. There was getting drafted by the Braves and getting to play in my hometown, but a chance to play in the playoffs and go to the World Series, witness Cliff Lee's Game 3 in New York last year, those are things you'll never forget. For me, that was a dream come true, how many kids get to play in a World Series? So I'll always have that."

Now, as a free agent signed by the Royals, he's a right fielder with a background of winning a Gold Glove in 2007 and having 81 assists since '05, most in baseball since then.

And he's a right-handed batter who has, at various times, hit .311, knocked 29 homers and driven in 105 runs in single seasons.

Francoeur has a new look -- gone is the rich "hockey beard" that he showed on the World Series telecasts along with almost 30 pounds that he added in an effort to boost his power game. It didn't work and now he's down to about 208 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame.

"Last year in Spring Training with New York, I felt like my legs were going to fall off. They felt like bricks," he said.

Working with hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, he's also trying to be better at selecting pitches to attack and alter his reputation as a free swinger.

"It's going to cut down on his strikeouts, it's going to put him in better hitting counts," Seitzer said.

One thing that hasn't changed, though, is his sunny, bluebird-on-my-shoulder attitude.

"If you're having fun, the majority of the time you're going to do better," he said.

The Royals hope so.

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.