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Scenes from Spring Training: I get the Jeff Francoeur love

Mar 1, 2011, 12:44 PM EST

Kansas City Royals Photo Day Getty Images

This isn’t going to change my view of his ballplaying skills or anything, but I’m gonna be honest and say it: Jeff Francoeur is a nice guy. So much so that it made me spend some time thinking this morning about my place in the baseball writing world.  But I’ll get to that in a minute. For now, a rundown of my morning:

I got to The Surprise Recreation Campus just before 8AM. And it is a campus. It’s the first complex where it was hard to find the actual ballpark, what with the apartments, hotels, water parks, schools, fitness centers and everything else in the area.  There’s a lot of land out here in the far northwest side of town, but the city fathers of Surprise decided that the recreation was gonna be right HERE.

Nice place, though. Very friendly staff. As is usually the case I got lost seventeen times and each time an extremely patient person steered me in the right direction. The only hiccup came when I asked someone if I could walk to where they were directing me. There was a look of horror on her face when I suggested walking. “Oh, my, no, you wouldn’t want to do that.”  My destination ended up being less than a quarter of a mile away. Clearly the walk would have meant my end.

As I walked past the players’ parking lot and toward the ballpark to drop off my stuff I heard footfalls behind me. I turned, and there in the flesh was my white whale, Jeff Francoeur. I stopped him with a “hey Jeff,” and I’ll be damned if he didn’t flash a million dollar smile and say hello.  I asked him if he had a minute and he said he needed to get inside but that I should catch him later.

I dropped my stuff off in the press box and then followed the K.C. Star’s excellent Sam Mellinger into the clubhouse. Sam has a great piece on Francoeur in today’s Star.  So great that I was a bit flummoxed when I read it this morning because it pretty much covered everything I find interesting about the guy so I was at a loss of what I would ask him when I met him.

I went into the clubhouse. Francoeur was sitting in front of pitcher Blake Wood‘s locker for some reason, eating.  I figured I’d let him eat while I checked out the scene.  And the scene was relaxed, as all clubhouses have been pretty relaxed.  Maybe it’s just an early spring thing. We’re a couple of weeks from managers really cutting the rosters down so the stress is not yet high. I was in Florida last year a week or so later than I’m here now and things seemed more tense. Other stuff:

  • Lots of talk about Charlie Sheen. One player was telling another that he was going to answer postgame questions with some variation of “winning” for the rest of the year.  I suppose this will get old soon, but it was a big laugh line among his teammates;
  • Pitcher Jesse Chavez was the only player who has anything decorating his locker: a 2008 Topps Heritage card — the ones that look like old 1959 Topps cards — of Robinson Tejada.  I suppose there’s a story there, but Chavez wasn’t around to tell it.
  • Indeed, the clubhouse was a lot emptier than others I’ve seen. Some guys were already taking hacks in the cage as early as 8:30, with is somewhat unusual. One pitcher had his arm all iced up as if he had already done his throwing for the day. Things get going early in Ned Yost’s camp.
  • I scanned the lockers and, though I realize how young the Royals are and know who is on their team, it really is shocking to see so few veteran names. The Indians are the youngest team in the league and they at least have Grady Sizemore and Orlando Cabrera in there. With the Royals you have Joakim Soria, Jason Kendall and the kids. Everyone else with some service time under their belt is more or less a journeyman or a guy who has been up and down from the farm as opposed to anyone who has held a set full-time job on a major league roster before.

And there’s Francoeur. He has been a major league regular. He will be again this year.  He is veteran presence now.  I decided that I’d ask him about that.

I wish I had a juicy quote for you, but I don’t. You probably wish that I had some of my patented Francoeur-snark, but I don’t. We just chatted for a minute about it and he — most likely because I’m simply not that good at asking a question to a ballplayer in a way that leads to a good quote — just explained that, yeah, it’s kind of different being one of the older guys on a team.

It didn’t seem like a big deal to him, though. He seems to know the score. There’s a good chance he won’t be here next year and perhaps because of that he didn’t try to play up the whole be-a-mentor-to-the-young-studs thing. He hopes he can impart some advice to them, but he’s under no illusions that he’s Yoda or anything.

Between Mellinger’s piece and what he told me today, I get the sense that Francoeur is aware that he’s in a transitional period in his career.  He probably knows that if he’s halfway decent this year he’ll get a contract from someone next year. He probably knows that if not, he’ll join the journeyman brigade like so many guys with his skills have done in the past.

The whole conversation lasted, like, two minutes. He was polite and friendly, stopping what he was doing to talk to me rather than sort of talking over his shoulder at me as he fidgeted in his locker like so many guys do.  I don’t talk to many ballplayers, but he was easily the most approachable. If you have to go into a locker room and get quotes from ballplayers every day I can totally see why he would be a guy you’d want to talk to and why so many in the Atlanta and New York press seemed to fall in love with him.  He’s friendly but seems pretty b.s.-free.

All of which makes me pretty ambivalent about the whole talk-to-players thing. At least for a guy like me.  In those two minutes I could see that I would probably like Jeff Francoeur if I worked around him each day. And I can understand that, if you like someone — and if you depend on someone for quotes and stuff — that it may be harder to be critical.  And to be fair, it’s not the job (usually) of the guys who go into the locker room to be critical, it’s their job to report.

But it is my job to be critical. Not personally, of course, and I at least hope I’ve been fair to Francoeur as a person even if I’ve ripped him as a ballplayer. But I do have to be critical of ballplayers and, more often, ballclubs.  There are guys more experienced than I am who can walk that line, working with the players by day and writing sharp stuff by night, but I don’t think I could do it.  Something would give, either in terms of me pulling my punches or the players shutting me out because, on some level, that which we don’t think is personal, ballplayers take very personally.  Their identities are tied up far more in their playing skills than we typically assume.

Having met him, I’m not going to treat Jeff Francoeur the ballplayer any differently than I would have before. But I am feeling strangely contemplative this morning about the whole media-ballplayer dynamic. What do we as fans really want and expect from these guys?  What is someone saying if someone is “great in the clubhouse?”  I have this feeling that the answer to the former has very little to do with the stuff that goes into the latter.  I also have this feeling that the latter stuff doesn’t matter a whole heck of a lot.

  1. stealofhome - Mar 1, 2011 at 12:59 PM

    So it went something like this?

    Craig Calcaterrano: You wanna give me a juicy quote?
    Francoeur-Wan: You don’t want a juicy quote from me.
    Craig Calcaterrano: I don’t want a juicy quote from you.
    Francoeur-Wan: You want to go home and rethink your place in the baseball writing world.
    Craig Calcaterrano: I want to go home and rethink my place in the baseball writing world.

    • alexpoterack - Mar 1, 2011 at 1:06 PM

      I was expecting more like Michael’s exit interview of Toby on the Office:
      Q1. “Who do you think you are?”
      Q2. “What gives you the right?”

      • Mike Luna - Mar 1, 2011 at 5:02 PM

        I’m Jeff…

        Yeah…yes, that’s right….

  2. yankeesfanlen - Mar 1, 2011 at 1:00 PM

    Are you SURE that-

    A) You didn’t get the clubhouse-manager treatment- that would buy a lot of hot dogs and Old Style
    or
    B) You didn’t get the feeling of J.P.Morgan after coming out of FDR’s office- very charmed, but nothing in your favor had been said after reflection?

    I’d hate to see you not have Frenchie to kick around anymore.

  3. Old Gator - Mar 1, 2011 at 1:05 PM

    Well, Craig, look at it this way. If he doesn’t have a good year you may not have Jeff Francoeur to kick around anymore. Ergo, screw your courage to the sticking post (or are we finished being pedantic already this morning?) and start whacking away at the poor old weltschmertz before you have to go out and find another whipping boy, even one less deserving. Face it: your animosities were formed and waiting before ever you two met.

    • spudchukar - Mar 1, 2011 at 2:14 PM

      I swear I have never seen anyone use my favorite word in the English, er German, language before, outside of reading Nietzsche or Kant. Thanks, Gator.

      • Old Gator - Mar 1, 2011 at 2:29 PM

        My college German comes in handy from time to time. I have other favorites – elementargedanke, doppleganger, vorstellung, chronologische umdrehung, zeitgeist, zauberberg, schnitzel a la Holstein, Lowenbrau, a few others.

      • cur68 - Mar 1, 2011 at 3:36 PM

        Add ‘mit schlag’ to your Germanic lexical gymnastics. You’ll never regret it. Comes in handy for all sorts of things.

  4. Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Mar 1, 2011 at 1:13 PM

    Don’t lie, you broke the Guinness world record for longest awkward pause in conversation.

  5. lampdwellr - Mar 1, 2011 at 1:14 PM

    You were pretty critical of Francoeur-the-person before, too. Do you think it’s really just a question of detaching the personality from the skills?

  6. heyblueyoustink - Mar 1, 2011 at 1:15 PM

    Nice kum-by-ya moment there Craig……glad you got out of the litigation business before it transformed you into a Gorgon

  7. Jonny 5 - Mar 1, 2011 at 1:18 PM

    You met Francoeur and he didn’t kick your balls right off as soon as he found out who you were? Or did you tell him you were Enus Baginski from the Kansas City Journal?

  8. BC - Mar 1, 2011 at 1:21 PM

    Gotta love me some Frenchie.

  9. xmatt0926x - Mar 1, 2011 at 1:56 PM

    Sounds like basic human nature to me. It’s easy to rip someone to shreds from afar. Then you meet him as a media member and he actually looks you in the eye and treats you half-decently so now he’s not such a bad guy after all. I bet every guy in that business has had 50 of those same moments in their career. It’s like Bradshaw and Rothlesburger this year. Big Ben up to this point had been very arrogant and dismissive of Bradshaw and Bradshaw ripped him at every turn (rightfully so). Then before the superbowl Ben and Terry have a sit down and Ben is calling Terry “sir” and being very gracious. Now all of a sudden Terry realizes he needs to give Ben a chance. It’s just basic human nature.

  10. theblackening - Mar 1, 2011 at 2:19 PM

    Craig,

    Heading to Phoenix next week. Is the Surprise facility pretty fan friendly? Practice accessible for viewing in the morning?

    • Craig Calcaterra - Mar 1, 2011 at 2:26 PM

      Yes — the practice fields are out behind the ballpark and the Royals (and I presume the Rangers) take their pregame BP and stuff out there. More accessible than a lot of places I’ve seen.

    • Old Gator - Mar 1, 2011 at 2:30 PM

      Don’t go barefoot, and watch out for little skittermarks in the dirt. There are horned toads at the ends of them, even if you can’t see them.

      • Jonny 5 - Mar 1, 2011 at 3:18 PM

        Alright Old Gator, come clean. Your offspring are also touring the grapefruit league……. Your concern over their well being is admirable I must admit.

  11. tomemos - Mar 1, 2011 at 2:52 PM

    Now ain’t this a coinkydink: http://joeposnanski.si.com/2011/03/01/frenchy-and-hope/

  12. gmc173 - Mar 1, 2011 at 3:02 PM

    Craig- I never understood why you really disliked Jeff. I was actually hoping he would come to the Phils and be a nice bench player. He is also a great guy as well. My family is good friends with the family in this article.

    http://www.dailylocal.com/articles/2008/10/12/news/srv0000003663218.txt?viewmode=fullstory

    Well respected, great guy.

    Why the hate?

    • tomemos - Mar 1, 2011 at 3:45 PM

      GMC: I recommend you read the Posnanski piece I linked to above. It’s all about the conflict between wanting to root for Francouer and realizing that he almost certainly is what he is, player-wise.

      Francouer has expressed strong distaste for the idea of playing off the bench, by the way.

  13. thebrettman - Mar 1, 2011 at 3:53 PM

    Is it really that surprising that someone identifies with their chosen career? If someone tells me that I am a bad lawyer, I am going to take that personally. Why? I have dedicated time and sacrificed to get to where I am. I have made personal choices and sacrifices in an attempt to be as good as I can be as a lawyer. You can interchange “lawyer” with any other profession/job. Bottom line is, people take pride in their work and will inevitably take criticism of their performance at said work personally.

    I really am shocked you find this surprising.

    • Craig Calcaterra - Mar 1, 2011 at 3:58 PM

      I didn’t say that I found it surprising. Indeed, it’s something about which I’m quite familiar. But most people don’t assume it. If they did assume it, they wouldn’t say things like “Player X Sucks” as freely and easily as they do.

      That said, the knowledge that these guys identify themselves with their job performance is not going to keep me from being critical because that’s my job. Thus I try — I don’t always succeed, but I try — to keep my criticisms as polite as possible. Ballplayers can, in fact, be bad. Indeed, so can lawyers for that matter. That doesn’t mean one can’t or shouldn’t criticize.

  14. mykolm - Mar 1, 2011 at 5:08 PM

    This is what I don’t get. Why do you need to be critical? There’s enough writers and broadcasters being critical all the freakin’ time. How about a site where the blogger *isn’t* critical for a change?

    Mama used to say, if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all. It seems that the sports media, despite never playing ball or even knowing the players themselves, rarely have anything nice to say.

    • Craig Calcaterra - Mar 1, 2011 at 5:15 PM

      Really? Who’s being critical? The newspapers who covered Francoeur on the Mets and Braves? MLB.com? The TV broadcasters? He’s been given a virtual tongue bath by those outlets for years. Yes, some blogs have been critical, but for as much as I love them, the blogs with highly critical voices don’t reach a very wide swath of baseball fandom.

      Take a look around sports media and ask yourself how critical it really is. The vast majority of people working in the space depend on teams for access and player cooperation for quotes. As a result, the sports media is far more pliant than you assume. You may say “it’s just sports” but sports are a multi-billion dollar industry that people care about. Anything that holds such a place of significance in our society should be questioned and criticized when warranted.

    • grizz2202 - Mar 1, 2011 at 5:55 PM

      And let’s be serious for a minute. Would you read this site if it was all sunshine and rainbows? Couldn’t you watch an hour of SportsCenter for that?

      The fact of the matter is, no one would come here if every other article was something like, “Jeff Franceour Loves Puppies: A Long-Haired Story”, or “Milton Bradley: Why the long face? Buck up, fella! Those fans will turn around.”, or “Dennys Reyes is in the best shape of his life!”. Wait, omit that last one.

      Point is, if I want happy, shiny sports people holding hands, I turn on ESPN. If I want to find out the REAL story that I heard on ESPN, I come here. Criticality is a fact of life, whether it’s why Jeff Franceour blows, or why that fat chick in Accounting is fat. Doesn’t make it nice, or happy, or something we should do in a public setting. Just makes it a fact of life.

  15. Kave Krew - Mar 1, 2011 at 11:35 PM

    Craig, good piece of writing. Enjoyed it.

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