Francoeur, fans have complicated relationship

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — On the bright side, Amy Liebau figured, the free T-shirt turned out to be one hell of a seat cover. By the top of the third inning, you could nuke a Hot Pocket on the plastic out in the right field concourse.

“I’m really thankful for the shirts,” she said, pointing out the gold freebie that draped her chair at Kauffman Stadium.

To Amy’s right sat her sons, Chance and Camden, and her husband, Judd, all baking like affable potatoes as the Kansas City Royals dropped a 6-1 decision to Seattle. She was more concerned for the boys: It was “Frenchy Quarter Thursday” out at the yard, and they’d hoped to spend a few hours in the July heat watching Royals right fielder Jeff Francoeur, the player for whom the promotion was conceived.

As part of a new club gambit, the folks braving the sweltering temps in right got a T-shirt with Francoeur’s number 21 on it and a necklace of blue beads. The Liebaus drove in, two hours each way, from Chapman, Kan. Camden even made a sign that read: ‘HEY FRENCHY, THROW ME $100,’ a reference to Francoeur’s gift to the bleacher bums during the first Frenchy Quarter promotion back on May 4 — a $100 bill wrapped around a baseball.

The Liebaus were big Frenchy fans. Still are. They’d met Franceour a few months ago, down in Arizona, before a Royals spring training game. The 6-foot-4 slugger had gone out of his way to shake hands and sign everything in sight.

“He was very friendly,” Amy gushed, “a great ambassador.”

Only on this Thursday — Frenchy Quarter Thursday! — things got weird. Frenchy wasn’t in the lineup. The Liebaus turned up, beads in hand, to discover that Francoeur was given a day off by Royals manager Ned Yost. Chase fumed. Camden crossed out the word ‘FRENCHY’ and wrote ‘CAIN’ above it, in honor of Lorenzo Cain, the Local Nine’s starting right fielder. Amy wondered if Francoeur had been dealt, considering all the talk these days, what with the Royals slipping in the standings, and the trade deadline less than two weeks away.

“We’d be very disappointed (if he left),” Amy said. Then she paused for a second to consider the returns. “We’re in dire need of pitching. But we do enjoy watching him throw out guys at third.”

*****

Sometime in the last six weeks, the Facebook status between Royals fans and Francoeur got switched from “In a Relationship” to “It’s Complicated.” Parents love him. Sabermetricians want to pack his bags. He’s professional and accountable, win or lose. His throwing arm is one of the best in baseball. He offers to hit home runs for autistic children. He poses for more pictures than Miss Rhode Island. He’s also batting .215 with runners in scoring position. While he’s accounted for 27 RBI, the Royals have a player in Triple-A who’s already clobbered 28 home runs.

Like we said: Complicated.

“You’re never going to have everybody that loves you,” Franceour told FOXSports.com. “I mean, like you said, the best presidents of the United States still have a 40 percent disapproval rating. That’s (how) it is, but I don’t worry about that. I try to focus on the good stuff, the good people, and if people have negative things (to say), that’s their opinion. And I respect it, but I don’t worry about it anymore.

“That’s the difference (with me now), I think. When I was in Atlanta, you know, I used to worry about the negative criticism. And you know what? Playing in New York really toughened me up with that. Which is a good thing … because one thing I could say in New York is, yeah, toward the end, I didn’t play really well. Of course, I wanted to play better. But I was always accountable after a game. Hey, if I sucked, I’m here to tell you I sucked. If I had a good game, I’ll tell you, ‘Hey, I had a good game.’ But I’ve never shied away from being accountable for what I did. Good or bad.”

This is the time of year when Francoeur has gotten used to hearing a little bit of both. In July 2009, he was dealt from Atlanta, his hometown club, to the New York Mets. In August 2010, he was shipped to Texas as part of the Rangers’ World Series push. Just this week, Francoeur’s name has been linked with possible moves to Cleveland or Cincinnati. In today’s 24-hour news cycle, the whispers never end. It’s in the back of his mind, too, as the dog days approach.

“Absolutely,” Franceour said. “And it used to bother me. Me and my wife were actually talking about it (the other) night. And you know, it’s one of those things — I can’t control that. I’ve gotten off to a nice start this second half — I usually have better second halves than first halves. Was I disappointed the way me, personally, our team, played in the first half? Absolutely. I think anybody in here would tell you that. But there’s still (71) games left. We’re still going to play our butts off.

“We’re not the team that can just go sign guys for $25 million. And does that suck? Absolutely. But at the same time, it’s life. You deal with it. You see teams like the Pirates who can win without having to do that. And we’ve just got to find our niche and find our right thing. But I think we’re closer than farther away from doing that.”

Still, as Amy pointed out, the Royals need pitching, even with Jeremy Guthrie joining the party. Wil Myers is crushing the Pacific Coast League. Someone’s expendable. In baseball, someone always is.

“It’s funny,” Francoeur continued, “because when I got traded from Atlanta, I was ready to get out of there. It just kind of needed (to happen). And then New York, it was a mess that year when I was there. And so I got a chance (with Texas) to play in the World Series, great.

“This is the first time I DON’T want to get traded. I mean, I like it here. I like the guys. I love playing here. And you know what? A lot of times, I’ve always heard, 95 percent of that stuff is just speculation, rumors, people throwing (scenarios) around. So until (general manager) Dayton (Moore) talks to me about it, I don’t worry about it.”

Last August, Francoeur signed a two-year, $13.5-million extension that runs through 2013. After a summer of 2011, in which he’d set a career high with 47 doubles, batted .285, hit 20 home runs and stole 22 bases in 153 games, it looked like a bargain, a smart veteran buy.

But a year later, the offensive numbers have yet to hit that next gear; the Georgia native came out of the Mariners series hitting .250 with eight home runs. He’s one for his last 11, six for his last 25. While Frenchy goes into the weekend with nine outfield assists — good for third in the majors — he’s a corner outfielder toting an OPS of .669. The more Myers, Alex Gordon (OPS: .813) and Lorenzo Cain (.901) rake, the more some Royals faithful start to grumble about Mr. Personable’s production.

“Obviously, he’s going to have, hopefully, a great major-league career ahead for him,” Francoeur said of Myers, who was slugging .658 in the minors as of Thursday afternoon. “And that’s fun, because it brings back memories for me, eight years ago — I’ll never forget Brian Jordan throwing with me during spring training, being so nice. And that’s what’s great about this game. People come, people go, new guys come up. And that’s what’s great, is, you kind of pass it on.

“He’s going to have his opportunity. When is that? I don’t know. Could it be in center field? Maybe. Could it be in right? I don’t know. I don’t know what their plan is. For me, I do know I’m signed through next year. And I’m going to play.

“And, like anything, Triple-A is Triple-A, at the end of the day. It’s true. There (are) adjustments up here. Look at Hoz (Eric Hosmer), look at Moose (Mike Moustakas). Guys have got to make (adjustments), and it’s so tough. But you know, for me, what I’ve heard of his approach, he’s a good young man. And I’ve said — hey, I wish no ill will toward him. I don’t know what their plan is. But for me, I do know I’m up here to play every day and I’m going to continue to do it until told otherwise.”

He’s been there; seven years ago, Francoeur was a hot-shot, a fast-rising 21-year-old in the Atlanta system, the face of the future, the way Myers is now. Remembering how Braves veterans such as Jordan reached out to him, the first day Myers turned up at the Royals’ spring training complex this year, Frenchy went over and invited the young North Carolina native to come over and toss the ball around.

“He kind of took me under his wing a little bit, helped me out with some things,” Myers said. “That was cool, to have him do that.”
 
*****

Whether it’s interacting with fans or players who might one day compete for his job, Frenchy sings the same tune: Play it cool. Play it cool and pay it forward.

“When I first came up, everything was just, ‘The baseball, the baseball, the baseball,'” Francoeur said. “I think as you get older, you start to recognize other things, you know. And for me, the fans are a big part of it.”

Jeff’s dad took him to his first ballgame, at old Fulton County Stadium. July 6, 1986; Little Frenchy, all of 2 and a half, watched Bob Horner hit four home runs for the Braves, who lost 11-8, to the Expos. When Franceour was 5, Dale Murphy autographed a baseball for him.

“And I told him that when he came down to spring training,” the Royals outfielder said. “At first, he was like, ‘You’re making me feel old.'”

OK, yeah, it’s a business, we get that. But it’s also supposed to be fun, right? The Francoeur wing of the Royals clubhouse features a wall that looks like this giant, alpha-male Pinterest board — a collage of hunting arrows, letters detailing various fines from Major League Baseball, and an autographed picture of rocker Eddie Money.

“The guy is hilarious,” offered Chad Leathers, who grew up with Francoeur in Lilburn, Ga., and has known the big fella since they played football together at elementary school.  “I remember one story, where he would drive down in front of our high school, and he could drive and then moon people out the window at the same time. But nothing malicious, you know what I mean?”

Big gags. Bigger heart. Leathers can tell you first-hand about Francoeur’s serious side, too. A few years back, Chad’s younger brother Drew had been diagnosed with schwannomatosis, a rare nerve disorder that causes painful, non-cancerous tumors to grow throughout the body. There is no cure — the only known remedies are surgical procedures and constant pain medication.

When Drew’s condition worsened in 2007, word traveled quickly among family and close friends. It eventually reached Francoeur, then with Atlanta, who decided to use his third season in The Show as a platform to help spearhead the fund-raising effort.

“I’m a senior in college, and I got a call from Jeff,” Chad said. “And he’s like, ‘Hey man, I saw this stuff and I really want to help you out. I’m going to donate ($500) for every home run I hit.’

“We had a ‘Rock For Research’ (event); he was there for that, and he’s the one who pushed it from a 600-person venue to a 6,000-person venue. That’s just his attitude — it’s like, ‘Let’s do it as big as possible.'”
 
*****
 
And sometimes, it’s the little things that cut the deepest. On June 19, the Royals were in Houston for an interleague series with the Astros. During batting practice, Frenchy went over to sign for some fans leaning over the railing at Minute Maid Park. Suddenly, he noticed a boy racing to join the pack, closing with such fervor that he fell over while trying to scale that last row of seats.

As Chayse Robertson picked himself up, angry and in pain, sweeping away sheepish tears, Francoeur leaned in and offered an arm of comfort.

“Jeff said to him, ‘Hey, buddy, are you OK?’ ” Chayse’s mother Tammy recalled.

“He didn’t just sign his hat and say, ‘Sorry, bad luck, have a nice day.’ He said, ‘Hey, would it make you feel better if I hit you a home run tonight?’

“And Chayse was like, ‘Yeah, that would be cool.’ Chayse was wiping his tears away so fast, because he didn’t want Jeff to see it.”

Tammy’s husband grew up a Royals fan; the family had moved to Houston from Blue Springs, Mo., when he was transferred for work.  Last year, Chayse, 7, had been diagnosed with autism, so his mom and dad were thrilled to see him so enthused at a sporting event, let alone conversing with one of his heroes.

Frenchy didn’t homer — he wound up 1-for-4 in a 2-0 Kansas City win — but the next night, Tammy wrote a glowing thank-you note to Francoeur anyway. She then recounted the story through social media, posting a picture of Frenchy, grinning, as he huddled with her kids. Before long, the anecdote went viral.

“Shoot, when that mom wrote that (letter), it made ME cry,” Francoeur said. “Because you realize, for me, it was only two minutes out of my day. For that kid, hopefully, it lasts. And the same thing for me — when (Dale) Murphy signed that ball for me, it was 10 seconds. But for me, I’ll remember it forever.”

There were other stops on the good will tour, of course: In April, Francoeur had pizza delivered to the fans sitting in the right-field stands in Oakland, the latest chapter in a strange, two-year love affair that involves a mutual passion for bacon.

“I told ’em next year, I’ll come out there and tailgate with them a little bit in the parking lot,” he said. “Those fans were great, man.”

Mind you, there are some bleacher creatures better left alone. Philly, for instance.

“Philly’s tough,” Francoeur allowed. “I don’t think you can buy ’em in Philly. They’d throw (the ball) right back at you. There’s no doubt. They’d keep the 100 dollars, for sure, and throw the ball at you.

“But it’s fun. I enjoy that part. Because this game is as tough as there is. Hitting a baseball is the toughest thing to do in sports. And all of a sudden, you can get so frustrated. For me, I think, it brings back perspective and kind of relaxes me a little, knowing you can just play with fans a little bit and have some fun.”

Big gags. Bigger heart. It’s just Frenchy being, well, Frenchy. He doesn’t do it for the ink. Or the page counts. He doesn’t follow Twitter. He doesn’t read the blogs devoted to the Royals — which, given the last few weeks, might be for the best.

“You know what? I haven’t gotten too much (blowback),” Francoeur said of the blogosphere. “But if I do, it’s like anything else — you want to tell people, ‘Hey, come spend 10 minutes with me and see what you think.’ I always laugh at the people that blog and people that do this … I remember when I was in Atlanta, this one writer, just (expletive) me off. Because he’d write stuff — not just about me, but about the team. Yet he’d come in the clubhouse once a month to get ‘the pulse of the team’ and all this. And I always said, ‘Hey, come in here. See what we’re doing. Come out, see the early work we’re doing, and see what we do. And then write your article.’ But I hate people that write articles without ever meeting people or knowing the story, because how can you get to know it? You can’t.”

Know this: He’s just a dude. Same as the rest of us. Even Mr. Personable has off days. Bad days, too.

“Hey, I have my days when kids are yelling at me for autographs, and I get in my car and I drive off after a rough day of work,” Franceour said. “Shoot, we all do that. But the majority of the time, I do try to stop. And I do try to sign, especially for kids.

“It’s easy when you’re 4-for-4 to stop and sign autographs after a game. It’s when you’re 0-for-4 and you make the last out, and there’s a little kid there asking for your autograph, and you stop and sign — to me, that just says a lot about a person. Not just me. Any ballplayer.”

Play it cool. Pay it forward. Baseball is complicated. Life is complicated. Kindness isn’t.
 

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com