Believe it or not, Tuesday night was the 15th time Jeff Francoeur played at Turner Field against the team that drafted him out of Parkview High School in the first round in 2002.
But it’s been almost three years and a league ago since he last played here, as a member of the New York Mets. Time and distance have been good for the Kansas City Royals right fielder.
“It’s different now,” a tanned and goateed Francoeur said in the visitors’ clubhouse Tuesday afternoon, in between interruptions to greet old friends and media members. “I’m excited. It’s no nerves, nothing, whereas last time there was. Even the third or fourth time I came back in with New York, it was still just so weird. But now it’s different because there are so many different guys on the team.”
Francoeur knows Braves coaches better than most of the players. His best friend, Brian McCann, is still working his way back from shoulder surgery. McCann was able to stop by Francoeur’s Suwanee home Monday before flying to Orlando, Fla., on Tuesday to begin catching in extended spring training.
The last time Francoeur played at Turner Field, on Aug. 31, 2010, he went 1-for-3 with a sacrifice fly. After the game, he was traded to the Texas Rangers. He played with the Rangers through the 2010 World Series, then signed as a free agent with the Royals.
“I didn’t have a lot of fun coming back last time,” Francoeur said. “You dreaded coming to the field or having to do these interviews. Now it’s more ‘You’ve got a great team,’ and I’m able to talk about that. When I was with New York, we weren’t playing well, so everybody wanted to talk about other stuff. But it’s fun. I’m looking forward to the game.”
The Royals and their revamped pitching staff came to town 7-5 and tied for first place with Detroit in the American League Central. Francoeur struggled last season, hitting a career-low .235, but he still hit 16 home runs and led the majors with 19 outfield assists. He was hitting .238 in the first 11 games this season.
This time in, Francoeur has been able to enjoy himself. The Royals flew in Sunday and with Monday’s off day, Francoeur got to play golf, visit with McCann and have the entire Royals team to his house for a cookout. The Royals are off Thursday before playing in Boston this weekend, so he’ll sleep in his own bed for five nights before rejoining the team in Boston.
With a noon start to the series finale Wednesday, Francoeur plans to watch his brother-in-law Sam McCoy pitch that night for Parkview against Archer. He missed the Parkview-Brookwood game Monday night, but he said Parkview coach Chan Brown told his players if they won, they could skip practice Tuesday.
The Panthers defeated Brookwood 7-1, and all 30 players and staff in their orange shirts watched batting practice from behind home plate Tuesday afternoon. They watched the game from the right-field stands. Francoeur left another 14 tickets for his family. He said he expected some 100 friends and family in all.
His wife, Catie, is six months pregnant with their first child, a daughter they’ll call Emma Cate, due July 26. It’s a meaningful time for the Francoeurs, who endured two miscarriages in the past two years.
“We’re so excited,” Francoeur said. “We’re looking forward to it, especially seeing last year with B-Mac and (his son) little Colt.”
Friends and family are hosting a baby shower for Catie here Sunday. She plans to have the baby in Kansas City, though, another indication of how much Francoeur has moved on.
“When you first come up you imagine playing in Atlanta forever, but things change,” Francoeur said. “I’m happy here. We’re playing well. We’ve got a good team. We’ve got a great pitching staff. Our city is excited about this team, and so am I.”