By Jill Ewert
He can still feel it when it storms. The occasional tingling in the right side of his face whenever the thunder rolls through Atlanta. That’s where the 95 mph fastball smashed into his cheekbone as he was squaring around to bunt in what should have been his final at-bat for the Class-A Myrtle Beach Pelicans.
Jeff Francoeur won’t forget that day. It was July 7, 2004—the day he had finally been called up to the Double-A Mississippi Braves, whom he would join the next day.
He’d had it all figured out. He would spend the rest of 2004 proving himself in Double A, make a great showing at Spring Training in March and then begin the 2005 regular season as the starting right fielder of the big-league club, the Atlanta Braves.
Instead, Francoeur landed in a hospital bed, wondering if he’d ever see out of his right eye again. The ball had broken both his orbital bone and his cheekbone and had endangered the clarity of his vision. As if sliders weren’t hard enough for him to see with perfect vision, Francoeur knew they’d be impossible if his sight was compromised.
But, thankfully, that wasn’t the final chapter of Francoeur’s story. During his stay in the hospital, his mother daily read to him Joshua 1:9 (NIV): “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
Taking on that promised strength and courage, Francoeur bounced back—sight restored—and exactly one year later, got another call. On July 7, 2005, he left the minor leagues behind and made his major-league debut with the Atlanta Braves.
Now almost two years later, Francoeur, 23, is an established star with one of the most respected MLB franchises. And while he has the fame, he’s sharing that message of strength, courage and faith with all who will listen—especially the kids who have deemed him their right-field hero. He speaks regularly at FCA banquets, engages with student-athletes at weekend retreats and even distributes Scripture to young fans by jotting “Joshua 1:9” on his batting gloves, which he gives away after games.
When STV Editor Jill Ewert sat down with Francoeur during Spring Training, the only thing more clear than the Florida sunshine was the joy radiating from the man Sports Illustrated called “The Natural.”
Jill Ewert: What has been the response to the batting gloves you hand out with the verse on them? Have any kids written you fan mail about the Scripture reference?
Jeff Francoeur: They have, actually. A couple of kids have sent me back the batting gloves and asked if I would sign them. Sometimes they’ll even write the verse out for me. One lady also sent me a cross with that verse on the back to put in my house, which was pretty cool. She’d handmade it because I’d given one of my batting gloves to her grandson.
And that’s just a way to reach out to kids. I always throw my batting gloves to kids, so they’ll get them and maybe say, “Wow, what’s that?” and go home and look it up. I think it’s something neat. And it might spark something for them; you never know.
JE: Obviously you’re passionate about impacting kids, and I know you do a lot of speaking for FCA. Why is that important to you?
“... to be a winner means a couple different things. First of all, when you wake up in the morning you realize that the most important thing is your relationship with Christ.”
JF: FCA has always been special to me because I got saved [at a retreat] in Black Mountain, N.C., when I was a sophomore in high school. So, I go back every year to do the Winter Recharge with about 400 to 450 kids. It’s a lot of fun. And then I speak at two or three different banquets during the off-season.
I know when I was in FCA, I loved the chance to worship with other people I never knew were Christians. And I think through it you just develop friendships and the chance to grow with other people.
JE: Specifically, why are FCA and other sports ministries necessary?
JF: As an athlete, it’s great when you get a chance to talk to other athletes about the pressures you go through or the workouts you have to do and just your struggles. It gives you other people you can confide in.
It’s neat because I think you realize that you’re never going to be able to do this on your own. You need to surround yourself with good people—people who can hold you accountable, people who can work through things with you—because we all fail. We all need to be kicked in the butt sometimes, and we need someone there to do it. Everybody does. Nobody is excused from that.
JE: Talking about guidance and accountability, one of the most recognized Christians in baseball in John Smoltz. Can you tell me how he’s helped you spiritually?
JF: He helps me out so much. When I got called up in 2005, he took me aside and let me know who on the team were strong Christians I could learn from. That was great because, as a young guy coming up, you’re just trying to fit in. You see all these guys who have been on TV for years, and they’re your role models; but at the same time you have to stay grounded and know where you are spiritually so that you don’t fall. You have to set standards that you won’t sway from. And I think that’s what I’ve tried to do the last couple of years—just let the guys know where I stand with my faith. When you do that, it makes it a lot easier, and guys respect you more.
JE: Being so young, was that tough for you?
JF: Yeah, it was very tough. Everybody’s trying to pull you in certain ways. But you have to be strong, and you have to make a stand. I think that’s obviously part of the journey.
JE: John Smoltz once said, “You can walk into any clubhouse and tell how a veteran was treated when he was coming up.” Based on how you’re being treated now, what kind of veteran do you think you’ll be?
Francouer with pitcher John Smoltz at the March 30, 2007, Braves' exhibition game against the Chicago White Sox at Turner Fild in Atlanta.
JF: You know, I would hope I’m the same as some of the guys here who really take care of the younger guys.
One of the coolest things I remember was when we were in Houston for the playoffs, and six or seven of us all went out to eat at a nice steakhouse. We had like a $600 bill, and the waiter came over and said, “Someone picked up your tab.”
We were like, “Who?” Turned out it was Smoltzy, who was there eating dinner. We went over and thanked him, and he just said, “Just make sure you do that some day 12 years down the road.”
JE: How do his actions and those of other Christian veterans model Christ?
Francoeur Fast Facts
Favorite TV show:“24”
Favorite ice cream: Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough
Favorite Ballpark outside of Atlanta:
Wrigley Field, Chicago
Favorite country music artist: George Strait
“I love to sing. If I had any sort of voice, I would rather be a country music singer than a baseball player. But I’m the worst singer in America.”
Actor he’d cast in the movie of his life:
Kevin Costner – “He’s played in so many sports movies, but he needs to play right field every once in awhile.”
JF: They make you realize that your life doesn’t revolve around baseball. Growing up, I idolized sports; that was my god. And when you finally just give it all to Christ, you don’t have to worry about anything anymore. You go out and you just play hard, and you realize that it’s a part of your life. You love baseball, but it’s just a small part.
When I talk to kids I try to challenge them: “Do you want to invest your life in worldly desires, which would, in some ways, be baseball and other things like driving cars and having money? Or do you want to invest your life in godly desires? Because one day, that is all that’s going to matter, and you don’t know when that day is going to come. You’re not guaranteed your next breath.”
JE: Another veteran Brave, Julio Franco, also said in reference to your group of young players, “We’re raising them to be winners.” Based on what they’ve taught you and what you know about God, what does it mean to be a winner?
JF: People always talk about winning and losing, and I think to be a winner means a couple different things. First of all, when you wake up in the morning you realize that the most important thing is your relationship with Christ. That’s first and foremost in anything. And then, that everything you do is for His glory. Sometimes in this game you can get so lost in doing things for yourself and being selfish. Nobody’s perfect. You like seeing your name up on the scoreboard, you like seeing people wear your jersey; but you have to remember that it’s God who has allowed you to do that. He’s put you in a great position to give the glory to Him.
For me, guys like Julio and Smoltzy are guys who are helping young kids and giving back. And no matter how they do on the field, to me, they’re winners.
JE: Obviously, surrounding yourself with other believers is important to you. What are some specific areas in which they’ve helped you grow?
JF: For me, one thing is my mouth. Hanging around baseball players, you get a dirty mouth sometimes. And that’s convicting. I have to watch myself and try to hold myself accountable with different Scriptures, but obviously being around people who can catch you is very helpful.
JE: Other than the Christian guys around you, what helps keep you in line spiritually?
JF: Well, I always talk about this as a great reminder. When I got hit with that pitch, I got two plates in my face. And when it rains and thunderstorms, I can feel it a little bit. I always say that’s God’s way of showing me His grace that He let me play again.
JE: What do the plates feel like when it rains?
JF: It doesn’t always, but if there’s a big thunderstorm, I can feel a little tingle. It’s pretty neat, actually. It’s a great reminder.
JE: Yeah, I guess it shows that you can look at anything in a divine way.
|Francoeur’s Favorite FCA Retreat
As a sophomore in high school, Jeff Francoeur gave his life to the Lord at Georgia FCA’s annual Winter Recharge. Since making it to the big leagues, he has made a commitment to attend as many of those events as he can. But when he goes he does a lot more than just show up to wave and smile; he gets involved, serving as the retreat’s “Mean Dean.” Yet, according to FCA staff, Francoeur leaves an impression that is far from what his title implies.
L to R: FCA's Jack Murray, Francoeur, FCA's STeve Pruitt and David Bailie
“Jeff really makes a great impact on those kids,” said Jack Murray, Northeast Georgia FCA area representative, who, along with FCA’s Steve Pruitt and David Bailie, spearheads the retreat. “He runs around with these students and plays football with them and really engages with them. I think a lot of them come in just in awe of him, but then they realize that he’s a normal person like the rest of us.”
“I think this event really allows him to be himself,” added Pruitt. “Many times he’s put in the role of having to do autographs and pictures and all that. And at this event, he’ll do that, but it’s not pressured. When he’s there he can just be Jeff, and I think he likes that.”
Started in 1982 by a high school coach in Georgia, Winter Recharge was created with the purpose of restoring the spiritual high of summer FCA Camps to students who were burned out after a long first semester. Now 25 years old, the December retreat has seen significant growth, almost doubling in attendance every year for the past four years.
“When I came on staff in 2002, we had probably 30 coaches and athletes,” said Murray. “Last year we had around 450 and actually had to turn people away. It’s been awesome to see. It’s just an amazing event.”
*For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Courtesy of the Atlanta Braves and NE Georgia FCA