Braves’ Francoeur has new stance, same optimism

Jeff Francoeur doesn’t look much different than when he first burst on the baseball scene in Atlanta almost four years ago.

He’s still fresh-faced, a people person, quick with the smile and easy to chat about baseball with strangers.

But it’s a somewhat different Francoeur who will start in right field this spring for the Atlanta Braves.

“You look at it and realize there’s a business side to the game,” said Francoeur, who was surprised to be sent down to Single-A Mississippi in the middle of last season to break out of a slump. “Although we don’t like it sometimes, it’s just how it is.”

Francoeur talked about the past, present and future Monday evening before a reception at the Hilton Garden Inn that preceded his appearance at the First Pitch Classic dinner at the University Center to raise funds for the Mercer baseball program.

Nearly 125 fans paid to go through the line to get Francoeur’s autograph on almost anything and take a picture, and another 500-plus attended the dinner and speech on the UC’s basketball court.

Mercer athletics director Bobby Pope said it was the largest crowd for such a function in the arena since it opened five years ago today with a men’s basketball game against Georgia State.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle spoke briefly, and state Sen. Cecil Staton was on hand, as well. Afterward, Mercer head coach Craig Gibson presented Francoeur — who attended with his wife Catie and high school coach Hugh Buchanan and his wife — with a check to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

Francoeur spoke to the crowd after the dinner for nearly 25 minutes on topics ranging from the lighthearted and how pitcher Tim Hudson put Icy-Hot into the dress clothes of former teammate John Smoltz to why Francoeur has a Bible verse — Joshua 1:9 — written on his batting gloves.

Then he answered questions for another several minutes, including about the day in the life of a player.

“Well, I get up about 11:30,” he said with a smile, “if you want to know the truth.”

Francoeur, who turned 25 on Jan. 8, said before the dinner that he has been hitting at least four times a week since the middle of November, fine-tuning some offensive tweaks he can’t wait to unleash in a few weeks at spring training.

“I have a whole new stance and a whole new approach,” said Francoeur, who worked with teammate Chipper Jones and hitting coach Terry Pendleton, among others, to improve on last year’s .239 average and 11 home runs. “It’s very different. People will be surprised. I’ve got a right-handed approach that’s a lot like (former teammate Mark) Teixeira. I think it’ll be cool.”

Francoeur leaves Feb. 10 for spring training and to start the process of erasing memories of 2008. He said his arrival in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., will mark the end of him discussing his own struggles of last season.

He said the season went south in July when the Braves blew leads of nine and five runs before losing 10-9 and 12-10 at Philadelphia, just before the trade deadline.

“We were five or six games back, and we had a chance to get within three or four,” he said. “It just wasn’t meant to be.”

That led to something rare for the Braves: an irrelevant September.

“That’s the first time since I’ve been there that we went into September without a shot to make the playoffs,” Francoeur said. “It was definitely different.”

Francoeur smiled at the comparison of this Braves’ offseason to a soap opera, between a spat with Rafael Furcal’s agent, the uproar over not re-signing John Smoltz, whether Andruw Jones will return, and his own arbitration.

“I try to stay out of that stuff,” he said. “If you don’t, you’re thinking about something every day, and something different every day. But it’s been an interesting offseason.”

Francoeur is as optimistic this January as he was last January, in part knowing the odds of 2009 being a rerun of 2008 have to be low.

“We didn’t stay healthy, we didn’t have pitching,” he said. “When you don’t have that, you’re not going to win.”

Newcomers Derek Lowe, Kenshin Kawakami and Javier Vazquez will make up part of the revamped starting rotation.

“If we can keep the pitching healthy, I don’t think there’s any reason we can’t compete,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any reason we won’t be in contention late in the year.”