A little more than a year ago I spoke to Jeff Francoeur for a story that I wrote about his seemingly limitless potential as a corporate pitchman.
At age 24, the right fielder was coming off his second straight season in which he played all 162 games. The Atlanta Braves home-grown product had hit .293 the year before with 19 home runs and 105 RBI and he had a bona fide squeaky-clean, local-boy-makes-good image. (I remember when I was at the Journal-Constitution and covered one of his high school football games during the 2001 season at Parkview -- Francoeur was an unbelievably dominant player as a safety and wide receiver on back-to-back state championship teams -- I counted something like nine different staffers who had written stories about him; today nine reporters would represent almost the entire AJC sports staff.)
By early 2008, Francoeur already had endorsement deals with Delta Air Lines, sports apparel maker Under Armour and sporting goods equipment manufacturer Mizuno.
He had switched his representation to Cobb County-based Career Sports and Entertainment, an agency that specialized in marketing, as well as client representation. He was entering a contract year and figured to cash in both with on the field and off.
I was convinced that for Francoeur the sky was the limit concerning his marketing potential, as, apparently, was Francoeur.
"We're looking at a couple of other big ones for this offseason," he said. "There are so many good businesses in Atlanta, from Coke, Home Depot, Chick-fil-A."
That story ran on May 30. If his decline had not begun at that point, it was about to. According to the AJC's Dave O'Brien, Francoeur's numbers have been dreadful since the 2007 All-Star Break: a .256 average with 25 home runs, 153 RBI, a .304 on-base percentage and a .381 slugging percentage in 310 games.
I remember feeling bad for Francoeur after the story ran. There he was on the front page of the Atlanta Business Chronicle talking about his strategies for life after baseball and such and at the same time the fortunes of his on-field career were plummeting.
Was it possible that he took his eye off the prize, that he was thinking too much about contracts and endorsements and not baseball? I've never been around him long enough to know, but I'd imagine that that his comments in that story might not have made the Braves' baseball people too happy. Of course, had Francoeur played the same way as he had in his first few seasons, there would have been no issue at all.
But on a few occasions, Francoeur, someone unaccustomed to having to deal with adversity, could have made better decisions in how he handled situations. At the top of the list was his comments after the Braves sent him to the minors to try to get his hitting back up to par in '08.
He bristled at the demotion and talked about how it had hurt his relationship with the organization. Then this past offseason there was his decision to consult a hitting coach other than the Braves' Terry Pendleton.
An effervescent personality who is a hard-worker and popular with his teammates and the fans, Francoeur's popularity made it virtually impossible for the team to criticism him publicly. But until the point where the Braves ultimately shipped him to the Mets late on Friday, the trade rumors had long persisted.
How much was the Braves' shopping of Francoeur a question of performance and how much was it a question of attitude?
Only Frank Wren, Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz know the answer. Yet it's possible that performance and attitude were intertwined and that is what so frustrated the Braves. But the truth is that on an offensively weak team like the Braves, Francoeur's performance at the plate was not nearly good enough.
I am neither a fan of the Braves nor Mets (nor any baseball team, really) but I hope Francoeur regains his past form mainly because it's sad to see someone who appears to be a genuinely decent person succumb to such a fall from grace. (I covered the night when Parkview retired his baseball jersey in 2007 and he cried and gave a long speech and seemed sincerely moved, lingering long after the ceremony had ended to talk with members of the Gwinnett Daily Post and others.)
It would be a great irony to see an Atlanta product come back to haunt the Braves' most hated rival. I doubt few if any fans would turn on him in the way that they did when Tom Glavine signed with the Mets. After all, Francoeur didn't choose to leave, even if the move was necessary.
If Francoeur doesn't get back to form, he risks becoming one of those baseball oddites like 1980 American League Rookie of the Year Joe Charboneau who was out of the major leagues after hitting .214 in '82.
And that's a cruel fate that few, if any, deserve.