Kansas City Royals Photo Day

Scenes from Spring Training: I get the Jeff Francoeur love


This isn’t going to change my view of his ballplaying skills or anything, but I’m gonna be honest and say it: Jeff Francoeur is a nice guy. So much so that it made me spend some time thinking this morning about my place in the baseball writing world.  But I’ll get to that in a minute. For now, a rundown of my morning:

I got to The Surprise Recreation Campus just before 8AM. And it is a campus. It’s the first complex where it was hard to find the actual ballpark, what with the apartments, hotels, water parks, schools, fitness centers and everything else in the area.  There’s a lot of land out here in the far northwest side of town, but the city fathers of Surprise decided that the recreation was gonna be right HERE.

Nice place, though. Very friendly staff. As is usually the case I got lost seventeen times and each time an extremely patient person steered me in the right direction. The only hiccup came when I asked someone if I could walk to where they were directing me. There was a look of horror on her face when I suggested walking. “Oh, my, no, you wouldn’t want to do that.”  My destination ended up being less than a quarter of a mile away. Clearly the walk would have meant my end.

As I walked past the players’ parking lot and toward the ballpark to drop off my stuff I heard footfalls behind me. I turned, and there in the flesh was my white whale, Jeff Francoeur. I stopped him with a “hey Jeff,” and I’ll be damned if he didn’t flash a million dollar smile and say hello.  I asked him if he had a minute and he said he needed to get inside but that I should catch him later.

I dropped my stuff off in the press box and then followed the K.C. Star’s excellent Sam Mellinger into the clubhouse. Sam has a great piece on Francoeur in today’s Star.  So great that I was a bit flummoxed when I read it this morning because it pretty much covered everything I find interesting about the guy so I was at a loss of what I would ask him when I met him.

I went into the clubhouse. Francoeur was sitting in front of pitcher Blake Wood’s locker for some reason, eating.  I figured I’d let him eat while I checked out the scene.  And the scene was relaxed, as all clubhouses have been pretty relaxed.  Maybe it’s just an early spring thing. We’re a couple of weeks from managers really cutting the rosters down so the stress is not yet high. I was in Florida last year a week or so later than I’m here now and things seemed more tense. Other stuff:

  • Lots of talk about Charlie Sheen. One player was telling another that he was going to answer postgame questions with some variation of “winning” for the rest of the year.  I suppose this will get old soon, but it was a big laugh line among his teammates;
  • Pitcher Jesse Chavez was the only player who has anything decorating his locker: a 2008 Topps Heritage card — the ones that look like old 1959 Topps cards — of Robinson Tejada.  I suppose there’s a story there, but Chavez wasn’t around to tell it.
  • Indeed, the clubhouse was a lot emptier than others I’ve seen. Some guys were already taking hacks in the cage as early as 8:30, with is somewhat unusual. One pitcher had his arm all iced up as if he had already done his throwing for the day. Things get going early in Ned Yost’s camp.
  • I scanned the lockers and, though I realize how young the Royals are and know who is on their team, it really is shocking to see so few veteran names. The Indians are the youngest team in the league and they at least have Grady Sizemore and Orlando Cabrera in there. With the Royals you have Joakim Soria, Jason Kendall and the kids. Everyone else with some service time under their belt is more or less a journeyman or a guy who has been up and down from the farm as opposed to anyone who has held a set full-time job on a major league roster before.

And there’s Francoeur. He has been a major league regular. He will be again this year.  He is veteran presence now.  I decided that I’d ask him about that.

I wish I had a juicy quote for you, but I don’t. You probably wish that I had some of my patented Francoeur-snark, but I don’t. We just chatted for a minute about it and he — most likely because I’m simply not that good at asking a question to a ballplayer in a way that leads to a good quote — just explained that, yeah, it’s kind of different being one of the older guys on a team.

It didn’t seem like a big deal to him, though. He seems to know the score. There’s a good chance he won’t be here next year and perhaps because of that he didn’t try to play up the whole be-a-mentor-to-the-young-studs thing. He hopes he can impart some advice to them, but he’s under no illusions that he’s Yoda or anything.

Between Mellinger’s piece and what he told me today, I get the sense that Francoeur is aware that he’s in a transitional period in his career.  He probably knows that if he’s halfway decent this year he’ll get a contract from someone next year. He probably knows that if not, he’ll join the journeyman brigade like so many guys with his skills have done in the past.

The whole conversation lasted, like, two minutes. He was polite and friendly, stopping what he was doing to talk to me rather than sort of talking over his shoulder at me as he fidgeted in his locker like so many guys do.  I don’t talk to many ballplayers, but he was easily the most approachable. If you have to go into a locker room and get quotes from ballplayers every day I can totally see why he would be a guy you’d want to talk to and why so many in the Atlanta and New York press seemed to fall in love with him.  He’s friendly but seems pretty b.s.-free.

All of which makes me pretty ambivalent about the whole talk-to-players thing. At least for a guy like me.  In those two minutes I could see that I would probably like Jeff Francoeur if I worked around him each day. And I can understand that, if you like someone — and if you depend on someone for quotes and stuff — that it may be harder to be critical.  And to be fair, it’s not the job (usually) of the guys who go into the locker room to be critical, it’s their job to report.

But it is my job to be critical. Not personally, of course, and I at least hope I’ve been fair to Francoeur as a person even if I’ve ripped him as a ballplayer. But I do have to be critical of ballplayers and, more often, ballclubs.  There are guys more experienced than I am who can walk that line, working with the players by day and writing sharp stuff by night, but I don’t think I could do it.  Something would give, either in terms of me pulling my punches or the players shutting me out because, on some level, that which we don’t think is personal, ballplayers take very personally.  Their identities are tied up far more in their playing skills than we typically assume.

Having met him, I’m not going to treat Jeff Francoeur the ballplayer any differently than I would have before. But I am feeling strangely contemplative this morning about the whole media-ballplayer dynamic. What do we as fans really want and expect from these guys?  What is someone saying if someone is “great in the clubhouse?”  I have this feeling that the answer to the former has very little to do with the stuff that goes into the latter.  I also have this feeling that the latter stuff doesn’t matter a whole heck of a lot.

Kyle Schwarber is the feel-good story of the 2016 postseason

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 26:  Kyle Schwarber #12 of the Chicago Cubs reacts after hitting an RBI single to score Ben Zobrist #18 (not pictured) during the fifth inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game Two of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on October 26, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Most baseball fans and even the Cubs had resigned themselves to most likely not seeing Kyle Schwarber in game action until spring training next year after he suffered a gruesome knee injury in a collision with teammate Dexter Fowler back in early April. Schwarber suffered a fully-torn ACL and LCL in his left leg.

To the surprise of everyone, including manager Joe Maddon, Schwarber was cleared by doctors to play if the Cubs wanted to put him on the World Series roster. So they did. And, boy, are they glad they did it. In preparation, Schwarber saw over 1,000 pitches from machines and pitchers in the Arizona Fall League.

Schwarber essentially crammed for the final exam and unlike most students who do it, it has panned out well thus far. No one was expecting him to look outstanding against Indians ace Corey Kluber in Game 1, but in his first at-bat — his first in the majors since suffering the injury in April — Schwarber worked a 3-1 count before eventually being retired on strikes. Schwarber came back up in the fourth and drilled a Kluber sinker to right field for a two-out double.

In the seventh inning, facing one of the American League’s two scariest left-handed relievers in Andrew Miller, Schwarber worked a full count before drawing a walk. During the regular season, Miller walked exactly one lefty batter. Schwarber made it two. Schwarber would face Miller again in the eighth, going ahead 2-1 before ultimately striking out. He finished 1-for-3 with a walk and a double in the Cubs’ 6-0 loss. Considering the circumstances, that’s amazing.

Schwarber continued his great approach in Game 2 in what turned out to be a 5-1 victory. He struck out against Trevor Bauer in the first inning, but returned to the batter’s box in the third inning and singled up the middle to knock in the Cubs’ second run. Schwarber made it 3-0 in the fifth when he singled up the middle again, this time off of Bryan Shaw, to make it 3-0. Facing Danny Salazar in the sixth, Schwarber drew a four-pitch walk to put runners on first and second base with two outs. Finally, he struck out against Dan Otero in his eighth-inning at-bat, finishing the evening 2-for-4 with a pair of RBI singles and a walk.

But now, as the Cubs return to Chicago for World Series Games 3, 4, and 5 at Wrigley Field, they have to contest with National League rules, a.k.a. no DH. Will Maddon risk Schwarber’s subpar defense to put his dangerous bat in the lineup? Even if Schwarber is not put in the starting lineup, he can at least serve as a dangerous bat off the bench late in the game when the Indians send out their trio of relievers in Shaw, Miller, and closer Cody Allen. At any rate, what Schwarber has done already in the first two games of the World Series is mighty impressive.

Jake Arrieta flirts with no-hitter, pitches Cubs past Indians 5-1 in World Series Game 2

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 26:  Jake Arrieta #49 of the Chicago Cubs throws a pitch during the first inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game Two of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on October 26, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Gene Puskar - Pool/Getty Images)
Gene Puskar - Pool/Getty Images

Cubs starter Jake Arrieta pitched into the sixth inning before allowing his first hit. Behind his strong performance, the Cubs were able to take down the Indians 5-1 in Game 2 of the World Series to even things up at one game apiece.

Unlike their Game 1 performance against Corey Kluber, the Cubs’ offense was ready early. Kris Bryant singled with one out in the first inning against Indians starter Trevor Bauer and promptly scored when Anthony Rizzo drilled a double down the right field line. The Cubs would score again in the third with a two-out rally as Rizzo walked, then Ben Zobrist and Kyle Schwarber hit consecutive singles to center field, plating one run to make it 2-0.

With Zach McAllister returning to the mound for the fifth after relieving Bauer in the fourth, he walked Rizzo, then gave up a triple to Zobrist. The Cubs continued to press their foot on the gas, with Schwarber hitting another RBI single. After Jason Kipnis committed a fielding error on a Willson Contreras grounder — what should’ve been the final out of the inning — McAllister walked Jorge Soler to load the bases, then walked Addison Russell to force in a run, pushing the Cubs’ lead to 5-0.

Arrieta had a first-inning scare, issuing back-to-back two-out walks, but he escaped the jam and seemed to be on cruise control until the sixth inning. He got Carlos Santana to fly out to lead off the sixth, continuing his no-hit bid, but Kipnis broke it up with a double to right field. After getting Francisco Lindor to ground out, pushing Kipnis to third base, Arrieta uncorked a wild pitch, helping the Indians score their first run of the game. Arrieta then served up a single to Mike Napoli, which proved to be the end of the line. Manager Joe Maddon came out to replace him with lefty Mike Montgomery. Montgomery ended the bottom of the sixth by inducing a weak ground out from Jose Ramirez.

Montgomery struck out the first two batters he faced in the seventh, then got into a bit of hot water by yielding a single to Brandon Guyer, then walking Game 1 hero Roberto Perez. Carlos Santana, however, struck out to end what would be the Indians’ last real chance to get back in the ballgame.

Montgomery remained in the game in the bottom of the eighth. He struck out Kipnis, got Lindor to ground out, then gave up a line drive single to Napoli before Maddon pulled the plug. Closer Aroldis Chapman entered to face Ramirez. As expected, Chapman got Ramirez to whiff on a fastball to send the game to the ninth.

In the bottom of the ninth, Chapman fanned Rajai Davis and got Coco Crisp to ground out for two quick outs. He walked Guyer on five pitches but ended the game as rain drizzled onto Progressive Field by getting Perez to ground out to shortstop.

The World Series is now headed back to Wrigley Field. The two clubs will enjoy a day off on Thursday to travel. Game Three will be played at 8:00 PM EDT on Friday. The Indians will send Josh Tomlin to the hill while the Cubs will counter with Kyle Hendricks.