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"A youth to whom was given so much of earth, so much of heaven." �--William Wordsworth
There are dirty dishes in the sink, an empty box of Fruity Pebbles and the remnants of a late-night Arby's run on the counter, an ironing board unfolded in the dining area and a flat-screen television that dwarfs the living room. There is, in other words, nothing remarkable about this suburban Atlanta apartment shared by two young bachelors--aside from the fact that at this moment, approaching noon last Thursday, the 21-year-olds sprawled on their rented furniture are watching themselves on TV. Atlanta Braves rookies Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann have been in the Show for what, a couple of months now? So the initial I'm-on- Baseball Tonight! thrill has receded to the point where they regard themselves on ESPN with almost quizzical detachment, at least until a tight shot of Francoeur, standing in rightfield, appears on the screen. McCann, the rookie catcher and Francoeur's friend since age 12, studies the footage, which shows his roommate's moving lips, and hollers, "Dude, what were you singing?"
Francoeur smiles, and the darkened living room brightens. A TV close-up hardly does his vast good nature justice. With his cap pulled low, his nose seems too prominent, his open face--"Winner written all over it," Braves manager Bobby Cox says--appears too angular. Although he'd played just 30 games in the majors, of course Francoeur was singing in the outfield. Why not? He says it was a country song, although he can't remember exactly whose. Kenny Chesney, maybe? It doesn't matter. For this child of earth and heaven, life is a happy melody.
Born and raised in the Atlanta area, Francoeur was kissed by the sporting gods--Braves third baseman Chipper Jones recalls tuning in to the state high school football playoffs just to watch the kid--and famously had a choice of eventually playing big league baseball or immediately playing big-time college football. (His football and baseball teams at Parkview High won state championships in his junior and senior years. If some team other than the hometown Braves had drafted him in the first round three years ago and offered less than $2.2 million to sign, this conversation might be taking place in the dorm room of a Clemson defensive back.) He seemingly can do anything on a ball field, even sing. "I'd give [baseball] up to be a country music star," he says with an air of conviction. (Braves fans needn't worry; Francoeur is tone deaf.)
The TV highlights roll on, showcasing Francoeur's typically sublime game against the Los Angeles Dodgers the previous night. He went 2 for 5, lifting his average to .373, and hit his 10th home run, a 407-foot parabola that landed midway up the leftfield stands. He saw a total of 16 pitches, on par with his economical average of 3.34 pitches per plate appearance. He threw out pitcher Odalis Perez at second base by unleashing a strike while standing one step from the rightfield wall, his ninth outfield assist. ("I can remember playing catch with him a year or two ago in spring training and not thinking much of his arm," Jones says. "Boy, was I wrong.") The righthanded-hitting Francoeur's first major league triple, an opposite-field rope on an 0-and-2 changeup that struck the top of the fence, was impressive as much for the stroke ("I really liked that," Dodgers hitting instructor Tim Wallach said the following afternoon) as for the swiftness with which the 6'4" 220-pounder circled the bases. Speed, clearly, is yet another implement in the seemingly bottomless Francoeur toolbox.
Following that 10-2 win, Braves starter Tim Hudson said of Francoeur, "He's like Roy Hobbs. I'm waiting for him to come out of the bullpen and start striking guys out, throwing 98 [mph]. Or to start hitting bombs lefthanded." Francoeur was born the year The Natural hit theaters, but he knows Hudson's reference is to the guy who goes light-tower at the end of the film. Told that in Bernard Malamud's novel the tragic Hobbs strikes out, the rookie laughs and booms, "That's why books suck!"
No, the reason books--or at least baseball novels--often disappoint is that authors conjure preposterous characters and absurd situations to heighten the drama. Say some hack writer invents a handsome, strapping young baseball player (aren't they all handsome?), nicknames him Frenchy (trite), puts number 7 on his back (a la the Mick, lucky number, cheap symbolism) and summons him from the minors to bolster his talented but sagging hometown team (so 1920s). The kid proceeds to hit about 100 points higher in the majors than he had in Double A (a fanciful conceit), smacking homers and gunning down runners, all the while singing along to the soundtrack in his head (you've gotta be kidding!) and lifting the local nine into first place. Not even Hollywood would buy it.
Francoeur was hitting .370 with 23 extra-base hits in 127 at bats through Sunday as the Braves held a 3 1/2-game lead in the National League East; 15 other rookies have contributed as the Braves attempt to win their 14th straight division title. Four of them-- Francoeur, McCann, 24-year-old righty middle reliever Blaine Boyer and 21-year-old righthanded starter Kyle Davies, now back in the minors--are from the Atlanta area, a boost for a franchise in a city blas� about the team's success and a welcome reminder of sports at its most organic: Our Town vs. Your Town. "I'm in the bullpen before the game and my high school buddies are [in the stands] ragging me," says McCann, who grew up in Duluth, 30 miles from Turner Field. "Three years ago we were sitting in math class." The lefthanded-hitting catcher, called up from Double A a month before Francoeur, is batting .306 with 11 RBIs from the eighth spot; more important, the Braves are 21-11 in games McCann has started.
When three fifths of Atlanta's rotation was injured at midseason, the polished Davies was called up from Triple A Richmond and went 2-1 with a 0.77 ERA in four starts. Boyer had a 2.16 ERA through Sunday and had allowed no runs in his last eight appearances. After a 1-for-30 start the disciplined 23-year-old Kelly Johnson--he saw 38 pitches the night against L.A. that Francoeur hurried through 16--had raised his average to .244 and been a distinct outfield upgrade over Raul Mondesi. Pete Orr, a 26-year-old backup infielder, was batting .302 with nine pinch hits, second on the Braves only to 47-year-old Julio Franco. "All our rookies have helped us win games," Cox says. Indeed, Atlanta's 16 rookies are two more than the woeful Kansas City Royals had used this season. Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz says the in-season infusion of youngsters was like changing the tires of a bus traveling at 60 mph, an apt metaphor for a team that just keeps rolling.