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Prodigal son Francoeur returns to Atlanta
Atlanta Braves' Jeff Francoeur bats during the fourth inning of a spring training baseball game against the New York Mets Sunday in Port St. Lucie, Fla. - photo by Jeff Roberson

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Jeff Francoeur is the first to concede that his career hasn’t gone quite as expected.

From the cover of Sports Illustrated at 21 to battling for a job at 32, it’s been a long, strange journey for the player once dubbed “The Natural.”

At least Francoeur is back where he feels he belongs.

“It was time to come home,” Francoeur said, gazing out toward the field after a recent spring training workout with the Atlanta Braves, smiling from ear to ear.

Like the prodigal son, Francoeur rejoined his hometown team, the team where it all started, shortly before the start of spring training. Once the future of the franchise, he’s now just another outfielder fighting for a roster spot.

He’s fine with that new reality.

“I don’t feel the pressure I had when I was here the other time,” Francoeur said, as if talking about a totally different person. “I can just go out there and be myself. I’m comfortable in what my strengths and my weaknesses are.”

He still bounds around the field with the youthful enthusiasm of that kid who had the world at his feet. A two-sport star growing up in the Atlanta suburbs, he turned down the chance to play football at Clemson after the Braves made him a first-round pick in 2002.

Three years later, he was in the big leagues. Less than two months after his debut, he was on the cover of SI, which asked, “Can Anyone Be This Good?”

Turns out, the answer was no.

After a Roy Hobbs-like start, Francoeur began to fade, and so did the Braves after 14 straight division titles. Yes, he had more than 100 RBIs each of the next two seasons, but pitchers began to figure out the huge holes in his swing and unwillingness to make adjustments. He faced fewer and fewer strikes, but hard-headedly kept right on doing the same things.

“I was always such a good athlete, I didn’t get a chance to learn the exact fundamentals of the baseball swing. I could get away with some stuff,” said Francoeur, who also struggled to deal with the demands of his early fame.

“I’ve always said one of the biggest blessings and biggest curses is being drafted and playing for your hometown team,” he added.

Francoeur’s numbers tailed off badly in 2008, and he was unceremoniously shipped to the rival New York Mets midway through the following year, dumped for journeyman outfielder Ryan Church, who would last only one more year in the majors. At the still-tender age of 25, the player known as Frenchy had been cast into exile, changing teams about as often as one changes the oil in their car.

From New York to Texas to Kansas City, then to San Francisco (where he was released after less than two months with the Giants) and on to Cleveland (where he didn’t even make the team coming out of spring training in 2014). Having been cut by three organizations in less than a year, he really had no other option except to join San Diego’s Triple-A team, the El Paso Chihuahuas.

“If anything, it’s made me mentally a lot stronger person,” Francoeur said, always looking for a bright side.

The highlight of his minor-league stint was a weekslong prank pulled off by his El Paso teammates, who persuaded him that pitcher Jorge Reyes was deaf. The whole episode was documented in a hilarious YouTube video.

There were darker moments, as well.

Most notably, an Easter Sunday game in Las Vegas.

With the Chihuahuas staying at one of those seedy downtown hotels instead of the glamorous Strip, Francoeur had clearly lost his passion for the game. Even though his wife Catie had traveled from Atlanta to cheer him on, he turned in a dismal, joyless performance that day. Afterward, she tore into her husband.

“I looked like I had never played before,” Francoeur said. “I remember her saying, ‘Listen, I’m here to support you. We’ll live in El Paso, do whatever it takes. But you’re going to put the work in. You’re going to play, play hard, smile, do what you always did.’”

Jolted back to reality, Francoeur fought his way back to the majors, turning in a solid season with the Phillies in a part-time role last season. After dealing with another disappointment when Philadelphia elected not to bring him back, Francoeur accepted a minor-league deal with the Braves.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez believes Francoeur can still contribute as a player while being a positive influence on all the young players the rebuilding team hopes to break in over the next season or two.

“He’s one of those guys that feels like he never left,” Gonzalez said. “It feels like he always will be and always has been a Brave.”

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