Francoeur quietly slides into the next phase

The first days of Jeff Francoeur’s retirement have been an eclectic mix of tee times, honey-dos, daddy day care, along with a side of gentleman farming.

Thus far, it has been a period low on regrets but surprisingly high in anti-oxidants. No blues. Just plenty of blueberries.

You may not have noticed. But, yes, while it began with almost deafening symphonic hype, Francoeur’s major league playing career has ended some 12 years later with a hush. No librarian ever has checked out more quietly than he.

For the first summer since he was his daughter’s age (4), the 33-year-old Francoeur will not play a child’s game, leaving that sanctuary of arrested development that is the baseball clubhouse for the less-sheltered world outside. If that troubles him at all, he disguises it with the same ever-ready, yet goofball smile that he routinely brought to the ballpark.

As for missing the ritual of suiting up in a uniform and getting dirty daily, “I don’t,” he said. “Only because I’ve done it for so long and I had such a good time doing it. I played just over 10 1/2 years in the big leagues (actual service time, spread over a dozen seasons) and I was never on the disabled list. I take a lot of pride in that. I showed up every day to play, whatever level I was at.”

At this early stage, here he is undefeated in retirement.

Already there is a montage of scenes to choose from to summarize his new civilian life.

Those of domestic tranquility: Like him building the table on which to display his son’s train set. “He’s really trying to learn to be a handy man, which is hilarious,” his wife, Catie, said.

Or those of pleasant diversions, the kind available to a professional athlete who was wise with his money: Like the Francoeurs planning their first summer getaway at the Florida beach condo he bought into with his rookie signing bonus. Or he and his wife spending a rare free spring walking two days at the Masters. Or the coming trip to Greece he and Catie have booked as an early celebration of their 10th anniversary.

There is the one coming, in which he will put his personality into play: Francoeur has signed on to do a smattering of analyst work for Braves games on Fox Sports South and Fox Sports Southeast beginning next month. He already had been doing a weekly appearance on local sports talk radio, 680 The Fan. Welcome to the media, Frenchy. There’s all the free popcorn you can eat in the new SunTrust pressbox.

But, really, could there be any more definitive vision of Francoeur’s clean break from his former professional life than that of the player once dubbed “The Natural” by Sports Illustrated astride a tractor, tending his South Georgia blueberry patch?

One of Francoeur’s first post-playing investments was a partnership with his father-in-law and a local berry expert on a 200-acre farm outside Douglas. They call their operation Major League Berries. Just last week, the former outfielder was riding herd on his plants aboard his farm tractor.

He’s not exactly going full “Green Acres” here. The family continues to make its home in Suwanee. But farm living occasionally does beat trying to hit a 95-mph fastball, down and in.

“I’ve spent quite a bit of time down there. It’s kind of funny. I’ll be in a Zaxby’s and someone will recognize me and it will be like ‘what the heck are you doing in Coffee County?’ I love it,” he said.

Joked his wife, who Francoeur has courted since their high school days at Parkview, “If I’d have known 10 years ago that he was going to be a farmer, I might have re-thought this whole thing. Apparently blueberries are a big deal. Who knew?”

Here at one career’s end, just as the first crop of berries are in, it is only right to attempt to put the Francoeur baseball experience in perspective. Good luck with that.

Think of the bookends that marked an odyssey that took him from Turner Field, to seven other major league stops and one memorable late detour in 2014 to Triple-A El Paso. Not many can claim to have been a Brave, a Met, a Ranger, a Royal, a Giant, a Padre, a Phillie, a Marlin and a Chihuahua. He forever will hold the distinction of hitting the first home run in El Paso Chihuahua history, and no one can take that from him.

In his first game with the Braves in 2005, the hometown kid, the first-round draft pick out of Gwinnett County, hit a dramatic late-inning home run. (After hitting .360 in his first 37 games, SI slapped him on an August cover and declared Francoeur “The Natural,” setting expectations that turned out to be beyond his reach).

And in his final game, with the Florida Marlins, Francoeur, in the strangest of turns, played his last-ever inning at third base. On a lark, Don Mattingly had turned over the managerial duties of the season’s last, essentially meaningless, game, to Marlins infielder and former Brave Martin Prado.

“Of course, Prado is a horrible manager,” Francoeur said.

He sent Francoeur out to pinch-hit in the top of the eighth inning that day (he flew out to right). But because of a mix-up, Prado needed to send Francoeur out to play the infield for the game’s last half-inning.

“I got one ball that was hit nowhere close to me, but I dove because I wanted to get dirty,” Francoeur said.

“Now, it’s funny looking back I played third base to end my career. But it’s kind of fitting.”

Francoeur forever will occupy a special Braves niche. The combination of his powerful local presence as a two-sport high school star, his joyful personality and his torrid major league start fed a myth that he found impossible to maintain. He immediately was the focal point of a generation of “Baby Braves” that included outfielder Jason Heyward and catcher Brian McCann. Think of the frenzy that greeted the arrival of shortstop Dansby Swanson at the mid-point of last season. Now double it. That was the environment in which Francoeur operated.

By July 2009, Francoeur was traded to New York for one Ryan Church, after having won a Gold Glove (2007) and playing in every game for two seasons (’06 and ’07, both 100-plus RBI seasons) and becoming one of the most popular figures to wear a tomahawk. In what would have been an unthinkable occurrence when he first came up and finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year balloting despite appearing in only 70 games, the Braves abruptly cut ties with Francoeur on the road — the team in Colorado. Only to have him return to Turner Field six days later in a Mets uniform.

“It was so tough when I got traded because you never envision it going that way,” he said. “The worst four days of my professional career were not when I was getting released at a couple different places or playing in Triple A. It was when I had to come back to Atlanta as a Met.”

He had a brief, 99-game reunion with the Braves after he was brought back in the spring of 2016 on a minor league deal, whereupon he was able to hit .249 with seven home runs before one last trade to the Marlins. It was a healing experience.

“Looking back, it ended the right way for me here,” he said.

When they were all tallied, his numbers comprised a nice, long, far-flung career. Nothing epic about them — .261 lifetime average, 1,373 hits, 160 home runs, 698 RBIs. No, not the numbers of a natural. Rather they are the numbers of a grateful ballplayer.

Francoeur said all along that he would like to have handled the initial rush of fame more deftly. Shutting off some of the outside distractions while paying closer attention to the sage voices within the Braves would have been a better way to go, he knows.

But now that he is writing the postscript to his playing days, he adds: “I wouldn’t trade anything with my career. I’ve had a fun time. I’ve put up some good numbers. Had some good years.”

He didn’t realize at the time of that eccentric stint at third base that it would be his last game. But as the new year approached and the offers didn’t exactly flood his front door, Francoeur increasingly said out loud that he may just may have played his last.

When the family took a February trip to Orlando, strategically around the start of spring training, Catie Francoeur could not be blamed for thinking it was as much a scouting trip as a vacation. Hadn’t her husband already shown all the extremes he was willing to visit to stay in baseball — like the banishment to El Paso and the return to the Braves as a supplicant on a minor league deal?

“When we were leaving Orlando, I was like, ‘Are you sure you want to leave Orlando?’ she said.

“And he was like, ‘I’m good. I’m ready to go home.’”

There were some discussions with the Braves to try it again on a minor league deal, but, frankly, Francoeur just didn’t have another campaign left in him. And so content has he been with his decision that his wife is the one left wondering about her transition.

“He’s more at peace than I am, not that I’m not at peace,” she said. “It’s such a life change. But he’s like: This is good.”

In retrospect, Francoeur doesn’t see himself as the all-consumed baseball guy. That would be a role so much better suited for his buddy, McCann, who Francoeur describes as a “real dirtbag baseball player.”

“Brian is a true baseball player. For me I was just very athletic and was able to get away with some stuff in baseball that I wouldn’t have if I wasn’t an athlete,” he said. Maybe that has made the parting easier. (The other half of his sporting brain still functions — in fact, he harbors the dream of doing some coaching on a nearby high school football field).

Meanwhile, he’ll be a regular at the preschool drop-off and pick-up. The couple’s 18-month-old son Brayden never will remember his father as a player. Their 4-year-old daughter Emma Cate will possess scarce images of dad at play. They’ll just have to get comfortable with the more traditional father model.

Who knows, he just might be a natural at that.