When I transcribed the post game interview with Jeff Francoeur from last Thursday night, it was kind of funny to see how many times he used the word ‘neat.' Yeah, ‘fun,' awesome,' ‘a blast,' ‘crazy,' ‘cool,' ‘something,' and ‘good' were just some of the other adjectives Francoeur used Thursday night, but ‘neat' was used several times.
And who could blame him? It was a neat night at Turner Field.
There was a certain buzz at the stadium. The fans knew what was happening. In a way, it was a new era of Braves baseball starting that very night. While he was the fourth Georgia boy to make his big league debut this season, Francoeur may be the most important. He's the first rounder, the prize prospect, and Thursday night was his night.
I've watched the Braves since 1978 and have been to hundreds of games. But I've never seen anything like when Francoeur came up for his first at bat to start the third inning. The entire stadium stood up to welcome a rookie home. They knew Francoeur was one of them – an Atlantan. They knew Francoeur had sat in their seat many times before doing exactly what they were doing for him – cheering. And they knew that this was a special night.
"I got chill bumps," Francoeur admitted after the game. "I had never heard it so loud in my life. To have that opportunity to get up there and play in front of the crowd was just neat. The fans were great tonight. I didn't expect anything like I got in the first at bat for them to stand up and clap. It was something that I'll never forget."
The umpire went and swept the plate to allow Francoeur to soak it in a little longer. He knew what was going on, even if he gave Francoeur a lame excuse.
"He said they had a TV timeout," Francoeur said. "He said, ‘just enjoy it while you can.'"
One of two things was going to happen with Francoeur's first swing. He was either going to swing so hard he hit a ball to Conyers or he was going to swing and miss so hard that he'd create a sandstorm. Unfortunately it was the latter. Then he hit a ground ball to make an out in his first at bat, but it didn't stop the fans from cheering again.
"It was kind of weird because I was mad I had grounded out, but at the same time it was neat to feel the fan support out there. I had so many family and friends out there tonight that it made it extremely special."
"I was kind of happy when the first at bat was over. I was just trying so hard."
That's natural. Any rookie, no matter how heralded, is going to be anxious and nervous in his big league debut, let alone it being in his hometown. But as the game progressed, Francoeur's butterflies subsided.
"I think I was nervous," he admitted. "I didn't feel good the first couple of at bats. I was just tense. As the game got going I think I got more comfortable."
Then late in the game, with the Braves needing some insurance and two runners on, Francoeur was put into position to help put the game on ice.
"TP (Terry Pendleton) came up to me before the last at bat and just told me to relax and enjoy it," Francoeur said.
Francoeur was facing Glendon Rusch, a veteran left-hander. He worked the count to 3-2 before Rusch put one right in Francoeur's wheelhouse.
"I was able to work a full count," he said. "I was able to put a good swing on it. It felt good. I thought it might have been enough to get out. I knew I was taking it toward the deepest part. Then I saw it over (the fence). I was just trying to put a good swing on the ball and then when I hit it I was like, ‘Man that thing's got a shot.' I knew I had a hit, and that was something I was happy about. When it finally went over, it was awesome. I don't even remember touching the bases."
But what he does remember is the scene at home plate. As the crowd was going wild, Francoeur's best friend, Brian McCann, was there to meet him as he scored the run.
"His face was priceless," Francoeur said. "It was just extra special to have Brian at home plate. When I crossed I gave him a big hug. I know he was pulling for me to eek out a hit tonight, just to get started well like he did. So it was awesome."
"He just smiled," said Brian McCann. "It was a special moment."
The Braves won the game, and somehow the game-winning home run by Andruw Jones seemed like an afterthought. Francoeur's home run was the story. Here was this kid from Atlanta realizing his dream of playing in the major leagues and in his first game in his hometown he hit a three-run homerun.
"Best sports feeling I've ever had," Jeff said. "Hitting the home run was by far the coolest thing I've ever done. I've been able to do some cool things in the minor leagues like winning the South Atlantic League Championship, but that topped them all."
And it sure was neat to watch Jeff.
Bill Shanks has a new book out that features a chapter on Jeff Francoeur called "Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team." Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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