02/03/07 5:10 PM ET
Francoeur highlights Winter FanFest
Popular outfielder signs memorabilia for lucky fans in Atlanta
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
Less than 15 minutes after the gates opened, the autograph lines for both Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann had reached their maximum limit. Those who were fortunate enough to position themselves early enough gained the guarantee that they'd obtain the signature of one of these hometown heroes.
Those who were not so fortunate were forced to show a sense of determination that proved beneficial for Jennifer Golden, Tiffany Humble and Kelli Hall, a trio of women who formed a new friendship while in pursuit of Francoeur's signature.
When three fans decided that the line was too long, they gave their cards, which guaranteed a signature, to these three women, who had continued to wait at the end of Francoeur's line, which began in the middle of the 755 Club (in left-center field) and extended within the Lexus Level all the way to third base.
For Golden and Hall, who both reside in Atlanta, the generous gesture provided an opportunity to obtain signed items that would bring surprising joy to their chosen men. For Humble, it meant that her first trip to Turner Field allowed her to realize her goal of meeting Francoeur, the 23-year-old outfielder who hasn't allowed stardom to erase his always-affable personality.
"It's days like today that humble you and make you realize how much people really look forward to the season," said Francoeur, who became McCann's best friend nearly 10 years ago when the two were growing up about 20 minutes north of Turner Field.
While a case of laryngitis prevented McCann from conversing with many of 500 people who filled his line, Francoeur's mouth was moving as fast and often as his bat. As one young boy walked away after obtaining a signature, the Braves right fielder looked at the youngster, smiled and said, "Hey, come up and play with me someday."
It's Francoeur's effervescent personality combined with his endless amount of athleticism that makes him such a favorite among men and women, both young and old. One grown man got his autograph and then said, "I love you Francoeur. You're the best."
"In this sport, it's really easy to get away from the real world," Francoeur said. "But I think you have to always come back to your roots and where you're from. To stay humble, I think you just have to remind yourself that you're just a regular person like everybody else."
But while Francoeur may still act like a regular person, his accomplishments and experiences are anything but regular. At the age of 21, he found himself of the cover of Sports Illustrated. About seven months later, he found himself as a member of the United States team that competed in last year's World Baseball Classic.
All of this has led individuals like Golden to literally jump with joy after seeing Francoeur take time to write, "Let's play golf" on the bat that he autographed for her boyfriend, John Feldman.
"I'm shaking," Goldman professed as Francoeur ended his autograph session that lasted two hours.
All of this excitement has been created before Francoeur has ever had the opportunity to stay in big-league camp throughout all of Spring Training. Playing for Team USA last year caused him to miss nearly two full weeks of preparation in Braves camp. That certainly could have played a part in that he managed just two hits in his first 36 at-bats of the regular season.
After those first 36 at-bats, he managed to hit .272 over the remainder of a season in which he also contributed 29 homers. His 103 RBIs allowed him to join Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews as the only players in franchise history to record a 100-RBI season before their 23rd birthday.
All of this success has Francoeur waiting anxiously for the start of Spring Training. Braves pitchers and catchers will report to camp on Feb. 15 and the first full-squad workout will be on Feb. 21.
"I can't wait," Francoeur said. "First and foremost, I feel the best I've ever felt spiritually. Mentally and physically, I'm in the best shape of my life."
Francoeur's maturation as a man has been a product of him getting engaged and moving into his own house over the course of the past six months. The added responsibilities combined with a renewed religious faith have him truly feeling like an adult.
"I've really become more of a man and matured a little more," Francoeur said. "So I'm really looking forward to seeing what happens."
Francoeur's maturation as a baseball player will continue to come naturally. Looking to cut down on the 132 strikeouts he had in 651 at-bats last year, he's spent time this offseason working on a stance that has him crouching a little more than he has in the past. In addition, he's worked hard to lessen the movement of his head during his swing.
Critics will continue to harp on the fact that Francoeur has drawn just 34 walks in the first 908 at-bats of his Major League career, but he says he's not consciously making a commitment to reduce his aggression level. It's just something that will come natural as he evolves into the 23-year-old ballplayer that already has definite star status.
"I haven't even paid attention to anybody who has talked about patience or anything like that," Francoeur said. "I'm going to play like I play. That's how I have fun and enjoy the game. I'll learn as I go."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.