Francoeur overcomes hometown hero label
Not surprisingly, Jeff Francoeur was a mess when he played for the Atlanta Braves. I mean, you can count on your toes and fingers the number of folks who began as a Major Leaguer with their hometown team and didn't go screaming into the night.
You can find even fewer who actually had enough talent, discipline, thick skin and whatever else it takes in these situations to remain with their hometown team long enough to become great.
I'm thinking ... I'm still thinking.
Let's just say Francoeur wasn't one of them.
In fact, Francoeur went from local hero after spending the early part of his rookie season with the Braves in 2005 on the cover of Sports Illustrated to civic outcast courtesy of a sick Louisville Slugger. He was dealt to the New York Mets in the middle of the 2009 season. He finished the end of the following year with the Texas Rangers.
Now, after only stretches of goodness with the Braves, Mets and Rangers, Francoeur looks as if he finally gets it with the Kansas City Royals. He already has two game-winning RBIs this month for a Royals team that is more competitive than projected before the season. His batting average has stayed around .280, and consider this: During two of his last three years with the Braves, he hit 30 to 40 points below that.
In addition, Francoeur's six assists entering Thursday night's action were tied for second in the Major Leagues among outfielders, and he was 6-for-6 in stolen bases.
To translate: The guy had to flee Atlanta, where he was born and raised inside one of its suburbs. He starred in football and basketball for one of the most famous schools for athletics in the entire state. And, amid much fanfare, he later became a first-round pick in the Draft for the same hometown team he cherished as a youth.
Sounds like Barry Larkin.
Then again, Larkin is the anti-Francoeur. That's because the former shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds is among those handful of players who made the transition from growing up in a city to playing for the team of his heroes in that city to rolling toward Cooperstown.
Not only that, Larkin did so without many issues.
There was silence on the other end of the phone.
"It wasn't what I call pressure, but there were influences that I had no idea I had to deal with every single day," said Larkin, who grew up in Cincinnati worshiping the famed Big Red Machine before signing as a highly touted prospect for the team in the summer of 1985.
By the fall of 1986, Larkin was experiencing the first days of his spectacular 19 seasons with the Reds, and those "influences" were preparing to turn his rookie year of 1987 into a disaster.
Said Larkin, "I had my dad and my mom coming to the ballpark every single day, which meant I had to make sure they had tickets. Friends and family members, they were calling me every day wanting tickets. So I'm trying to balance that, trying to get to the ballpark on time, especially as a rookie. And then I had high school coaches and all of the people who remembered when you were dominating back then.
"So when you come back as a Major League player, they expect you to dominate like the last time they saw you, but it's not like that. Instead of hitting three or four home runs a game like you used to -- now, it's like, when you get on base one time a game, you're happy about it. And they're like, 'What's going on? What's the problem?'
"I remember feeling my best when I went out on the road, and that's when I figured out that I had to move out from my mom and dad's house, because I felt I was in more control of what I needed to do."
Larkin also needed to do something else.
First, he got a dog, and then he got some drums.
Just like that, with the aid of his labrador retriever named Keno and his poor-man's imitation of Ringo Starr, Larkin spent his sophomore and junior seasons with the Reds winning two of his nine Silver Sluggers. He led Cincinnati to a World Series championship in 1990.
Five years later, Larkin was named the National League's Most Valuable Player, and he was on his way to capturing three Gold Gloves.
But back to that dog.
After bolting his parents' home, Larkin moved into an apartment with a teammate. "That didn't work out, because he was struggling like I was, and I couldn't just download and vent to him and not get anything back. So it was either go back to living with my parents at their house and venting and having them tell me that everything's OK and that, 'You're going to get six hits tomorrow,' or moving into an apartment by myself."
Well, with Keno, too, and Keno always was there with a happy look and a wagging tail whenever Larkin had something to say.
As for the drums, don't get the wrong idea. Larkin hadn't a clue of how to play them, and he had no desire to learn. It was all about releasing. When those bad times came at the ballpark, he would return home, crank up his stereo as high as his neighbors could stand it and then bang on his drums just shy of finger cramps.
"The dog was unconditional love, because regardless of whether I got three hits or no hits or made two errors and struck out three times, he was glad to see me," Larkin said. "And I got the drums after a teammate told me that one way to relieve those 0-for-fours was to knock a hole in a wall, turn the music up really loud and play the drums until you just sweated it out.
"I still have those drums to this day."
Whatever Pete Rose used in his day, it also worked. He was the original Larkin by growing up in Cincinnati as a faithful Reds follower before prospering with the hometown team.
The difference between Rose and Larkin is that Rose left the Reds through free agency after 16 seasons. Plus, even though Rose is Cooperstown worthy as baseball's all-time hits leader, he has that little matter of banishment from the game for gambling.
Cal Ripken Jr. is nearly a Rose and a Larkin.
Ripken's hometown of Aberdeen, Md., is 35 miles north of Baltimore, and he spent 21 seasons as a Hall of Fame infielder for an Orioles franchise that he adored virtually from birth.
You also have two current players with the potential of becoming a Rose and a Larkin. There is Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer, a native of nearby St. Paul, Minn. He is well decorated after an AL MVP Award, three Gold Gloves and four trips to the All-Star Game in eight seasons.
Then there is Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann, who grew up 30 miles to the east of Atlanta in Duluth, Ga. After five full seasons with the Braves, McCann has four Silver Sluggers
Give or take a few others, that's about it.
So Francouer should shrug and move on with the rest of his life -- you know, away from Atlanta.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.