The Legend of Jeff Francoeur's Leadership Needs to Die

This originally ran on Thursday, July 8th.

If you want to know how to approach the game, teammates or life, watch Jeff Francoeur.

He leads by example.

- Lee Judge, Judging the Royals 06/02/11 Kansas City Star


That was the dramatic conclusion of Lee Judge's June 2nd "Judging the Royals" game report for the KC Star. It's been a good year for Judge. He went viral by getting beaned by a pitching machine and seemingly every time I go on the Star's online sports section, I accidentally end up on the ever more prominently featured Judging the Royals portal. It isn't really my thing, but I do think it's an interesting conceit to build a blog around. A quick glance at the scoring system reveals numerous problems of both valuation and scaling, but... in the end, we're all just wasting our primes talking about sports anyway, right? Live and let live.

However... Judge telling his readers that Jeff Francoeur, in any way, gives lessons on how to approach life, LIFE, is one of the most preposterous things I've seen in some time. Yet, it isn't in any way surprising. We've been told by those in the know, from the beginning, that Francoeur is a tremendous leader, a paragon of... of... of well things that are good and inspiring and just right about the world. We've heard this so much that it sounds normal.

The legend of Jeff Francoeur's leadership won't die. However, that legend appears to hold no connection to any discernible results, either from Francoeur's teams or his own career. Worse still, the myth of Francoeur's value as some kind of lesson to fans and readers (nevermind fellow players) is a deeply insulting one that holds us, the readers, in contempt. A myth that assumes we are lazy ne'er-do-wells in need of a kick in the pants to make something of our miserable and pathetic lives. Francoeur the player is harmless and probably even laudable in some completely generic sense. Francoeur the media creation is a burden on our daily discussions of the Royals and Major League baseball generally. However, in a larger sense, Francoeur is just a placeholder, a name that can be auto-filled into hundreds of thousands of sports stories written in the last hundred years.

Since the piece was posted, the Royals have gone 1-5. Even after last night's three hit game, Francoeur is hitting just .231/.222/.269 since his pregame chat with Judge. In a backwards way, he is leading by example. Judge's primary example of Francoeur's clubhouse leadership is a heartening story about Francoeur taking BP in his underwear, with reference to a previous time in which he did the same fully nude. Really, that's the example. Still, this is progress of a sort, as we often never get any tangible examples of great veteran leadership.

If you want to know how to approach the game, teammates or life, watch Jeff Francoeur.

Judge's example of Francoeur's Francoeurness is worth looking at in greater detail:

When the players had to wear pink shoes and use pink bats on a Sunday (everybody was dragging after a night game), Jeff picked everybody by taking BP in his new pink cleats and his underwear. He told me that was nothing: after a prolonged losing streak in the National League, Jeff said he was going to break the streak by taking nude BP (he used the indoor cage), hitting in nothing but his shoes and a pair of batting gloves. His teammates howled and then went out and scored 11 runs.

Jeff Francoeur is 27 years old and these are his go-to moves. These are moves that are raved about. The product is awful, but the fact that it's being peddled is even worse. And again, it's not just about Lee Judge. Judge is just the guy who was fated to write this particular story on that particular day. I don't mean to isolate Judge, I mean to isolate the rhetoric Judge used, which is widespread generally and ubiquitous when it comes to this player. There are fifteen guys standing behind Lee Judge waiting to write that story. There are a hundred "baseball men" in the stands and in front offices waiting to tell that story. You can tell how pervasive the approval for this kind of utterly meaningless behavior is by how clearly Judge had no hesitation in praising it. And all of that is cool and all, if people wanna think male nudity is inherently funny, and then we assume that laughter equals better performance. Baseball's not alone in that regard on the first matter, just ask Will Farrell. However, the Hollywood press isn't lecturing to me that Farrell's various grotesquely posed characters are giving me life lessons. And I'm sure Michael Scott would strongly believe that making people laugh makes them better workers.

 

I can't look back at what happened during the second instance, like a good urban legend the details are too hazy. We do, however, know what happened when the Royals wore pink on a Sunday this season, when "Jeff picked everybody [up?]" with his antics. That was on Mother's Day, May 8th. That day they went out and lost to the Athletics 5-2. They managed just six hits all game and committed two errors. Thank goodness Francoeur was there. Everyone was dragging and he lifted them up.

In addition to semi-naked BP, we're also told of a time that Francoeur was nice to Louis Coleman, about how he ran hard on a triple, and about how he demanded that some pictures of minor league prospects be taken down. (There's an obvious selfish subtext to the latter, which of course was completely glossed over.)

Since Mother's Day, that magical moment of Francoeur leadership, the Royals are 8-21. Since May 8th, Francoeur has hit .257/.298/.354. We're often told that sports is all about results, which makes it some kind of fantasy land of pure free market meritocracy. Pampered academics, like I used to be, obviously would fail miserably within the crucible that is unfettered competition. All lesser men who can't measure up to some Teddy Roosevelt gladiatorial image of masculinity from the Strenuous Age shall crumble in the arena. This line of thinking dominates our sports thinking, which is why every championship game or round or series somehow becomes more about who is clutch or who choked than who actually won.

Well, what has been the result of all of Francoeur's good works? What has been the payoff for how nice he's been? For how encouraging he's been? For that time he was really funny? The Royals keep losing and Francoeur is, when everything in his flawed game goes right, an average player. How is he competing and winning?

How would Lee Judge, or your average over-macho sportswriter, respond to the fundamentals of the Francoeur narrative, only one about a struggling middle school teacher somewhere, doing what she can to get a pretty rag tag group of students to do better. This teacher is kind, understanding, and works hard. She took extra time to encourage little Sally on the day that Sally forgot her backpack and started crying. They'd point to the test scores and say, "all of that touchy feely stuff is important, and I appreciate that, but I care about results!" What would the reaction be to a salesman who is really funny around the office, just the nicest guy you'd ever meet, and a devoted family man... with middling sales figures. Would anyone be defending him? Demanding he gets a second chance? Talking about he leads his company to success?

Francoeur's individual results are middling and his ability to alter the team's fortunes as a whole appear to be non-existent or even deleterious. You could easily write a "Since Antics, Royals Have Slumped" story here, one that would much better fit the facts.

It's amazing that stats guys are consistently mocked for not living in the real world, for imagining that these guys aren't human, for dismissing the "feel" of the game and ignoring what has really happened. "Do you even watch the games ?" we're mocking asked. Indeed.

So what is the lesson for life that Francoeur's example truly gives us? Well, he does offer sparkling and spectacular evidence that one should be nice to reporters. Unfortunately, that applies to basically none of us. He also reminds us that, if you work in a heavily bilingual environment, it's good to be one of the English speakers. Fair enough. And finally, he's generically a hard worker. When I get off the train tomorrow at 8:45 I'll be able to throw a rock and hit six hard workers with one throw. People work hard. Marginally useful I guess to be reminded of this.

Unfortunately, most of our lives suck not because we don't work hard enough, but because we're simply mediocre and have been a little unlucky in life. But yea, work hard! Remember that 8th inning double that Francoeur stretched into a triple. Sure, he had roughly 100,000 people watching him in person and on TV, but remember that hustle when you have one last invoice to file at 4:25 on a Thursday afternoon in your office. Remember Francoeur's hustle when you're three hours in to a six hour shift at Target. Totally and 100% comparable situations.

Really, if we truly wanted to rhapsodize about the deep meaning of Francoeur, and turn his life into a short story with an easily identifiable payoff at the end, it would be something like this:

Impress someone when you are young, in this case, high school. Now, a big part of that is based off of how you look, how your body projects going forward. But smile a lot and be nice. Really connect with this older figure. Make impressing him priority number one. OK, great. Now take the next five or six years easy. Coast on what you have been able to do since 19. Hustle as you do it, but fundamentally do not change or expand your skillset. Don't worry about improving. Actually, feel free to get worse.

At some point, the person that you really impressed as a teenager, will get hired in a new location. He'll remember how awesome you were. Sure, your career has stalled and even regressed since those early days, but this person still loves  believes in you. He's got a position to fill and well, the job is totally yours if you want it. No questions asked, no pressure, guaranteed. He'll even pay you well. Just look at you, you still look as good as you did at 19. It's all there.

If you can't replicate this glorious scenario in your own life, you have no one to blame but yourself. Go die somewhere you sickening failure.

 

###

To attempt to learn more from the Book of Francoeur, I will be running a regular advice column on this site. Submit to us your problems, and I will, in all seriousness, look at Francoeur for answers.

 

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