Jeff Francoeur, the stories told, was one of the most likeable players in baseball. A born-again Christian, the Georgia prep star once rose to fame with his local Atlanta Braves and graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. His career took a downturn for a few years and after being dumped by the Texas Rangers, Francoeur re-emerged in Kansas City in 2011 to become a fan-favorite and a Gold Glove nominee. Yahoo!'s David Brown would write how Jeff Francoeur had 20 pizzas delivered to Oakland Athletics fans during a game and how he "threw a signed baseball into the stands with a $100 bill wrapped in a rubber band." Lee Judge shared the amusing anecdote of Francoeur taking batting practice wearing only pink cleats and underwear. Kevin Kaduk would write about a special moment Jeff Francoeur shared with an autistic child who came out to watch Francoeur. Did you enjoy the uplifiting story, the tale of a man who responded to adversity by becoming one of the most popular players in the game? If so, stop reading.
Wikipedia lists Jeff Francouer as being born January 8, 1984 in Atlanta, Georgia. There is no Social Security Administration record of his birth in Atlanta or elsewhere in Georgia. There is no birth record in the state of Georgia and no birth announcement in any Georgia newspaper.
The pictures of Francoeur - in news articles, TV reports, and the Royals official media guide - are pictures from the social media account of a former collegiate baseball player by the name of Joel Gload (a distant relative of former Royals first baseman Ross Gload). He has never played for the Atlanta Braves. He has never played for the Kansas City Royals. He has never appeared in a Major League game.
Here is what we know about the Kansas City Royals. There was a right-fielder that played for them last year. He hit .235/.287/.378 in 603 plate appearances and played by most defensive metrics, poorly in right-field. But that's where the definite ends. From here, the rest of the public story of "Jeff Francoeur" begins to grade into fantasy, in the tradition of so much of Royals mythmaking and with the help of a compliant political cartoonist.
Mentions of "Jeff Francoeur" first began in 2002 when the Atlanta Braves supposedly made him their first round pick. Francoeur was reported as a prep star out of Parkview High School in Lilburn, Georgia. A search of student records at Parkview found no such student was ever enrolled there. The hype machine began early for Francoeur with Baseball America listing him on their Top 100 prospects list for three years in a row, listing him as high as their 14th best prospect in 2005. We contacted a member of the Rome Braves, one of the minor league teams Francoeur was alleged to have played for. He indicated that he never had a teammate named "Jeff Francoeur", only that he and his teammates were always hearing about this player, and were told that Francoeur was being shuttled between levels and would be joining Rome soon.
During this time, Dayton Moore was a young Atlanta Braves executive, working his way through the minor league development branch of the front office. It was at this time he befriended Ned Yost, a Braves assistant coach. Moore had come to the Braves out of George Mason University, where he had played second base and served as an assistant coach. After scouring the rosters, we noticed an obscure player on the 1993 George Mason club, when Moore was serving as assistant coach. His name? Jason Francoeur.
Photos of Jeff Francoeur began surfacing as he was reported to reach the upper minor leagues of the Braves farm system, shortly before he made his Major League debut. It was at this time that Joel Gload was winding down his collegiate career at the University of South Florida. Gload would set up a Facebook account in 2004, and in 2005 images from his account began appearing in news reports about "Jeff Francoeur."
So who was the man that homered on July 7, 2005, when Francoeur was reported to have made his Major League debut? The accounts of a few eyewitnesses who attended that Braves game insist the home run never happened. Cubs players who participated in the game insist they were not paying close enough attention to events of the game to notice who hit what home run. One source confirms with us it was a story concocted by Braves officials - possibly including Dayton Moore - to weave a narrative about a local kid success story.
The charade was allowed to go on with a complicit Atlanta media and a fanbase too fixated on SEC football to pay close attention to what was happening on the baseball field. in 2006, Dayton Moore left the Atlanta Braves to become General Manager of the Kansas City Royals and by 2008 the ruse became too difficult to continue without him. The numbers didn't add up. In the summer of 2009, the Braves traded him to the New York Mets.
A source with Mets confirms the team immediately realized the hoax, but rather than admit the embarrassing fact they had acquired a player that did not exist, they tried their best to continue the fraud. By mid-season, they were able to pawn "Francoeur" to the Texas Rangers, who also immediately realized the hoax, but covered it up to avoid a distraction during a post-season run. They let "Francoeur" go at the end of the season and it seemed as if the ruse would finally die out.
Then came Kansas City.
Dayton Moore reportedly signed Jeff Francoeur in December of 2010. By this time Ned Yost, Dayton's friend in Atlanta, had been named manager of the Royals. A friend of Dayton Moore told us he was "80 percent sure" Dayton was "in on it." The sheer quantity of falsehoods about Francoeur make that friend believe Moore had to have known the truth. Mostly, though, the friend simply couldn't believe that Moore would be stupid enough to sustain the relationship for nearly a year and then offer him a contract extension, although some fans dispute that notion.
How did the Royals manage to pad "Jeff Francoeur's" statistical totals? In 2011, the source claims some of Billy Butler's offensive statistics were secretly recorded for "Jeff Francoeur." But after Butler protested, the club ended that practice in 2012, which helps explain the perceived surge in performance by Butler.
So who was standing out in right field? "Jeff Francoeur" was typically played by little-used outfielder Mitch Maier. "Most fans aren't close enough to see the difference," claims the source. "And other nights they simply didn't play anyone out there. They just wasted four at-bats a game in the lineup and allowed anything hit to right-field to drop for a hit. Most fans just accepted the non-performance as typical Royals play."
According to the source, Royals telecasts used quick cuts and CGI to superimpose Gload's face on Maier's body. This claim explains why Maier was reported to have so little playing time last year despite being on the roster much of the season. We called a cellphone for Maier, but he was not returning calls and his voicemail indicated he was "away at camp."
By mid-season, Maier was no longer willing to go along with the charade and was summarily dismissed by the team and replaced by Chris Getz. Getz was reported to be out for the year on a freak injury from a bunt, but the entire injury was concocted by the Royals to free up Getz for his Francoeur performance. For 2013, the Royals had planned to use minor leaguer Wil Myers to "play" Francoeur, but when the prospect refused, he was traded to Tampa Bay.
A compliant Kansas sports media seemed all too willing to play along because the story provided ample material to work with in an otherwise depressing Royals season. Most complicit was Kansas City Star political cartoonist Lee Judge who seemingly wrote columns every week detailing amusing Francoeur anecdotes. In this video, Judge even appears to have a conversation with Francoeur about hitting. But a source revealed to us that Judge was talking to a green screen, and that images from Gload's Facebook account were used to manipulate a CGI image of Francoeur.
There was no Jeff Francoeur. Jeff Francoeur did not make any Baseball America Top 100 Prospect lists. Jeff Francoeur did not grace the cover of Sports Illustrated. Jeff Francoeur did not finish third in Rookie of the Year balloting, win a Gold Glove, or earn money as a paid spokesperson for Delta Airlines. He did not purchase pizzas for Oakland fans, toss a $100 bill into the stands, meet a child with autism, or take batting practice in underwear and pink cleats.
UPDATE: The Kansas City Royals respond:
On Dec. 26, Royals executives were informed by Dayton Moore that he had been the victim of what appears to be a hoax in which someone using the fictitious name "Jeff Francoeur" apparently ingratiated himself with Dayton and then conspired with others to lead him to believe he was a valuable Major League player. The organization immediately initiated an investigation to assist Dayton in discovering the motive for and nature of this hoax. While the proper authorities will continue to investigate this troubling matter, this appears to be, at a minimum, a sad and very cruel deception to entertain its perpetrators.
UPDATE: Dayton Moore's statement
This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed a baseball relationship with a man I met online. We maintained what I thought to be an authentic baseball relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to believe he was a very valuable baseball player. To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating. am enormously grateful for the support of my family, friends and Royals fans throughout this year. To think that I shared with them my happiness about this great player and statistics that I thought to be true about him just makes me sick. I hope that people can understand how trying and confusing this whole experience has been. In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious. If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was. Fortunately, I have many wonderful things in my life, and I'm looking forward to putting this painful experience behind me as I focus on preparing for the 2013 MLB season.