TORONTO _ It has been far from straight, but the path of lefthander Jeff Francis has led him back north of the border, where as a collegian, he proved that yes, you can stay home in Canada and make it big.
The native of Vancouver, BC is now in his 11th year in the major and with his sixth team after becoming a first-round draft pick in 2002 and breaking in with the Colorado Rockies in 2004. The 34 year-old began his career with a splash, winning 44 games over his first three full seasons with the Rockies.
Francis won a career-high 17 games in 2007 season, helping lead Colorado to the franchise’s first World Series appearance. When he took the Fenway Park mound in Game 1 of the series against the Boston Red Sox, Francis became the first Canadian pitcher to start a World Series game since Reggie Cleveland with the 1975 Red Sox.
Francis remained with the Rockies until 2010, and has since seen time with the Kansas City Royals, another stint with the Rockies, as well as the Cincinnati Reds, Oakland A’s and the New York Yankees.
Francis wore the maple leaf in 2006 as a member of Team Canada at the inaugural World Baseball Classic, as the Canadians would defeat the Team USA and South Africa, yet were still unable to advance out of the first round with a 2-1 record, losing on run differential.
Nine years later, the southpaw is now a member of Canada’s Team, the Toronto Blue Jays, pitching north of the border for the first time since his days as a University of British Columbia Thunderbird in 1999 to 2002.
Francis was a highly sought after young prospect in those days, receiving multiple offers from power programs in the United States, but ultimately elected to stay close to home and attend UBC, after graduating from high school in nearby Delta, a suburb of Vancouver.
“For me, going to UBC was an opportunity to stay at home and play at the college level. UBC baseball was relatively new at the time, and I was excited by the idea of helping grow a new program,” Francis said outside the Blue Jays dugout before a game against the Baltimore Orioles as he reflected upon his decision to join head coach Terry McKaig’s squad.
But Francis isn’t just your typical ball player, graduating high school at the head of his class in Delta, BC. “I had a strong academic focus as well,” Says Francis, who studied physics and astronomy at UBC while mastering the strike zone for coach McKaig. “All things considered, I felt that attending UBC was the best choice for me.”
It didn’t take long, once he stepped foot on the UBC campus and put on the T-Bird uniform, for Francis to settle in and begin honing his craft further, with sights set on the next level.
“Everybody there was good to me and helped prepare me some way,” Francis said, singling out his coaches. “Most significantly it was Terry and [pitching coach] Adam Debray. They both taught me so much, and Terry is still one that I keep in touch with as often as possible.”
A smile spread across Francis’ face when he is asked about different teammates from his T-Bird years, “There are so many guys you think of,” he says. “Everybody on those teams. We made a lot of long lasting friendships during those years.”
Francis notes that the UBC baseball program does an outstanding job of keeping alumni close to the program, making it much easier to keep in touch and keep track of where former teammates are at in their lives and careers. Francis’ April 19th callup to the Blue Jays came at a fitting time, as it coincided with UBC Baseball alumni weekend at Thunderbird Park in Vancouver.
Good times aside, Francis was driven to achieve a goal saying “The question at the time was could a player stay in Canada and be found.”
Francis wasted no time in providing some foreshadowing that the answer to that question was soon to be provided, as at age 18, he recorded 12 strikeouts over eight innings of work against NAIA powerhouse Lewis-Clark State College, in his second start of his college career as a freshman in 1999.
It was in his junior year in 2001 when Francis began to put the whole arsenal together and truly asserted himself in conversations pertaining to the top prospects on the mound, and in baseball as a whole. During the 2001 season, Francis accumulated a record of 12-3 — his 12 wins are still a school record — while working to a miniscule 0.92 ERA.
Also school records were his six shutouts, and streak of 46 consecutive scoreless innings pitched. Francis ERA was the best recorded by a UBC starter until Conor Lillis-White (Toronto, Ont.) posted a 0.46 ERA in 2014.
Francis signed in the prestigious Alaska Baseball League, a summer-collegiate circuit that attracts many of college baseball’s premier talents, for the 2001 summer season. He was Alaska League Player of the Year honors, after turning in a 7-1 record, and being named MVP of the National Baseball Congress World Series, as a pick-up for the Anchorage Glacier Pilots.
Top baseball authorities were taking notice. The southpaw from up north could pitch, and excel, against anyone who stepped in against him.
He wasn’t alone in his pursuits, though. Fellow British Columbia hurler, Adam Loewen was also making waves on the west coast. The high school lefty was three years younger than Francis and graduated from high school in the nearby Vancouver suburb of Surrey, BC in 1998, and committed to Chipola College in Florida; the same school attended by Francis’ new Blue Jays teammates, Jose Bautista and Russell Martin.
By the time the 2002 college season arrived, eyes were focus firmly on the two BC arms, bringing a heightened awareness of Canadian baseball, and certainly providing the budding UBC baseball program a level of attention that they had never encountered before.
“We were getting a lot more attention around that time than we had previously.” Francis recalls. “It definitely felt good and was something to be proud of, that I was helping to raise the profile of the program.”
Francis 2002 senior year resulted in a 7-2 record, and 101 strikeouts in 75 innings, while he pitched before a large audience of scouts every time out.
With Francis fresh off of an illustrious career at UBC punctuated by a strong senior season, and Loewen turning heads with the Whalley Chiefs of the BC Premier Baseball League, both were highly touted and were expected to go very quickly in the 2002 June.
That they did.
Loewen was selected fourth overall by the Baltimore Orioles, and soon after, Francis went ninth overall to the Colorado Rockies. The two Canucks were selected ahead of the two best pitchers from pitching-rich state of Texas.
That question of whether Canadian talent could get noticed playing at home?
“I think Adam and I sufficiently answered that question.” Francis says with a sense of pride.
Francis reached the majors with the Rockies in 2004, and remained with them through 2010. Since then, he has bounced around somewhat and ultimately landed with the retooling Blue Jays in 2015. The 2008 inductee into the UBC Sports Hall of Fame says the wheels began to turn on the new opportunity last fall.
“It was after my release from the Yankees last August.” He begins. “I got a call from the Blue Jays after the World Series ended, offering me a job at triple-A in Buffalo. Whether it was in Buffalo or up here in Toronto, I was ready to come in and compete.”
“I also played for ‘Gibby’ [Blue Jays manager John Gibbons] in Kansas City, so that familiarity was definitely a plus,” said Francis, referring to the 31 starts he made for the Kansas City Royals in 2011, when the Blue Jays manager was the Royals bench coach under manager Ned Yost.
Francis began this season with the triple-A Buffalo, and it didn’t take long to receive that call up the road to Toronto. He started and pitched five scoreless innings for Buffalo on April 15, allowing just two hits and two walks while striking out five. Francis’ contract was selected by the Blue Jays on April 19, and he wasted no time in making a bid to stay with the big club.
In a relief appearance against Atlanta on April 19, Francis pitched 3 1/3 scoreless innings on two hits, two walks, and three strikeouts. In that outing, Francis pitched to catcher Martin (Montreal, Que.), forming the Blue Jays first all-Canadian battery.
Francis has continued to pitch well, currently holding a 3.60 ERA with 14 strikeouts over 10 innings in four appearances, picking up his first win with Toronto … and the 72nd of his career to move into seventh all-time among Canadians passing Erik Bedard (Navan, Ont.) and Rheal Cormier (Moncton, NB).
Francis joins a Blue Jays roster full of Canadian content, also outfielder Dalton Pompey (Mississauga, Ont.), outfielder Michael Saunders (Victoria, BC) and Martin.
Francis says while it is a good indicator for the strength of Canadian baseball today, it is not something that is considers too often.
“It’s not something that I think about too much,” said Francis. “It is definitely a story line and something we’re aware of, but when you’re in the clubhouse it doesn’t matter what your background is or what country you’re from; you’re all just ballplayers, you’re all just teammates.”
When asked about his plans for after his playing days come to an end, and whether there have been thoughts of potentially joining the coaching ranks back home in Vancouver someday?
“I don’t know, I really haven’t thought about it to be honest.” Francis says with a smile. “I guess that’s why I’m still playing.”
And he’s not getting sentimental just yet. “I think at the end of my career, I’ll look back on my time with the Blue Jays and really appreciate and be proud of what I’ve been able to do,” said Francis.
Jeff Francis helped establish a the UBC baseball program that has since grown into an NAIA power, has had a sustained lengthy major league career, has represented Team Canada, and is now with ‘Canada’s Team’.
When the time comes to be sentimental, there will be plenty for the lefty to examine, reflect upon and be proud of … from his days as a North Delta Blue Jay to his days with the Toronto Blue Jays.