By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
Jeff Francis is a pretty perfect personification of Baseball Canada.
Through his 14 professional seasons, with parts of 11 in the major leagues between the Colorado Rockies, Kansas City Royals, Cincinnati Reds, New York Yankees, Oakland Athletics and Toronto Blue Jays, of course there have been a few occasions when the North Vancouver, BC-born resident of London, Ont., has had to turn down playing in the red-and-white uniform, but each time he did so regrettably.
When the opportunity arose just a couple of years ago for the left-hander to take a place on the roster at the Pan Am Games right at home in Toronto, he couldn’t wait for the chance.
After signing minor-league deal with an invite to big-league camp that spring, Francis started the season with the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons. It wasn’t long before he was back in the majors with the Blue Jays, however, with a good reason for and potential to miss out on the Games and perhaps what could be his last shot at playing in the national team jersey.
But the 2002 ninth-overall pick of the Rockies will tell you the fates aligned when he returned to Buffalo – a thought very few players would have, even retrospectively – giving him the opportunity to return to Toronto in a different capacity and take the stage with his Canadian band of brothers.
“I wanted to be a part of it really badly,” Francis said. “There were a lot of times in my career where I had to turn down opportunities to play for Team Canada, and this one lined up perfectly, and I couldn’t wait to say yes. It turned out to be one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, so it was really good to be a part of it.”
After earning two saves in the tournament against the Dominican Republic and Cuba, Francis was called upon to start the gold-medal matchup between Canada and Team USA. It was a game that everyone very obviously cared about, and Francis – the Game 1 starter in the 2007 World Series – was almost unfathomably honoured and excited to get the ball.
“I’m not sure whether you’ll find a more humble person than Jeff Francis,” said Chris Robinson, longtime friend of Francis and Pan Am Games teammate. “It was neat, to extend from that, having Jeff start that final game.
“As crazy and nerve-wracking as it was, there was just that sense of calm that we had the best possible guy that we could even imagine on the mound right now. That was always a bit of a calming influence, but at the same time it was really cool. To see Jeff, a guy who’s played in the big leagues as long as Jeff has, care so much about that start and to have so much emotion, it sums up what Baseball Canada is.”
Victory was sweet, when Canada came out on top in the bottom of the 10th inning to secure back-to-back Pan Am Games triumphs, but it was sweeter for Francis because of the people he got to share it with. He hugged his teammates, got pictures with family members, and had his chance to thank the people who allowed him the opportunity the best way he could, with a win.
“I know a lot of the coaching staff pretty well, but never having experienced a victory or a championship like that, it was special,” the veteran southpaw said. “We all got to know each other a little better over that time.
“And as far as Greg [Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams] goes, the program at all at Baseball Canada wouldn’t exist the way it does if it weren’t for him. I don’t know how many ways we can say it, but we try. We owe a lot to Greg, all of us players, all of the coaches, and all of the people across Canada who play baseball. We owe a lot to Greg.”
While there’s little doubt that Hamilton would turn it back to Francis and voice the exact same sentiment, there was more to the tournament than its incredible end for the veteran hurler. The on-field experience was just a piece of the Pan Am Games that he enjoyed so much.
“It was so cool,” Francis said. “And the way we won it was super exciting – at home, in front of fans, extra innings, and on a pretty silly play. It was pretty cool, and very memorable. We met athletes from all over the Americas, not just Canada, from all different kinds of sports, and we learned a lot about what other athletes put themselves through too. That was eye-opening.”
Robinson had the chance to spend some time with Francis between games, together taking in the spectacles that the city had to offer, and delighting in the appreciation the pitcher had for the experience.
“I didn’t get to spend a ton of time on the national team with Jeff over the years, who’s become a really good friend,” Robinson said. “So I look back on that, and getting to walk around the [athletes’] village, and that was something that was really interesting to me, walking through the village with Jeff, and this is a guy who’s played in the big leagues for as long as Jeff has, and he was just in awe of it. Watching him react, I’ll always remember that dynamic and that was neat too.”
Added Francis: “The city of Toronto in the summer is second to none. Living in the athletes’ village, in the city, with athletes from all over the Americas, it was definitely different than just a regular baseball tournament. We met all kinds of different people from Canada and otherwise, and it was a very memorable experience.”
Francis, Robinson, and the rest of Team Canada are set to enter the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame this June, inducted for their accomplishments in Ajax, Ont., in July of 2015, with 24 total players and 10 coaches and supporting staff to be enshrined. Proud to make a mark in the Canadian game, Francis is hoping that their achievement is just the beginning of more to come.
“Time will tell,” he said. “Pan Am, as big as it is, it’s not the world stage. I don’t know if people outside baseball really pay attention or not, but it’s certainly a feather in our caps as far as Baseball Canada goes. They won it four years earlier, then we won it, and hopefully they can win it again and carry on the reputation of being one of the top four or five baseball countries in the world.”
Ecstatic to join the other members of the squad on the plaque that will represent them in the Hall – also hoping to be on hand at the ceremony in four months – Francis couldn’t have left a better legacy on his last tour with Team Canada.
“It exemplifies the team concept,” Francis said. “It’s fun to go into a tournament and not worry about individual accomplishments, and to win something as a team. That’s been as satisfying as anything I’ve done individually in my career.”