Lucky Francis off to Dunedin healthy, happy

 * Jeff Francis, presented with an alumni award, at the 13th annual Baseball Canada banquet and fundraiser, iis headed to Dunedin this spring hoping to pitch for the Blue Jays this season and if not, then he'll be at triple-A Buffalo. Francis pitched for Ari Mellios and the North Delta Blue Jays before joining Terry McKaig's UBC Thunderbirds. ....


By Alexis Brudnicki You make your own luck.

Because of his humble nature and by way of his self-deprecating sense of humour, Jeff Francis might tell you he’s been lucky. And maybe he has in some respects, but there’s a lot more that goes into a 10-year big-league career and counting, a start in the World Series, multiple Team Canada appearances, and comebacks and callups along the way.

For what the 34-year-old southpaw has accomplished so far, Francis became the latest recipient of Baseball Canada’s Alumni Award, presented to him at the National Teams awards banquet and fundraiser on Saturday.

“It’s a huge honour,” he said. “It’s an alumni award; I don’t think they just pass it to anybody so I was really flattered. I told Greg [Hamilton, director of national teams] I was really honoured that he thought of me, and I appreciate it when he invites me every year to the banquet.”

Just grateful for the invite, Francis last appeared for Team Canada at the 2006 World Baseball Classic, also a member of the junior national squad in 1999. Though he hasn’t been able to wear the red-and-white uniform as much as he hoped, being a part of the Baseball Canada family remains a huge source of pride.

“I’ve had opportunities [to play for Team Canada] but more times than I’d like, I’ve said no because of other things – other baseball commitments or other reasons,” the veteran lefty said. “It’s a little bit of a regret because I love these guys; I love the program that Baseball Canada has.

“Hopefully there’s a time in the future when I can say yes. Everybody says how special it is to wear Canada [across your chest] and I have gotten to do that, but maybe not as much as I would have liked at this point.”

Francis continues to be an integral piece of the Baseball Canada puzzle, with his unwavering support and continued successes and accomplishments along the course of his career. His most recent signing could see him don a Canadian jersey again, agreeing to a minor-league deal with the Toronto Blue Jays at the end of October.

“He’s a guy who cares deeply about the national team program, he’s had a wonderful major-league career, and he’s just a class act through and through,” Hamilton said. “That’s reflective of the award that we’re giving him and hopefully we’re going to see him in a Blue Jays uniform this year, which would be special for everyone in the country.”

When Francis received the call from Toronto as soon as the free-agent signing period opened in the fall, the Vancouver, BC-born, London, Ont. resident quickly put pen to paper, excited at the idea of remaining in the area for the upcoming season.

“There are a lot of reasons,” Francis said. “It’s close to home and I have a little baby [coming] in February [to add to the Francis family of four plus one dog], so it won’t be easy to be far from home at spring training but Buffalo is close to home.

“And they called right after the World Series and they wanted me. If a team wants you, it’s worth a lot more. It just happened to work out that it’s close to home and I jumped right on it without hesitating.”

After spending 10 of his first 11 seasons with the Colorado Rockies organization, Francis played for three different clubs last year alone, and has spent some time over the last three seasons between the minor leagues and the majors, a different experience than he’d had previously.

“It’s hard,” Francis said of the process. “I’ve felt really lucky to be getting opportunities. A lot of it is probably because I’m left-handed. I’m realistic. I know that I haven’t totally earned everything, but I’ve been willing to go down to the minor leagues in order to try and earn my opportunities. And the last three years that’s worked for me.

“A lot of people aren’t willing to do those things, but they’re crazy in some ways. If they can still play and they’re still healthy and they can still have fun, it’s worth doing. You look at guys like Chris [Robinson, called up by the San Diego Padres after nine minor-league seasons] and Jamie [Romak, called up by the Los Angeles Dodgers after 12 seasons in the minors], who grind it out for years and finally get their opportunity.

“It’s kind of silly to say that I’m not going to go down to the minor leagues for a few months to try and earn another opportunity.”

Though Francis seems incredibly grateful at the thought of a chance in Triple-A now, the first time he had to return to the minor leagues was a tough transition for him.

“It was, of course,” he said. “It’s a different world. It’s humbling, especially when you’re not pitching well in the minor leagues after a career in the majors. But now I’m used to it. I’ve done it a few times and when I do get called up, it’s special like it was the first time.”

There are several factors that Francis believes have contributed to his tenure in the game so far.

“Part crazy, part drive and motivation,” the former first-round pick said. “I’ve been really lucky. I’ve had a lot of people help me stay healthy. I had one big injury and since then I’ve utilized the help of a lot of people to avoid those thing again.

“I’ve seen other people who I’ve played with fall off because maybe they don’t do some of the things that I’ve tried to maintain, so I like to think I’ve been proactive in a lot of ways, to stay on the field.”

There’s a lot Francis has learned along his journey, but he still has more baseball to play and there’s always more to take away from it while he can.

“It’s fleeting,” he said. “There are no guarantees. Whatever career you think you can have or you’re owed, you aren’t. That’s not to say that I was complacent early in my career. I appreciated every moment, but you won’t be able to do it forever. I’m not pitching at the level I once did, but I’m still happy doing it and I’m still healthy, so I’ve put in a lot of work and it’s too early to stop at this point.”