ATLANTA -- When Jeff Francoeur strolled to the plate as a pinch-hitter during the eighth inning of Monday's Opening Day game against the Nationals, it was as if time stood still. The raucous hero's welcome he received served as a reminder that many fans still view him in the same beloved manner that they had back in 2005, when the hometown kid homered in Major League debut.
"Coming back, when I went up to bat [on Monday], I think it truly meant more to me than my first game here, when I walked up to the plate and hit a home run -- just from the sole fact of where everything has gone and where I've been," Francoeur said. "To finally come back here, it's like I never gave up."
Those who knew Francoeur as the suburban Atlanta multisport high school phenom who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated a month after making his big league debut did not anticipate how the script unfolded over most of the past decade. There was no reason to believe this kid who was destined for stardom would be forced to navigate a humbling path and eventually return home with extreme appreciation for his new role as a backup outfielder for the Braves.
"Now I'm going to be ready to do whatever I have to do," Francoeur said. "I didn't always have that attitude."
Seven years after seeing his first tenure with the Braves end with an unexpected midseason trade to the Mets, the 32-year-old Francoeur understands that he put far too much pressure on himself -- especially when his offensive production began to decline in 2008. During the ensuing journey with six other Major League clubs (the Mets, Rangers, Royals, Giants, Padres and Phillies) and one Minor League affiliate (the El Paso Chihuahuas), Francoeur found himself and benefited from a harsh wakeup call delivered by his wife.
Catie Francoeur has been part of this journey dating back to the days she shared with Jeff at Parkview High School. She has lived the highs, dealt with the lows and brought the couple's two children into the world. Along the way, she has been a patient and supportive spouse who has been willing to point out harsh realities when necessary.
During the early stages of the 2014 season at the Triple-A level for the Padres, Francoeur and his El Paso teammates traveled to Las Vegas for a three-game series that coincided with Easter weekend. After watching Jeff's batting average dip below .200 with an 0-for-5 performance in a lopsided Chihuahuas victory, Catie helped Jeff get back on the path that has brought him to this second chance with the Braves.
"I'll never forget it," Francoeur said. "She was like, 'Hey listen, get your head out of your [butt], and play if you want to play. If not, we need you at home to be a dad to start the next part of your career.' It hit me like a ton of bricks. I was like, 'Holy crap.' When we flew out the next day and went to Sacramento, it was a new me."
After being humbled by the experience of spending most of 2014 in the Minors, Francoeur was rejuvenated by the confidence and comfort he regained while spending all of last season appreciating every plate appearance he had as a backup outfielder for the Phillies.
The past two years have unexpectedly ushered Francoeur toward the chance to experience a happy ending and savor moments like Monday, when he listened to the loud ovation, gathered himself long enough to draw a walk and crossed the plate with a run that gave the Braves a short-lived lead.
"It was honestly overwhelming," Francoeur said. "When they started cheering for me, I was like, 'Oh my, I still have to hit.' I can't just wave my hat and walk off. It would have been a perfect ending to win that game, but it doesn't always happen like that."
At this stage, Francoeur can appreciate what happens, even if the script does not unfold as perfectly as envisioned.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.