Young stars share special bond

Young Braves bonded by baseball, friendship

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- As they prepare for another yet season together, Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur are together realizing a dream that may have seemed far too unrealistic to script.

Best friends since the age of 12, they find themselves as two of the most popular and talented players that their hometown Braves have to offer. As youths, they honed their skills together on sandlots across Georgia. And now at the age of 23, they share the now-realistic dream of playing in many All-Star games together.

"It's so neat to be up here and to be able to do this for a living," Francoeur said. "I don't think the fans realize how much we appreciate playing baseball for a living."

When Francoeur finds a way to use the term "neat" at least 10 times during the course of a five-minute interview, you're reminded that he and McCann weren't even born in 1983 when Dale Murphy captured his second consecutive National League MVP Award.

It's Francoeur's youthful exuberance that has always been so appealing to the mild-mannered McCann. From the time they began playing on youth All-Star teams together, their Type A and Type B personalities have created a perfect match.

"I was always so upbeat and in his face," Francoeur said. "And he was just always so calm and like, 'This guy is crazy.' But we got along so well. He's always done a great job of complementing the other side of me."

While Francoeur was busy being a two-sport stud at Parkview High School in the northeastern suburbs of Atlanta, McCann was down the street at Duluth High School, producing his own standout baseball career.

Still, their friendship continued to blossom. It never bothered McCann that he was left in the shadows of Francoeur, who was Georgia's state player of the year in both baseball and football.

Nor did McCann gain any animosity in June 2002, when he was selected in the second round by the Braves, who less than an hour earlier had tabbed Francoeur as their first-round selection.

"We've know each other since we were 12 years old, and that plays a big part," McCann said. "The minute you start getting jealous of somebody is the minute you stop doing your own job."

If jealousy was going to wreck this friendship, it would have already done so. After making the cover of Sports Illustrated in August 2005, it was Francoeur who found himself finally taking a back seat in terms of accomplishments to McCann.

Fueled by the momentum of the home run he hit off of Roger Clemens in the 2005 Division Series, McCann enjoyed a remarkable 2006 season that enabled him to be regarded among the game's elite catchers. While hitting .333 with 24 homers in 130 games, he participated in his first All-Star Game and was awarded with his first Silver Slugger Award.

While the trophies and honors he's earned throughout his remarkable athletic career are countless, Francoeur has never experienced or gained the accolades bestowed upon McCann last year.

"I don't think he's hidden anymore," Francoeur said. "I think people know who he is. It's always fun to watch him play and it would be neat to play with him for a long time."

Obviously, these words prove that last year's role reversal did nothing to harm their friendship.

"It's never been a point of matching for me," Francoeur said. "I'm his biggest fan. I'm just so happy about what he did last year. That was a career year for him. I knew it was just a matter of time before he did that."

When they arrived in the Majors a month apart during the middle of the 2005 season, McCann used to tell of how Francoeur would climb fences to deny a homer one half-inning and then come back the next half-inning to hit a towering game-winning homer over that same portion of the outfield wall.

To McCann, Kyle Davies, Macay McBride and other Georgia high school athletes, Francoeur was a bit of a legend. But as the legend thinks back to those days, he remembers knowing that there would definitely come a day when McCann would be glorified at the Major League level.

"Brian has always been a better pure hitter than me," Francoeur said. "I always had more of the raw power and could hit the 600-foot homer, but he always had the sweet swing."

It's McCann's picture-perfect left-handed swing that has many believing that McCann will be a .300 hitter for many years to come. And it's Francoeur's violent and powerful swing that has some wondering if he'll have trouble finding any sense of consistency.

Francoeur burst upon the scene in 2005, when in 257 at-bats, he hit .300 with 14 homers. The production he displayed in the final three months of that season enabled him to be a member of Team USA in last year's inaugural World Baseball Classic.

Participating in the Classic forced Francoeur to miss almost three full weeks of camp last spring. That may have been a reason that he started his first full Major League season with just two hits in his first 36 at-bats. But from there he righted himself enough to finish the season with 29 homers and 103 RBIs, enabling him to join Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews as the only players in franchise history to post a 100-RBI season before their 23rd birthday.

"I want him to succeed just as much as anybody," McCann said. "How many guys, at 22 years old, hit 29 homers, have 100 RBIs and play Gold Glove defense?"

Like their friendship, success has done nothing to wreck the amiable personalities possessed by both Francoeur and McCann.

"They are down to earth and I don't ever see them changing," said McBride, who knew both Francoeur and McCann when they were all playing high school baseball in Georgia.

If anything has changed McCann and Francoeur, it's the fact that both have recently gotten engaged. Francoeur has bought his own house and no longer will room with his buddy back in Atlanta this season.

But during the six weeks they'll spend at Spring Training this year, Francoeur and McCann are once again living together. Just like old times, they're spending their evenings lounging on their couches, watching movies or whatever may be of interest on television.

"It is weird when you think that it was just five years ago that we were coming down here for our first Spring Training," Francoeur said. "And now you're up here as starters. It's neat."

And with the latest utilization of the term "neat," you're once again reminded that they're both just 23 and already they've realized an unrealistic dream that will likely just get better with time.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.