By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
BUFFALO, NY – When Jeff Francis was about to embark on his journey in professional baseball for the very first time he thought it was going to be with the Toronto Blue Jays, long before he joined the organization this off-season.
The day before Major League Baseball’s first-year player draft began in 2002, the Blue Jays called the 21-year-old left-handed hurler and student at the University of British Columbia, and told Francis that if he was still available when they picked 14th, he was going to be their man.
“I thought, I’m getting drafted by the Blue Jays, that’s pretty cool,” the now-34-year-old said.
But by the time Toronto’s turn rolled around, Francis had already been scooped up by the Colorado Rockies, who had their turn at selection five picks earlier and offered the southpaw $1.85 million to try and reach his baseball dreams in a Colorado uniform.
“The morning of, the Rockies called my agent,” the North Delta, BC native said. “I guess they were trying to draft someone else and maybe it wasn’t working out or something and they picked ninth and they asked me, ‘If we drafted you, would you sign for this?’ And I said yes without hesitation. That’s how the money enters in. I wasn’t looking to negotiate up another five or 10%.”
Francis did two things right away with his newfound (and not negotiated) wealth – he paid off his parents’ house and he bought a Yukon.
“To me, it was about the opportunity to play pro ball,” he said. “To say that money is not a factor is a lie, but it wasn’t going to keep me from playing. I probably got less money in that slot than lots of people drafted after me, but that doesn’t mean I prioritize money less than other people. That just means that I said yes without negotiating.”
The draft class in 2002 was one of Canada’s best. Before Francis, fellow west coaster and Surrey, BC native Adam Loewen was selected fourth overall – the highest a Canadian-born player had ever been taken in the draft – by the Baltimore Orioles. In the second round, Joey Votto (Etobicoke, Ont.) was the Cincinnati Reds pick, not long before Jesse Crain (Toronto, Ont.) was taken by the Minnesota Twins.
“I knew Adam,” Francis said. “I had heard about Joey Votto through friends of mine at UBC who were from Toronto. I had people tell me, ‘Watch out for this Votto kid, he’s a good player.’ I didn’t know Jesse until later. I knew Russ [Martin, selected in the 17th round] and of course Adam and Joey. They were the two I really knew about.”
Still active and playing professional baseball out of that draft class are Chris Leroux (Mississauga, Ont.), Luke Carlin (Aylmer, Que.), Scott Mathieson (Langley, BC), Martin (Montreal, Que.), George Kottaras (Markham, Ont.), Jonathan Malo (Laval, Que.) and Karl Gelinas (Iberville, Que.). Overall, 48 Canucks were chosen during the selection process 13 years ago.
Francis recalls the days leading up to the draft vividly, feeling pressure and trying to take things in stride.
“I remember a lot about it,” he said. “It was a lot of attention. There was a lot of demand on my time. My parents did a good job of fielding a lot of that at their house. I was living at UBC and if I had to meet with a scout or something we did it there. I would just drive home and do it and go back to live and go to school and stuff.
“I remember having to take a lot of time to myself and really not try to put pressure on myself. I knew I was going to get drafted one way or another, and how high I didn’t know. In my mind, I was going to play pro ball. That was my goal, and either way that was going to happen. So I tried to take the pressure off.”
Francis also remembers the attention revolving around he and Loewen together, and the idea that two of the top picks in the draft could be coming from north of the border. No Canadian-born players have been selected as high as either left-hander was that year, let alone having two picks in the top 10 out of Canada.
In consideration for the country’s next-best class would have to be 2007, when Phillippe Aumont (Gatineau, Que.) was selected 11th overall by the Seattle Mariners, Kyle Lotzkar (Tsawwassen, BC) was taken 53rd by the Cincinnati Reds, and Trystan Magnuson (Vancouver, BC) was picked by the Toronto Blue Jays 56th overall. Ten Canucks were taken in the first 10 rounds that year, with 33 altogether.
The others selected in the first 10 rounds were: C Lars Davis (Grande Prairie, Alta.) in the third, selected by the Rockies; RHP Mitch Hodge(Vancouver, BC), fourth, Kansas City Royals; RHP Evan Hildebrandt (Abbotsford, BC), sixth, Cincinnati Reds; RHPGuillaume Leduc(Boucherville, Que.) sixth, New York Mets; OF Tim Smith (Toronto, Ont.) seventh, Texas Rangers; RHP Chris Kissock (Fruitvale, BC), ninth, Philadelphia Phillies and C Joel Collins(Richmond Hill, Ont.) Toronto Blue Jays.
This year’s draft class should be the best since Francis and Loewen’s, with OF Demi Orimoloye (Orleans, Ont.), 1B Josh Naylor (Mississauga, Ont.) and RHP Mike Soroka (Calgary, Alta.) as the three-headed monster coming out of high school and the Canadian Junior National team program, and Arizona State LHP Ryan Kellogg (Whitby, Ont.), Virginia SS Daniel Pinero (Toronto, Ont.), plus high school OFs Miles Gordon (Oakville, Ont.), and Tristan Pompey (Milton, Ont.) not far behind.
“I knew Adam was [going to be selected high] of course,” Francis said of 2002. “He and I were interviewed together a lot of times. We were the same story. That’s how I got to know him. When I met him the first time it was when we went to get our pictures taken or something.
“And then of course on draft day, our interviews were right across the street from each other so that we could meet up for photos. It was a big deal. I look back at it now and I think, it shouldn’t have been that big a deal.”
“I don’t know,” Francis said. “Because it’s just the draft. It’s not the major leagues. One day we’re doing interviews together, we’re getting our pictures taken, we’re celebrities, and the next day we’re riding the buses in the Northwest League anonymously. It’s just not that big of a deal, in retrospect.”
Going from being one of the top players in an entire country to being just another minor-league body with a major-league organization was somewhat of a shock for Francis.
“When I was a rookie it was eye-opening to be honest,” the lefty said during spring training with the Blue Jays. “Just because there’s so much more to experience than I ever really understood. The guys who have played a long time, they’re not just really good ballplayers – they have a lot of experience and they have a lot of knowledge, even if they’re dummies.
“When you play the game a long time, you learn a lot of things, you see a lot of things, and there are a lot of different types of personalities. I don’t think I ever really understood that until I got forced into it.
In regular life, if there’s someone you don’t like, you just stay away from them. In this environment, you don’t have a choice. You have to learn how to love those people. It’s a certain skill ballplayers learn.”
There are, of course, a lot of relationships Francis has made over his 13 seasons in professional baseball that he cherishes and believes will last a lifetime.
“In my case, especially in the minor leagues,” he said. “I played on a couple of teams that as a group we moved up together and we played a lot of years together. With the Rockies there was a group of guys, and there are a lot of guys I still keep in touch with. You go through a lot together. It’s like having a family. You go through highs, you go through lows, and there’s a certain bond with those people that it’s like family. It sounds cliché and dumb, but it’s true.”
Entering his 14th pro season, first with the Toronto Blue Jays organization, Francis is a member of the Buffalo Bisons rotation at the Triple-A level. He will make his first start on Tuesday at Coca-Cola Field against Pawtucket. The Bisons host Adam Loewen’s Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs for a four-game series starting Thursday.
“I always knew it was the most likely option,” Francis said of starting in Buffalo. “But I was in [big-league spring training] camp until just at the very end. They took a good look at me I guess. I wasn’t surprised when they sent me down, and I wasn’t angry or upset. There might be opportunities later on in the season.”