By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
When left-hander Jeff Francis and slugger Justin Morneau played together on the North Delta Blue Jays in grades 11 and 12, it was Francis who was the team’s cleanup hitter.
“I’m going to take that right to the Hall of Fame,” joked Francis, the former Colorado Rockies ace who was announced as the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s sole 2022 inductee on Wednesday.
Morneau, a 2020 Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee who was also on the Hall’s Zoom call on Wednesday, chuckled and reminisced about the history he shares with Francis that dates back to their high school days.
“That was back when I was still catching and Jeff wasn’t throwing as hard as he was once he got to college, I mean he was probably 20 pounds lighter, but he worked as hard as anybody I’d ever seen in high school just to put on strength,” recalled Morneau.
“But he was the best pitcher I’ve ever seen in high school. I think he lost one game in our two years there together. I’d set up on the outside corner and he could throw whatever pitch he wanted. I’d set up on the inside corner and he’d do the same. We just had a great working relationship.”
Morneau and Francis also played together on Team B.C. at the Baseball Canada Cup in 1998 and on the Junior National Team in 1999. And after long and successful big league careers, they will be teammates again on June 18 when they are inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont.
Francis was announced as the Hall’s only 2022 inductee on Wednesday, while Morneau is part of the 2020 class, which also includes legendary Montreal Expos broadcaster Jacques Doucet and former Toronto Blue Jays stars John Olerud and Duane Ward. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 inductees have yet to be honoured in an in-person ceremony.
“It’s one of those things where you never think you’re going to be able to share a moment like this with someone from that long ago in a situation where we had the same dreams and now we’re ending up in the same spot,” said Morneau of sharing the stage with Francis in St. Marys, Ont., in June. “It’s really a special thing.”
Like Morneau, Francis was born in 1981. He grew up in North Delta, B.C., while Morneau was raised in nearby New Westminster.
But unlike Morneau, who was drafted and signed by the Minnesota Twins out of high school in 1999, Francis elected to pitch at the collegiate level after graduating from the B.C. Premier League’s North Delta Blue Jays and the Junior National Team. From 1999 to 2002, Francis would star on the mound for the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds.
Following the 2001 collegiate season, the 6-foot-5 lefty went 7-1 in the highly competitive Alaskan Baseball League and captured the circuit’s Player of the Year honours. His performance convinced the Colorado Rockies to select him in the first round (ninth overall) in the 2002 MLB draft.
Francis was still honing his pitches in the Rockies’ minors when Morneau made his big league debut with the Twins in 2003. But in 2004, Francis, in his third season in the Rockies’ organization, enjoyed a breakout campaign. That year, he combined to go 16-3 with 2.21 ERA with 196 strikeouts in 154 2/3 innings in 24 starts for double-A Tulsa and triple-A Colorado Springs. His dominance earned him a big league call-up at the end of the season.
In 2005, in his first full MLB campaign, Francis won 14 games and struck out 128 batters in 183 2/3 innings in 33 starts and finished sixth in the National League Rookie of the Year voting.
Two seasons later, he posted career-highs in wins (17), starts (34), innings pitched (215 1/3) and strikeouts (165) to help propel the Rockies to the National League pennant. He made three postseason starts and became the first Canadian pitcher to start Game 1 of a World Series. For his efforts, he finished ninth in the National League Cy Young Award voting.
“I like the fact that I was part of one of the more memorable teams in Colorado,” said Francis of being on the 2007 Rockies squad. “I think even if the Rockies do win a World Series in the next few years, I think the 2007 team will be remembered as one of the most memorable Rockies teams and to be a big part of that to me was so satisfying. I spent a long time in Colorado and maybe had two or three really good statistical individual years, but to be a part of that team is one of the more gratifying memories of my career.”
And while Francis was evolving into an ace in Colorado, Morneau was winning the American League MVP Award in 2006, becoming a perennial all-star and developing into one of the most feared sluggers in the majors.
Unfortunately, because they played in different leagues, Morneau and Francis did not face off against each other until May 18, 2008 when the Twins visited the Rockies in an interleague game at Coors Field.
“We went in there and I remember Jeff’s mom was there and our high school manager, Mike Kelly, was there and he said, ‘The best outcome in this game would be if Justin goes 1-for-3 and hits a home run and Jeff gets the win.’ And that’s exactly what ended up happening,” recalled Morneau.
“I reached down and hit a ball down and away and that ball flies in right center field in Colorado and it just jumped over the fence. And it’s a weird thing to hit off a home run off someone where you have dreamt about this moment together and then all of a sudden you’re facing each other in a major league game.”
Those were the only two runs that Francis would permit in the 6 1/3 innings he tossed in that game. He picked up the win in the Rockies’ 6-2 victory.
Just under three years later, the two faced off again when Francis was pitching for the Kansas City Royals against the Twins at Target Field. Morneau went 0-for-3 against Francis, who hurled seven innings, that game. But the Twins won 4-3 in 10 innings.
“He got me a couple of times in that game,” said Morneau. “I think he changed his arm angle a little bit and struck me out on a slider.”
The B.C. teenage teammates would each play more than a decade in the majors. Francis threw his last big league pitch in 2015 and Morneau suited up for his final game the following year.
On top of his tenures with the Rockies and Royals, Francis also toed the rubber for the Cincinnati Reds, Oakland A’s, New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays during his big league career. He finished with 72 major league wins, which is the second-most by a Canuck left-hander. He also ranks second all-time among Canadian southpaws in games started (217) and innings pitched (1,291).
Francis, like Morneau, has also competed for the Canadian national team on multiple occasions, including with the Junior National Team in 1999, the World Baseball Classic squad in 2006 (with Morneau as his teammate again) and on the gold medal-winning team at the 2015 Pan Am Games.
“When I was going into my last year playing [professionally], my goal was to be able to play for Team Canada again because the Pan Am Games were on home soil in Toronto,” said Francis. “All winter leading up to it, that was my goal — to play in that. And the success we had just all came together and we won on one of the craziest baseball plays I’ve ever seen in my life. It was a walk-off, extra-inning win to win a gold medal. It was bonkers. So it’s easily a top-five highlight of my whole career.”
In 2016, Francis joined Morneau on Baseball Canada’s Wall of Excellence. Morneau had been honoured in 2010.
In recent years, both Morneau and Francis have helped out the national team program. Francis has served as a part-time pitching coach for the Junior National Team.
Now based in London, Ont., Francis also helps coach his daughter’s softball team and his two sons’ baseball teams. But neither Francis or Morneau see themselves coaching professionally any time soon. Right now, both are prioritizing being a husband and a father.
“I think I’ve tapped out from being far from home,” said Francis. “Being involved with Team Canada has allowed me to be involved in the game, but still be home. Having young children – I think Justin knows that, too – this is the time in our lives when we just want to be home. We have spent a lot of time away from home and these are those years where it’s so important that I’m involved with my kids’ baseball and even their soccer team, just as a father.”
Morneau feels the same way.
“I think Jeff said it well,” he said. “I think I’m a little bit busier than he is, as far as being involved in the game, doing 67 games as a colour broadcaster for the Twins last year . . . But like Jeff said, I think we’re in a very unique position that very few get to be in and that is to be around and watch our kids grow up and to be a part of their lives.”