Jeff Francis was maybe the best pitcher in Driller history

Jeff Francis is one of the greatest pitchers in Tulsa Drillers history. In fact, he’s the only Drillers pitcher in the team’s 41-year existence who was named Minor League Baseball’s Player of the Year (2004). Following an 11-year career in Major League Baseball, Tulsa still holds a special place in the career highlights for Francis.

I interviewed the big left-hander last Thursday, while he was in town to be honored by the Drillers organization with a special Jeff Francis night at ONEOK Field. It was his first visit back to the downtown ballpark, since he made a couple of starts for the Drillers during a rehab assignment from the Colorado Rockies, in 2010.

Francis said he has a lot of great memories of pitching for the Drillers in 2004.

“I had a wave of success here that I was never able to quite match,” he said. “I think back on my time here very fondly. Not only here in this stadium (ONEOK Field) as a rehab player, but at the old Drillers Stadium. Not only did I have success, but we had a good team. We celebrated winning the first half in our home clubhouse. We were a pretty tight group and it was a fun team. I think back to my time in the minor leagues and Tulsa is up there with the best of them.”

Francis was called up to Colorado near the end of the 2004 season, and ultimately went on to spend 11 seasons in the majors with six different teams. The first few years were the best years for Francis, as in 2007, he was the ace of the Rockies staff and helped lead the team to the playoffs.

“That team, our Rockies team in 2007, rode a wave of success too, and we ran into another hot team in the World Series, the Red Sox, and they swept us,” Francis said. “But in the fashion that we got to the World Series, I always think back and it feels like we won a lot more than we did. It was a situation where maybe we were a little in over our heads, but we just rode a wave of success in winning. I don’t think we lost a game for about four weeks. I’m not sure that’s been replicated in baseball. That was a lot of fun and definitely a career highlight.”

The Rockies, in fact, won 21 of 22 games down the stretch to win the pennant in an exciting final month of the season. The team’s success was due in part to the fact that several of the players on the roster in 2007 had come up through the Rockies minor league system together. “There were several, and a few who played on that 2004 Tulsa Drillers team too, so a lot of us came up through the minor leagues and had that sort of team chemistry established a bit when we got to Colorado,” he said. “We took our lumps for a few years there, and I think a lot of that was on us, but when ’07 came around I think it might have been just the perfect storm of some of young players and some of the older guys that were still there. We had a good team and still one of the best in Rockies history.”

Francis admits, this year’s Rockies team could surpass the greatness of the 2007 squad.

“If they continue what they’re doing this year, they’re pretty good again, they really could do something special,” he said.

Currently the Rockies are sitting in second place in the NL West, 19 games behind the first place Los Angeles Dodgers, ironically the Drillers current parent club.

Following the 2007 season, shoulder injuries became a factor for Francis and he struggled to regain his arm strength. I hesitated to bring up this negative subject.

“That’s a part of a lot of people’s career, it’s not something I think about too negatively,” he said. “I had a shoulder problem and I missed a whole year, and I eventually had to work my way back up, with stops here in Tulsa. I did reach a point in my career where I was pitching back at the level I was previously, I just never was quite the same guy again. You know, I always joke that I spent most of my career trying to recapture what I had here in Tulsa, and never was quite able to recapture it.”

Although there were several the ups and downs, Francis admitted he’s still very happy with what he was able to accomplish in his career. “There’s parts of my career that I’m very proud of, and then there are others that are really frustrating, but you know, all-in-all it’s pretty cool to be a professional baseball player,” Francis said.

Francis retired from baseball following the 2015 season. The last time he played in the majors he was on the same Toronto Blue Jays squad as current Tulsa Drillers pitcher Colt Hynes. The two had an opportunity to visit for a while before the Drillers game.

CANADIAN ROOTS

Francis grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia, the province that also produced another former Rockies player and Major League All-Star, Larry Walker. So, I had to ask him who was the player you most looked up to?

“Larry was the guy, especially as a kid from B.C.,” he said. “Larry was, and still is probably, the greatest Canadian hitter. In fact, I played a game in Tulsa at old Drillers Stadium with Larry in right field in 2004. He was here on a rehab assignment from the Rockies. It was my only loss that year. I remember being more nervous for that game because Larry Walker was in right field, than any other game.”

Francis finished that season 13-1 with a 1.98 ERA in 17 starts. Those numbers are why he was given the 2004 Minor League Player of the Year award.

Currently, Francis, 36, makes his home in London, Ontario, with his wife and three young children.

“I do still stay around baseball,” he said. “I coach a bit with Team Canada and their junior team, my five-year old son is playing T-ball and I coach his team; which is more teaching kids how to wait in line rather than teaching them any baseball skill. I try to stay around the game because I do love it and I still do love watching games. I’ll go to a Blue Jays game or a Tigers game, because they’re both nearby, and try to take my kids so I can enjoy baseball with them the way I did with my dad. That was special to me as a kid, and I’d like to have that with them, too.”