Manti Te’o, Jeff Francoeur, and the Power of Narrative
Last week, interspersed between contrasting shots of Lance Armstrong winning Tours and “confessing” that he cheated, a weird, wild, and absolutely bat-shit insane story came out regarding Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o. If you watch ESPN, you’ve no doubt heard it recounted twenty-four times a day over the last week (if not, let me sum up: His dead girlfriend wasn’t dead. Also, she never really existed. And he may or may not have known the whole time). They interrupted halftimes of games to bring you “updates” (which amounted to them repeating the same thing they said before the game started), had an interview with Jeremy Schaap scheduled, canceled, and then rescheduled as an off-camera heart-to-heart wherein Manti expressed shock, surprise, and grief regarding things he already knew to be true.
There’s a lot of ins, lot of outs, lot of what-have-yous. The point is, people will tell you that it is all very unnerving and strange. The truth, though, is that there is a common complicity inherent to all of us regarding the construction of personae in the public forum. And it isn’t anything new. What’s new is that we can uncover the reality behind the veil.
Some of the most popular stories in sport are just that: stories. Myths desired by the vox populi, purported at one time by the media (whether it be journalists, pundits, sportscasters, or anchors) and consumed by the whole of our country. Sport and story both exist with a cognitive dissonance to reality, making legends of vagabonds and giving us anecdotes to pass between friends. As humans, we inherently crave for plot and structure in existence, lest the realization of chaos present itself and topple our fragile and intrepid perceptions of reality.
To that end, it is hard to blame Te’o for perpetuating the story of a deceased girlfriend. Deep down, we all wanted it to be true. Courage and perseverance are found so rarely that when we come across a powerful example of it, we hardly bother to argue. It is not as if we haven’t (or don’t continue) to see narratives spun to win our favor every day. Ray Lewis has a degree of culpability in a homicide, but most choose to aggrandize him for what he has done on the field, for the sport, because the sport is what matters. The sport is where we get all of our good stories from. Ken Griffey Jr., at one time, was “The Kid”, the phenom who broke into the majors so young he played on the same team with his dad. By the end, though, he was a cautionary tale of how injuries can rob a career of its promise, combined with a prescient picture of an aged ballplayer who fell asleep during a game.
Which brings us full circle to Jeff Francoeur.
The truth is, Jeff Francoeur was, by the measures that matter, the third-worst everyday player in the majors last year. Regardless of this fact, the Royals seemingly felt that no considerations needed to be made in order to replace the black hole traversing right field (in truth, the Royals are probably used to seeing a valley of nothing from their right fielders over the last decade). So much so that the organization felt comfortable trading away the Minor League Player of the Year who happened to play the very same position.
Why, though? What could compel Dayton Moore to latch on so tightly to a player of Francoeur’s spotty track record? Personal history plays a part, but it owes much more to the narrative that surrounds him. Francoeur is a “great clubhous presence” and a “veteran leader”, both of which, we are told, are required for a team to have success. You have to have players that have “been there”, who have “done that”, and who bring experience to the table. At one time, Francoeur was hailed as the next “can’t-miss” prospect in baseball, going so far as to be dubbed “The Natural” on a cover of Sports Illustrated. Dayton Moore was involved in those Atlanta days, in scouting and player development. He watched Francoeur personally, and has never really been able to let go of that ideal. Despite seven seasons and only 6.8 fWAR between then and now, Francoeur will always be that promising young hitter. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a friendly guy, with a wide-eyed smile that will haunt your dreams. But it certainly doesn’t help when it comes to evaluating what he is as a player. That is to say, what the organization should be evaluating him by.
The Royals aren’t unique in this, nor is Francoeur the only player on the team who gets the benefit of the doubt based on a volume of hearsay coupled with an anthology of mythos. Luke Hochevar’s recent multi-million dollar payday serves to remind us of that fact.
If anything, though, the recent debacles of Te’o and Armstrong should serve to remind us not to get too wrapped up in the prevailing narratives that coax us into a gentle sense of childlike wonderment in regard to the world around us. Fiction, whether presented to us through a cinema screen or a news article, is still that: just a story, meant to comfort us against the howling void. Hopefully, though, the Legend of Francoeur will be coming to a swift and inglorious end.
–Follow me on twitter @JoshuaKWard
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