05/23/12 12:27 AM ET
Francoeur leads Royals on jaunt to Fan Cave
By Zachary Finkelstein / MLB.com
Just after 10 a.m. ET, outfielder Jeff Francoeur, designated hitter Billy Butler, catcher Brayan Pena and pitchers Bruce Chen and Aaron Crow arrived at the Fan Cave to meet and greet the nine Fan Cave Dwellers.
The players started the morning with a tour. And they appeared impressed.
"This place looks nice, improved from last year," said Chen, who also visited the Cave in 2011.
One of the Cave's new amenities -- a 10-foot orange slide that the Dwellers go down after a Major Leaguer homers -- was quickly spotted by the tallest man in the room.
"[The slide] was awesome," Francoeur said after scrunching his 6-foot-4 frame down the giant tube. "My butt's hurting. But you know this is a great place."
Francoeur started 2012 slowly, hitting .229 with no homers during the season's first month. The outfielder has been great at the plate of late, though, batting .291 with three long balls in May.
"I feel good. I've shortened [my swing] up a little bit, trying to get quicker to the fastball," Francoeur said. "Our hitting coach [Kevin Seitzer] has done a lot with me the last three or four days, and it's starting to pay off."
Following years of futility, the Royals' fortunes have started to improve during the past several seasons. Francoeur feels his franchise is close to becoming a contender.
"We've got a lot of depth, we've got a lot of great players," Francoeur said. "I think the future is bright, whether we've got to trade for people, or whether we have people coming up. It is going to be a lot of fun in K.C. the next couple of years."
Francoeur has been a pretty popular player while in the Majors. One of his followers, Cave Dweller and Braves fan Ricky Mast, sang a special song to the former Atlanta outfielder.
"Got a rifle for an arm, leads the world in assists. He says, 'Beware baserunners, you don't want to mess with this.' Oh, be careful; he's got an arm made of flames. Just ask Luis Gonzalez; Frenchy threw him out twice in one game," Mast sang as the crowd burst into laughter.
"I've been a lifelong Braves fan, so I've followed Frenchy since the Braves drafted him," Mast said after his solo act. "Still a huge fan, even though he hasn't been with the Braves for a couple years. When I heard he was coming in, I know he's an aspiring country singer, kind of like me, except we both have the same trait in that we can't sing. So late last night, I thought I'd just write him a fun little song that I thought he'd like. I think he dug it."
After the song, the players and Cave Dwellers went outside to convince passersby to fill out player ballots for the 2012 All-Star Game, to be held at Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium on July 10.
Cave Dweller Ricardo Marquez was by far the most boisterous recruiter.
"For me, [the recruiting] went terribly because I think I scared everyone off with the bullhorn [that I was yelling through]. But as far as everyone else, they all got people to wrangle up and bring inside, and we scared the pants out of New York City," Marquez said.
No fans were actually frightened, but several were startled by a prank played by Chen and Butler, who took turns popping up from behind the paper-ballot drop box located inside the Fan Cave.
"When I went in to vote, I dropped the ballot inside the box, and Bruce Chen stuck his hand out and kind of startled me. ... But it was pretty funny," said Johnny Lugo, a big baseball fan from the Bronx.
The visit ended with the players fielding questions from fans on Facebook, answering everything from favorite childhood player (Francoeur, a Braves fan during his youth, said Dale Murphy) to funniest teammate. (Pena said Butler, who "has his moments when he's really funny.")
The players also competed in a few rounds of virtual Home Run Derby, using a video-game remote control to belt long balls out of Kauffman Stadium. Chen emceed the event.
"Billy took the first pitch like usual," Chen joked.
"And ... double again. Atta boy, Billy," Chen teased after Butler took his sixth straight swing sans a homer.
"Most doubles in baseball since 2009," remarked Michael Swanson, the Royals' vice president of communications and broadcasting.
Regardless of his video-game prowess, Butler has helped lead the Royals' offense in 2012. And because of him and a handful of others, Kansas City's long-term prospects appear promising.
Zachary Finkelstein is an editorial producer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.