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COLUMNISTS

Thu, August 12, 2004

Francis call 'a disgrace'


Paul Beeston made an impassioned plea to the owner of the Colorado Rockies in an attempt to change the club's policy on allowing Jeff Francis to pitch for Canada at the Olympic Games.

But in the end, it was two swings and a frustrated miss. "A disgrace," Beeston called it. "A decision that makes absolutely no sense for anyone."

Beeston, the former president of Major League Baseball and former Blue Jays executive, called Rockies owner Charlie Monfort and general manager Dan O'Dowd on the weekend, pleading with them to let minor-league hotshot Francis pitch in the Olympics.

"I called Charlie and he told me to call Dan. I called Dan and it wasn't a pleasant conversation," said Beeston, who then involved major-league executive Sandy Alderson to see if he could broker an arrangement. "What they're doing isn't right for Canada, isn't right for baseball, isn't right for the Olympics, isn't right for Jeff Francis.

DECISION

"People say George Steinbrenner is hard to deal with. I can tell you this much: If George Steinbrenner was making the decision, Francis is pitching in the Olympics. He understands what this is. Obviously, they don't."

The Canadian baseball team arrived in Athens yesterday afternoon on what should have been a high after an undefeated pre-Olympic run in Italy. Instead, manager Ernie Whitt was quietly seething at the thought his No. 1 pitcher is in Colorado Springs, still in minor-league baseball.

When asked if Francis would be pitching in the Olympics if he happened to be American and if the U.S. team had qualified, Beeston answered: "Absolutely. There's not a doubt in my mind."

The Canadian team, a genuine medal contender, lost its most powerful hitter prior to the Games when Justin Morneau became the regular first baseman for the Minnesota Twins. "That," Beeston said, "was legitimate. That's the way the system is supposed to work.

"Major League Baseball made a commitment to put the best players on the field for the Olympics that aren't on their 25-man rosters and when you don't allow a Jeff Francis, you're breaking that commitment."

For the record, Francis' parents, Mike and Joanne, had booked their flights to Athens, made their accommodations and purchased tickets for all but one of Canada's baseball games. Fortunately, they were wise enough to buy cancellation insurance.

They, like their son, wanted to be here.

They understood the kind of opportunity this is.

"Baseball is already on thin ice as an Olympic sport," Beeston said. "What happens if Jeff Francis pitches Canada to a medal and goes on and has a great major-league career? You don't think you can look back at this as a springboard and one of the highlights of his life? And you don't think that doesn't become a selling point for Olympic baseball?

"Ask anyone who has been to an Olympics and they'll tell you how special it is. Ask Wayne Gretzky. Ask Mario Lemieux. Up to now, these would be the biggest games Francis has pitched in his life. Let's be honest here, pitching a few games in triple-A isn't going to change his life. If they're not calling him up (until Aug. 24) and they're not in the race, what's the point?"

Sadly, there is more irony in the Francis story. The starting pitcher for Chinese Taipei -- Canada's opening-game opponent -- happens to be Chin-Hui Tsao, two months younger than Francis, a pitcher the very same Colorado Rockies paid $2.2 million US and was in the majors for a short time last September.

"But this whole thing doesn't seem right," Dave Bedford, Canada's chef de mission, said. "At least I know that this Canadian team has always shown great resilience and spirit and I expect that again."

HONOUR

Earlier this summer, when Morneau was still playing in Rochester, there was a bobblehead night in his honour. The infamous Canadian, Stubby Clapp, collected as many Morneau dolls as possible. He altered the Rochester uniform to make it look like the Team Canada version.

"They wanted him with them, even if he couldn't be here in body," Bedford said.

The same way they wanted and needed and deserved to have Jeff Francis.


Does Canada's low-medal haul in Athens bother you?
Yes, it depresses me
No, it's just sports
I'm disappointed, but not worried
We'll get 'em in Turin
Don't care

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