The UBC Thunderbirds have retired the jersey of one of the biggest baseball talents to come out of North Delta.
Jeff Francis’ number 16 is now emblazoned on the blue right field wall of the university’s Tourmaline West Stadium following a ceremony on Saturday afternoon (March 9).
The retired major league pitcher started his career with the North Delta Baseball Association, playing for the Blue Jays in the BC Premier Baseball League and winning both the B.C. and Canadian championships in each of his three years with the team. In 1999, he was named the National Championships pitcher of the tournament, Baseball BC’s player of the year and played for the Canadian Junior National Team.
Francis, who now lives in London, Ont., told the Reporter that growing up and playing baseball in the community had a big influence on his later success.
“There were consistencies as far as the baseball association, where every year, every spring, I would return to the same place with the same players and play baseball. And that was a joy,” Francis said.
“The facilities were first-class, the coaches were first-class. I think that had a big impact on learning my love for baseball, not only from coaches at a high level, but coaches in tadpole, tee ball, and mosquito [levels] as well.”
During his time with the Thunderbirds (1999 to 2002), the 6-5 southpaw set 11 team pitching records and was twice named a first-team All-American player by the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. In 2002, he won the Bobby Gaul award, which goes to UBC’s outstanding male athlete of the year, and was named Sport BC’s university athlete of the year.
Francis reminisced about the state of UBC’s baseball program, saying when he played at the school it was in its infancy and the practices took place at Nat Bailey Stadium (now Scotiabank Filed at Nat Bailey Stadium), home of the Vancouver Canadians. Today, UBC has indoor practice facilities with pitching and batting cages, as well as a full-size diamond with bleachers and dugouts.
Francis said he and his former teammates wear that time as a badge of honour.
“At least having some responsibility [for] where the program is today, it’s something that we all relish as a group,” Francis told reporters.
“None of us knew what we were getting into. We knew we wanted a world-class education and the chance to play baseball. You look now at the class of facility the players have available to them. It’s just fantastic to see how far the program has come.”
Thunderbirds baseball program director Terry McKraig said Francis’ decision to play for UBC despite interest from universities across North America helped to jump start the then-brand-new program.
“The UBC baseball varsity program would be nowhere near where we are today without Jeff’s decision to attend UBC,” baseball program director Terry McKaig said in a press release. “Being selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft showed players from across Canada you can still attend UBC and realize your dream of playing professional baseball.”
Francis was drafted ninth overall by the Colorado Rockies in 2002, and was playing in the MLB two years later. In 2007, he posted a 17-9 record, throwing 165 strike-outs and only 63 walks in his 34 starts. That season Francis was named the Rockies’ starting pitcher for Game 1 of the World Series against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park.
Francis would go on to play in the MLB for the next 11 years, taking the mound for the Kansas City Royals, Cincinnati Reds, Oakland Athletics, New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays. He ended his MLB career with 72 wins and 869 strikeouts, and won a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto. He retired in December 2015.