Un, Deux, Trois Strikes You’re Out

Montpellier’s not so dreamy baseball field (B. Witte)

MONTPELLIER—Like the fictional “Crash Davis” character in the classic 80s film Bull Durham, Larry Infante is a seasoned, lower-leagues baseball player on the wrong side of 30. He’s getting old, in other words—at least by the cutthroat standards of professional sports. And he knows it.

At 34, the journeyman shortstop admits that whatever shot he may once have had at breaking into Major League Baseball (MLB)—the so-called big leagues of the United States and Canada—is now behind him.

“My goal was to play baseball in the majors,” he says. “That was my dream. That’s what I wanted. I worked toward that, and I had the opportunity to play in the United States. But like so many other players, I ended up getting cut.”

That’s the same bitter pill that Crash, played by Kevin Costner, also had to swallow, albeit with the sultry Susan Sarandon as his consolation prize. The backstory on the Bull Durham character is that once upon a time, he did actually make it to “The Show,” as he famously called the MLB. Crash’s fleeting stint lasted just 21 days, however, and, try as he might, he just couldn’t manage to repeat the feat.

Infante has taken many of the younger players under his experienced wing

Infante’s real-life baseball story differs in that regard: the stocky infielder had a few opportunities to play at the Triple-A level (one rung down from the majors) but never made it into a big-league game. The other thing that sets his journey apart are the many air-miles and passport stamps he collected over the years.REPORT THIS ADREPORT THIS AD

Born in Ocumare del Tuy, a small city about an hour south of Caracas, Infante first learned the game in his native Venezuela. He then went to the Dominican Republic, before signing a deal to play minor-league ball in the United States with the Los Angeles Angels organization.

When his U.S. playing days were over, Infante opted to test his luck in yet another country, Spain. Then, in 2014, he brought his talents north, to France, where he currently anchors the infield for the Barracudas of Montpellier, in the southern Occitanie region.

“Honestly, I never imagined I’d end up playing here, but baseball’s full of surprises,” he says. “This is where I am right now, and I’m enjoying it. And I like Montpellier. It’s a great city.”

The D1 dozen

From baguettes to Brie, France has plenty of proud traditions. But baseball? Not so much. And yet, the sport does have a history here. The French Federation of Baseball and Softball (Fédération Française de Baseball & Softball, FFBS) was founded nearly a century ago. France also has a rather obscure league of its own: the semi-professional Elite Division—D1, for short.

Montpellier, France’s seventh largest city, with a population of roughly 300,000, has had a team since the mid 1980s. It is one of 12 in the recently expanded D1 (until this year the top division had just eight teams). Some are based in major cities (Paris, Nice and Toulouse all have teams) but many play in lesser known locales such as Savigny-sur-Orge, in the outskirts of Paris; Metz, near the borders with Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg; and La Rochelle, on the Bay of Biscay.

“M” for Montpellier, home of the Barracudas

The league’s powerhouse clubs are the Templiers (13-1) of Sénart, about 25 miles south ofParis, the Savigny-sur-Orge Lions (12-2), and, in particular, the defending champion Huskies (12-2) of Rouen, the capital of Normandy. Rouen has dominated the league in recent years, winning 13 of the past 14 championships. The only other team to win a title in that stretch was theTempliers, in 2014.REPORT THIS ADREPORT THIS AD

Montpellier (10-4) hasn’t had a championship since it won the D1 in three straight seasons, from 1993-1995, under the tutelage of Greg Hamilton, a former Princeton University pitcher who now directs Canada’s national teams. For part of that run the Barracudas also had a Canadian pitcher named Jeff Zimmerman, who went on to play in the MLB for the Texas Rangers (1999-2001) and was even named an All-Star one year.

“The food was pretty decent, and the scenery was outstanding,” an ESPN article from 2009 quoted Zimmerman as saying of his time in southern France.

The Venezuela connection

Despite the long championship drought, the Barracudas tend to be one of the league’s more competitive teams. This season is no exception, thanks in large part to the contributions not just of Infante—who’s batting .381, with 16 hits in 42 at bats—but also two of his countrymen: pitcher Kevin Canelon, 25, and Andrés Martínez, 23, a hard-hitting infielder.

Canelon has established himself as the team’s undisputed ace: He’s 5-0 right now with a 0.73 ERA (earned run average). Martínez leads the Barracudas in RBIs (runs batted in) with 16.

“We still have to learn a lot of new things [when we arrive in the league], but we pick it up faster than the local players because of the experience we’ve had, our understanding and knowledge of the game,” explains Martínez, who played for several years in the United States, most recently for a minor league team in Auburn, New York (2016-2017).

Team RBI leader Andrés Martínez gets in a few extra swings

Teams in the D1 are allowed a small contingent of foreign recruits, players with previous, professional experience. They usually receive housing (Infante, Canelon and Martínez share an apartment) and earn what is more a stipend than a proper salary. The French players, in contrast, are unpaid amateurs. Some are just teenagers still, and many attend or are graduates of special sports academies known as pôles.REPORT THIS AD

One of those young players is 18-year-old Paolo Brossier, who leads the Barracudas in hits (17) and is second behind Martínez in RBIs, with 11. His father, Olivier Brossier, doubles as a coach and development coordinator for the team. Last year, Paolo Brossier and teammate Fabian Kovacs were invited to play in the United States for a special, MLB-sponsored European select team. A few months earlier, their teammate Yoan Antonac, a pitcher, signed a minor league deal with the Philadelphia Phillies organization.

“That was a huge source of pride. We had real reasons to be proud last year,” the older Brossier explains. “Yoan first came here to play with the club when he was six years old. He played youth baseball, and then entered the sports academy in middle school. He’s an example for the other young players who dream about trying their luck and getting signed by a pro team.”

The dusty diamond

Running a semi-pro baseball team in a country where few people have any real interest in the sport can also be frustrating at times. The Barracudas earn nothing on ticket sales—attendance is free, and at any rate, only a handful of people show up for the Sunday games—and sponsors are few and far between.

The Montpellier city government contributes some money, but has balked at the team’s repeated requests for an upgrade of Greg Hamilton Baseball Park, as the dirt field is officially called. “It’s fine right now, in spring, with the rains we’ve had, but in the summer it’s like concrete,” says Brossier, who played under Hamilton is his younger years.

At 34, Infante is a seasoned veteran

As a launching pad for young French players, the team has its occasional success stories. But nowhere in the country is the infrastructure all that propitious, really, for beginning a professional baseball career. Still, the Barracudas—and the D1 in general—offer the local players rare access to serious, organized and competitive play.

The team serves a somewhat different purpose for recruits like Andrés Martínez and Kevin Canelon, who have already had a proper taste of professional baseball and are here fighting to keep their careers in motion. After his last stint in the United States, Martínez went a year without playing at all. Montpellier is a chance to get back on the diamond and keep his baseball dreams alive. This season with the Barracudas represents hope.

“For me it’s a real godsend to be here. We’re not all lucky enough to keep playing,” he says. “I’m really young still, and I’m here giving it my all because you never know who could be out there watching, what opportunities might come along in the future.”

And then there’s Larry Infante, the “old” veteran who extended his career longer and took it to greater heights than any other player on the team has or likely will. For someone who stuck to the sport so long and made it so far, dusty Greg Hamilton Baseball Park—hidden behind a series of housing developments in the outskirts of Montpellier—is an unlikely setting for a swan song. But it’s one Infante, now in his second season as a Barracuda, is willing to embrace and even cherish.

“Would I have liked to go back to the United States? Sure, but having the opportunity to play here, I feel good, and I’m going to keep enjoying it,” he says. “For me, the chance to keep going, keep playing, is a blessing. It’s a triumph.”

By Benjamin Witte (benjawitte@gmail.com)

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