Long Day’s Journey Into La Rochelle

La Rochelle, home of the Boucaniers (B. Witte)

LA ROCHELLE—Bright sun, thumping music, free-flowing beer, a pirate mascot giving out potato chips, and a crowd that at one point topped a hundred. No wonder the coach of the visiting team took a moment after Sunday’s double-header to lead his players in applauding the hosts.

The gesture didn’t go unnoticed by a man sitting next to me. “Classy,” he said, finishing up the last of several beers he’d put back over the course of the afternoon. “That’s really classy.”

This was just his second time to the ballpark, the man told me. His buddy, though, was a regular, and had a green-and-yellow LR cap to prove it. LR as in La Rochelle, the Atlantic port city on the Bay of Biscay that is also home to the Boucaniers, one of 12 teams in France’s semi-professional and largely unheard of baseball league: the D1.

“He’s the one that introduced me,” the man said of his cap-wearing friend. “But I really like the ambience.”

I had to agree. This was my third foray into D1 baseball action, and I must say that compared to Montpellier, in the southern Hérault department, and Toulouse, in the southwest, La Rochelle not only has the nicest grounds, but also the best baseball vibe.

Grabbing a cold one — or two or three

There aren’t any toilets, as far as I could tell, but the ballbark does feature a DJ, great French fries and hotdogs, comfortable(ish) plastic seats (as opposed to bleachers) and an announcer who not only calls the game but also takes advantage of each development to try and explain the rules.

Crossed signals

All of this was especially welcome given what I’d gone through to get there. From the studio I’d rented for two nights in the center of La Rochelle, the ballpark is exactly 3.9 kilometers.

But that wasn’t the complicated part. The walk there, first through the historic city center, then along the port, and eventually down a seaside promenade to the field, was a treat—a real privilege, actually.

The old port in La Rochelle

It was the getting to La Rochelle from my home in Montpellier that proved problematic. From the Mediterranean, training it to the Atlantic coast means swinging as far south as Narbonne, hanging a right toward Toulouse, then making your way northwest again through Bordeaux.

The train to Bordeaux was direct, but I’d only have 13 minutes, according to my itinerary, to connect to a local, commuter-style train to La Rochelle, so when we were already 10 minutes late leaving Montpellier, I had an inkling I was headed for trouble.

Then came Agde, which I’ve never visited but always associate with its infamous naturist resort (or maybe that’s just me). From now on, though, Agde will forever conjure up the words “problème de signalisation,” which was the reason we were given for why the train came to a 20-minute standstill in the middle of some woods.

It’s also the excuse the conductor kept providing over the course of the next several hours to explain why we were 30 minutes late pulling into Toulouse, and then 40 minutes late arriving in Bordeaux. Never mind that the train was behind schedule even before the antics in Agde.

Country roads

Needless to say, the train to La Rochelle had long since left the station by the time I and a number of other north-bound passengers—including a large, rather boisterous group of retirees heading home from a week in Saint-Tropez—made it to Bordeaux’s Saint-Jean station. Not to worry, though. An autocar(bus) would be shuttling us on our way, the conductor announced, again lamenting the problème de signalisation near Agde.

Filled quickly to maximum capacity, the bus made its way out of the city and onto to open highway. Ahh, the open road..  Only soon we exited the autorouteand headed down a country lane to a nondescript town, where we pulled up in front of a tiny train station and deposited a single passenger, a pretty red-headed woman.

Last light (at 10:11 p.m.)

It was then that I began to understand, finally, that the detour to the village depot would be the first of many, and that the bus ride to La Rochelle would take far longer than I’d preferred to imagine.

It was a pretty drive, though—back onto the highway, then off again—through picture-perfect hamlets and past fields of bright-green grape vines catching the last rays of sunshine.

By the time the sun slipped below the horizon it was well after 10 p.m. This was, after all, just one day after the summer solstice, making it an especially long day’s journey. Another 45 minutes after that we reached the train station in the small city of Saintes, where the vacationing retirees descended en masse.

In nearly four hours we’d made it just 115 kilometers from Bordeaux, and for me and the other handful of passengers left on the now almost empty bus, there was still a ways to go. “Uff, to think that some people are staying on all the way to La Rochelle,” one of women in the clucky Saint-Tropez crowd commented just before leaving.

Play ball!

That no one was asking or expecting me to go cover the opening day of the D1 playoffs in La Rochelle, where the Boucaniers were hosting the Lions of Savigny-sur-Orge, a southern suburb of Paris, made the whole thing feel even more absurd.

And yet, by the next day—crouched behind home plate with my camera in hand and soaking up the early summer sunshine—I was more than happy to move on from the previous evening’s misadventures and turn my attention instead to the action on the field.

The lions, led by Yiexon Ruiz (far left) and Ivan Acuña (next over on the right)

With two of the league’s top hitters, Ivan Acuña of Venezuela and Yiexon Ruiz of the Dominican Republic, the Lions came into the post-season tied with the defending champion Huskies of Rouen for the second best record (16-4) amongthe six teams participating in the playoffs. Only the Templiers (19-1) of Sénart, also in the outskirts of Paris, had a better first leg of the season.

The Boucaniers, in contrast, squeezed into the post-season with the worst record (11-9) among the six contenders. But they do feature one of the D1’s best bats in Jesse Baker, a 26-year-old from the United States who’s playing his first season in France after a baseball journey that included an All-American nod in college and stints with several independent-league teams, including the Saguaros of Tucson, Arizona.

With a league-best 34 hits coming into the playoffs and a gaudy .436 batting average, Baker’s talent and professional baseball experience are immediately apparent. He’s a soft-spoken man, however, with a surprisingly humble demeanor.

“My definition of success has changed a lot,” he told me after the game. “It’s shifted away from the personal stats. I don’t look at stats online, or anything like that. Now it’s just, one—if the teams wins; and two—if what we’re working on throughout the week in practice happens in the game. That to me is a lot more rewarding and successful than any individual award.”

Baseball journeys

Unfortunately for Baker and his La Rochelle teammates, the visiting Lions won both of the day’s games: 5-3 and 4-1. Shortstop Yiexon Ruiz went 3 for 9 on the day, and Ivan Acuña, who switched from second base to catcher for the second match, went 3 for 7 with an RBI (run batted in) and two runs scored.

The favorites prevailed in the day’s other D1 matches as well. The Templiers beat the visiting Barracudas of Monptellier twice, 2-1 and 11-2, thanks to some strong pitching by the team’s two American aces—Joe Rivera (8-0) and Brendan Jenkins (9-1)—and a 4 for 8 hitting performance by third-baseman Felix Brown, a French player. And in Rouen, the Huskies—winners of 13 of the last 14 league titles—won both matches (4-2 and 11-3) against the visiting Cougars of Montigny-le-Bretonneux, west of Paris.

But it wasn’t to keep track of box scores that I’d made the long trip to La Rochelle. It was to meet some of the players and hear their stories. Players like Baker, who was born and raised in the central Florida town of Sebring, population 10,000, and was a big fan growing up, he told me, of catcher Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez and first-baseman Mark McGwire.

Pablo Ossandon, the league’s only Chilean

Baker’s teammate, pitcher Pablo Ossandon, has a great story as well. The only Chilean in the D1, he hails from a place called Tocopilla. Not nearly as well known as the northern port city’s other prodigal son, international soccer star Alexis Sanchez, Ossandon is, nevertheless, something of hero back home in Chile, where he has several times been named the country’s best baseball player.

And then there’s Ivan Acuña, the league leader with a .441 batting average, who moved to the United States from Venezuela when he was a teenager and flows seamlessly back-and-forth between Spanish and nearly accent-less English. This is his first shot at overseas baseball after graduating two years ago from Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina, and he’s making the most of the opportunity so far.

“Yeah, I’m having a good season,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m blessed. I put in the work and it’s getting results. The [hits] are falling.”

Truth be told, there’s another reason I rode the rails (and that excruciatingly slow bus) all the way from Montpellier to La Rochelle: After taking a year-long break from writing, and a reporting hiatus that was longer still, it feels great to be pursuing my own baseball adventure—à la française. I’m having a ball in other words (pun intended), so stay tuned…

By Benjamin Witte (benjawitte@gmail.com)

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