Q&A With One Of French Baseball’s Brightest New Stars
LA ROCHELLE — While some of the foreign recruits in France’s top-division baseball league, the D1, are late-career guys trying to stretch their playing days out just a bit longer, Ivan Acuña of the Savigny Lions is, in many ways, just getting started.
And what a start it’s been. Exactly three quarters of the way through his first season in France, the 24-year-old infielder from Venezuela is batting an impressive .408, third in the league among players with at least 70 at-bats. He also has a pair of homeruns and is tied for second in the D1 with 24 RBIs.
Acuña grew up in Guarenas, a mid-sized city about an hour east of Caracas, the Venezuelan capital. But when he was 17, he moved to a small town in North Carolina to pursue his baseball dreams in the United States and hopefully position himself to play at the university level. After one year of high school ball, he managed to do just that, first at a nearby community college, and then at Winston Salem State University (WSTU), a Division II school.
In his final season at WSTU, Acuña hit .367 and earned a First-Team All-Conference selection. He then spent a summer playing for a Prospect League team in West Virginia, where he again put up some big numbers, but struggled to find professional playing opportunities after that.
The affable young Venezuelan with nearly flawless English kept his baseball skills sharp, however, and set his sights on making it onto a team in Europe. That dream came true this past March, when he joined the Lions of Savigny-sur-Orge, about 20 kilometers south of Paris.
Acuña had just gone three-for-four in a playoff game against the La Rochelle Boucaniers when I spoke with him about his first foray into French baseball, and about the particular challenges that the league’s Venezuelan players face.
Question: So playing in Europe was something that was on your radar?
Ivan Acuña: Yeah, I was looking to play overseas: France, Italy, Germany. I was looking this way to play.
Q: And here you are having a really good season. Plus you just got three more hits today…
IA: I’m blessed. I put in the work and I’m getting results. [The hits] are falling. But not every day’s like that.
Q: For your family and friends back in Venezuela and the States, explain a little bit what it’s like playing baseball in France?
IA: It’s odd. Especially coming from Venezuela, you hear more about people playing minor league baseball, professional baseball in the States. And then they hear, ‘Oh, there’s baseball in France.’ Yeah, and it’s a pretty good level. It’s fun. And now you can actually see a lot of Venezuelans in this league, in Rouen, some in Montpellier. There are actually quite a few Venezuelans over here, and it’s growing, which is good for baseball and good for the culture.
Q: What do you do when you’re not playing baseball? What’s your life in France like?
IA: Well, since we’re in Savigny, I’m trying to explore Paris a little bit. Trying to learn a little bit of French, even though it’s pretty tough. But yeah, just trying to explore. Trying to learn new things and make the most of it.
Q: What’s it like in terms of integration with the other players. There are people from all different countries in this league…
IA: It was actually pretty simple, surprisingly. The chemistry just worked out. We got here and everybody was like, ‘Oh, you’re Ivan.’ Most of the [French players] speak English, and the ones that don’t actually try or speak a little bit of Spanish with us. It’s been cool.
Q: I’ve looked through the different rosters and see that there are about 15 Venezuelans in the league right now, about as many as there are from the States. Why is that?
IA: It’s sad to say, but it’s because of the situation going on right now in Venezuela. All the economic problems, the safety problems. There’s no food. So most of us are trying to not be there. We’re trying to expand work wise, find other baseball countries. A lot of people don’t get the chance to play professional baseball in the States, so now they’re moving on into Europe, where it’s growing and getting a lot better. It’s sad to say but that’s the reason why.
Q: I’ve talked to some of the other players and I know that foreign recruits get paid more of a stipend than a real salary. I imagine that for some of the Americans, those coming from more comfortable situations, it’s nice to get the money, obviously, but that they’re mostly here just for the experience. How is that different for the Venezuelans?
IA: It’s pretty different. Most of us have family [back in Venezuela], and we’re doing everything we can to send money back, so that they can be able to afford food, and be able to get the basic stuff. So it’s more of survival mode for us. What we earn is enough for us to do it, but it’s not the same for the American guys who come in and it’s, ‘Oh, we’ll just grab this money and enjoy it.’
Q: I imagine you’re watching every penny…
IA: Yeah, that’s the thing. We’re happy here, but at the same time every time you sit down in the hotel and eat, and you see food thrown away, in the back of your mind you’re thinking, “Oh, does my uncle have something to eat today? Does my family get to go to work? Are they safe?” That’s the sad part about it.
By Benjamin Witte (firstname.lastname@example.org)
*The cover photo features Ivan Acuña and teammate Tom Dahan, a French player