MONTPELLIER — There isn’t a blade of grass — on the infield or outfield — and with the arrival of summer, the punishing Mediterranean sun has baked the dusty diamond hard as concrete. Outfielder Paolo Brossier calls the grounds “special” — and not in the complimentary sense.
“It’s tricky to play on,” he says. “Especially for the position players.”
Tucked behind a subdivision in the outskirts of Montpellier, a mid-sized city in southern France, Greg Hamilton Baseball Park is no dream field. But it’s where Brossier, 18, and many of his teammates on the Barracudas learned to play the game, and where their baseball dreams, great and small, first took shape.
Last year a young pitcher from the Barracudas signed a deal to play minor league baseball for the Philadelphia Phillies organization, and Brossier himself, the squad’s speedy leadoff hitter, heads off in August to play for a junior college in Florida.
For now, though, he’s focusing on the playoffs, featuring the top six clubs in the 12-team D1, as France’s semi-professional, first-division baseball league is known.
An ocean away, the man who lent his name to the rough and tumble ballpark is in the midst of his own busy summer of baseball. As coaching director for national teams with Baseball Canada, Greg Hamilton is currently in Lima, Peru for the Pan American Games. Next month he heads to South Korea, for the U-18 Baseball World Cup.
The Ontario native is a living baseball legend in Canada, where he has long been responsible for scouting, organizing and coaching the country’s national teams. Over the years he’s mentored many of the country’s top talents, players who’ve gone on to have the kinds of careers that people like Brossier and his teammates could hardly even imagine.
And yet, no matter how busy he gets, Hamilton can’t help keeping tabs, from time to time, on the Barracudas. “I check in and take a look at the website and see what’s going on,” he says. “It’s a team I care tremendously about. I obviously want to see them have success. I have a smile on my face when they’re doing well.”
From fine Bordeaux to fresh baguettes, France has plenty of proud traditions. Baseball isn’t one of them, though unbeknownst to most — including most French people — its D1 league has managed to survive, in one guise or another, for nearly a century now.
Most of the players are French, and pay dues to participate in their respective clubs. But teams also contract a limited number of foreign players, who come here less for fame and fortune (the D1 provides neither) than for the chance to play somewhere — anywhere — and enjoy a taste of life in Old Europe.
The three foreign recruits on this year’s Barracudas team — a pitcher and two infielders — are all from Venezuela, and their contributions are much appreciated.
Shortstop Larry Infante, 34, is batting a solid .354 but is near the end, admittedly, of a career that once took him as high as Triple-A ball in Salt Lake City. Andrés Martínez, 24, leads the club in RBIs and Kevin Canelón, a 25-year-old lefty, is the team’s undisputed ace, with a 10-1 record and a lights-out 0.53 ERA.
Martínez and Canelón are holding out hope, still, that their exploits in Montpellier will catch the attention of another coach or scout, and lead to bigger and better opportunities elsewhere, perhaps in the United States, where both have some previous playing experience. It’s a long-shot, though — for the simple reason that France’s obscure D1 just isn’t, and never has been, an obvious springboard for professional baseball careers.
Which is why it’s so surprising, looking back, that Hamilton would once upon a time have chosen to hone his skills here, of all places. And yet, that’s exactly what the former Princeton University pitcher and hockey star did starting in 1992 when presented with an opportunity to take over as manager of the Barracudas.
“The timing was really perfect,” Hamilton recalls. The Canadian had done some traveling in Europe before, didn’t have any children yet, and saw the Montpellier job as both an adventure and a chance to really make his mark on a team in need of new direction.
“I thought it’d be a life experience. And I’m kinda big on those,” he says. “It was an opportunity to go to Europe, see a part of the world that’s obviously a tremendous area, and coach, coach in an environment where it was pure coaching.”
Hamilton’s vision was to reshape the club into something resembling a North American collegiate program, with the first and second teams (the D1 and D2) functioning like varsity and junior varsity groups. But for that to happen, he first had to reassemble the rosters, and that meant challenging the club’s tradition of promoting players based on seniority, rather than pure talent.
The Canadian coach ruffled some feathers, in other words. “I certainly didn’t make politically correct decisions,” he says. “I made talent-specific decisions, and in the short-run that probably didn’t sit all that well with certain people.”
It was an approach, however, that soon paid dividends. In 1993, Hamilton’s second year as skipper and GM of the club, the Barracudas knocked off Paris UC — a perennial powerhouse that had won the league 11 straight times — to win their first D1 title. Montpellier beat their Parisian rivals again the next year, and won the league for a third straight time in 1995.
Olivier Brossier, Paolo’s father, played on those championship teams and is now the club’s development coordinator and assistant coach. “Talent attracts talent,” he says of the team’s golden era under Hamilton.
“From his second year on he attracted all the good French players, who came to play for Montpellier, and so we found ourselves with an extremely strong team at that time. We had a good portion of the French national team down here.”
But what Olivier remembers more than anything else was Hamilton’s “crazy passion” for the game, and his dedication as a baseball teacher. The elder Brossier describes himself as being a decidedly average player. Nevertheless, Hamilton spent hours and hours teaching him to hit and field grounders, building up the young player’s confidence.
“It was so that I’d get better and be able to play on the team even though I certainly wasn’t a player who was going to change the outcome of a game,” Olivier recalls.
Given the success the Barracudas enjoyed under Hamilton’s leadership — and his career trajectory since then — it’s little wonder the Canadian baseball giant is remembered with such fondness here. Montpellier named Hamilton an honorary citizen in 2007, and in 2012 officially attached his name to the ballpark.
But it’s a relationship that goes both ways. The Barracudas periodically invite Hamilton back for anniversary events, and in each case, the Baseball Canada national teams director accepts the invitation. “The club was a huge part of my formative life,” he says. “It was a huge part of my life. It continues to be.”
Montpellier’s gotten close a few times, but it has yet to win another title since Hamilton took his talents back to Canada. For players like Paolo Brossier, who joined the club when he was 14 and wasn’t even born yet the last time the Barracudas won the D1, that three-peat back in the mid-90s is the stuff of legends.
But there’s a living, breathing aspect to Hamilton’s legacy as well, a legacy of passion and love for the game passed from coach to player, and in the case of the Brossier family, from father to son. More than the name on the team’s not so dreamy field, what Hamilton values most are the baseball journeys still being lived and launched there.
“My goal was to try to pass along as much knowledge as I had, and create an environment and a culture that could extend one day to the person that came through the system and was French, and was in Montpellier,” he says.
Someone like Paolo, in other words, who will soon be testing his skills in the far greener pastures of Florida’s junior-college circuit. “That’s tremendous, just tremendous,” Hamilton says of the young Brossier’s plans. “It’s great to see.”
By Benjamin Witte (firstname.lastname@example.org)