An All-American In France

Catcher Jesse Baker hopes to return to La Rochelle in 2020 (B. Witte)

LA ROCHELLE — At an age when many young people are just beginning to contemplate their career options, Jesse Baker’s professional plans crashed down into a million broken pieces. Sports are cruel that way.

Born and raised in the small, central-Florida town of Sebring, the now 26-year-old played baseball for Daytona State College and later Edward Waters College (EWC), in Jacksonville, Florida, where he excelled. “He was a leader from day one,” Reginald Johnson II, coach of the EWC Tigers, recalls. “And his work ethic… man it was just, it was indescribable.”

The payoff was a well-deserved first-team All-American nod in 2015, when the broad-shouldered Baker was also named Gulf Coast Athletic Conference (GCAC) Player of the Year. The accolades were just what the young Floridian needed, he assumed, to take the next crucial step toward making his big-league baseball dreams come true: getting drafted and signed by an MLB club.

“He did everything that was asked of him. He did everything that the scouts wanted him to do,” Coach Johnson explains. “They told him he needed to put up big numbers and he put up ridiculous numbers.”

But on draft night, as the soft-spoken, freshly minted All-American sat in a hotel room playing with his smart phone, waiting for a call or text or any indication whatsoever about where his baseball career might lead to next, nothing happened.

“The draft ended. No call, nothing like that. And I kinda, I just sank,” Baker says. “Everything kinda hit rock bottom, and I’m like, ‘Well, baseball’s done.’”

Plate production

Four years later, it’s Bastille Day in France — July 14 — and the hometown Boucaniers of La Rochelle, on the Atlantic coast, are hosting the Montpellier Barracudas for a Sunday double-header.

La Rochelle has one of the better venues in the D1, as France’s top-division, semi-professional baseball league is known. The scoreboard is manually operated, but the field is well groomed. There are hard-plastic seats rather than bleachers, an announcer who not only calls the game but takes advantage of each on-field development to explain the rules, and plenty of cold beer on tap.

On a good day, the Boucaniers draw upwards of 100 spectators, a decent-sized crowd by the standards of the 12-team league, which is largely unknown even to most French people. Still, the games themselves are surprisingly competitive, thanks in part to the handful of foreign recruits each team is allowed to contract.

Montpellier’s foreign contingent is made up entirely of Venezuelans: a pitcher and two infielders. And in the opener of the Bastille Day double-header, the pitcher — a former AA-level lefty named Kevin Canelón — is having his way with La Rochelle’s lineup. He strikes out 10 in seven innings, and keeps the Boucaniers scoreless on just five hits.

The only La Rochelle player who isn’t confounded by Canelón’s mastery of the mound is the catcher, who collects three of those five hits. The quiet American delivers even more of an offensive onslaught in the second game, going four-for-five with a double, a homer and three RBIs, pushing his season average above the .400 mark.

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Baker is tied for the league lead in hits.

Jesse Baker is having a heck of a first season in France, where he’s also among the league leaders in hits and total bases. And yet, as impressive as his D1 debut has been, it’s not entirely surprising given the track record Baker has compiled over the course of his unconventional baseball odyssey.

These are the kinds of numbers he also put up back at EWC, and again when he shook off the disappointment of not being drafted and opted to play “indy” ball for associations like the Pecos League, which hire unaffiliated players — guys who aren’t under contract with an MLB organization.

“Honestly, it just took time,” he says of draft-night letdown. “Playing independent ball helped, it helped a lot. I was playing against ex-affiliate guys and competing with them, and doing well. And that gave me peace at night. I’d just say, ‘Hey, they overlooked a good ball player.”

‘Work to live’

Baseball may not have carried Baker to the heights he once hoped for, but it has taken him places he never imagined. And of all the towns he’s touched down in over the years, none was more unexpected than La Rochelle.

The Sebring native had never, in fact, been out of the United States before March, when he arrived in this picturesque, coastal city of about 70,000. La Rochelle is like nothing he’d ever seen or experienced. The language is different, obviously, along with the food, the historic architecture, the climate, even the kinds of coffee they serve.

It also struck Baker as odd to see people enjoying a beer on their lunch breaks. “You wouldn’t see that in the States,” he says. “But everyone here, they enjoy the quality of life a lot more. It’s not live to work, it’s work to live.”

In some ways, that same spirit also applies to Baker’s first months with the La Rochelle baseball team. That’s not to say he and the other Boucaniers aren’t serious about what they do. But unlike his seasons with independent-league teams like the Train Robbers of Bakersfield, California or the Saguaros of Tucson, Arizona, in France he only plays on weekends, usually just on Sundays. That also means less travel time for road-games.

“It’s brutal,” Baker says of his grueling baseball schedule in the United States. “We just called it the grind. Playing every day. You play three games in one town, hop on a bus, go back home or head to another town and play a three-game set. You do that for three, four, five months a year. And at the end of it you’re just flat out exhausted.”

It was so tiring, so hard on the body, that after the 2018 season, Baker thought about finally calling it quits. But then the call from La Rochelle came through with an offer he just couldn’t refuse. It wasn’t the money that lured him — the D1’s foreign recruits tend to make more of a stipend than a proper salary — but rather the chance to try something so completely different.

Part of Baker’s job with the Boucaniers is to share his experience and knowledge of the game with the club’s younger players — to coach in other words. It’s a role that suits him well. Baker has always been an exemplary team player, and as his playing days wind down, coaching is a natural transition.

It’s been such a good fit, in fact, that the hard-hitting catcher is already planning to come back for a second season in La Rochelle. “For all the guys that get a chance to come play overseas, take it,” Baker says. “It’s a different experience. You see life from a different perspective. And it’s just wild.”

Fish out of water

Putting on a hitting clinic like he did on Bastille Day has to feel pretty good too, especially for a player that didn’t get all the breaks he maybe deserved in baseball. But what’s even more impressive than Baker’s plate production is his perseverance, and his continued willingness to put himself in unfamiliar situations.

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Baker (left) in a meeting on the mound.

After being overlooked in the draft, Baker made sure first of all to complete his biology degree at EWC. In doing so he became the first member of his family to graduate university.

But he was also determined to keep his baseball dreams alive, even if that meant playing in the obscurity of places like Salinas, Kansas, or Grand Prairie, Texas.

Between 2015 and 2018, Baker’s baseball journey took him across the United States and back again, numerous times, and with off-seasons spent living with his parents in Florida and working at Home Depot. And still he kept at it, eventually making it all the way across the Atlantic, where he’s admittedly a fish out of water.

La Rochelle may be a relatively small city, but for Baker — who spent a lot of time back in Florida hunting and fishing — it can feel overwhelming at times. He’s a “country boy,” to use his own words, an American-as-apple-pie kind of guy in a place that couldn’t be more quintessentially French.

And yet, that was never going to stop Baker from trying the experience on for size, just as he did six years earlier, when he accepted an offer to attend EWC, Florida’s first historically black college. As a blond, blue-eyed white guy for a small-town, he stood out like a sore thumb at the predominately African-American school. But what his coach remembers is how “Jesse was just Jesse”— how authentic he was.

“He’d be walking around with his belt buckle, camouflage hat, cowboy boots, and everybody loved him. He was Jesse,” Coach Johnson recalls.

More recently, a baseball coach in Texas contacted Baker about playing for a team called the AirHogs. There was just one caveat: most of the players were Chinese nationals — sent over to hone their skills in hopes of helping China qualify for a World Baseball Classic — and few spoke any English. Again, Baker decided to just go for it.

Coach Johnson, for one, isn’t surprised by any of her former protégée’s choices. “That’s who Jesse is,” he says. “Jesse’s not afraid to put himself in uncharted territory and have fun. He’s a great guy, a great teammate. Jesse will fit in anywhere. And I’m proud of him.”

By Benjamin Witte (benjawitte@gmail.com)

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