SÉNART — Nothing is more daunting for an athlete than deciding when and how to call it quits. That’s the dilemma Daniel Jackson grappled with last autumn after wrapping up his second season of “indy” baseball with the Sioux City Explorers, in Iowa.
The Explorers are one of a dozen teams in the American Association, a so-called independent league for players like Jackson who go undrafted by Major League Baseball (MLB) but have the will and talent to keep playing regardless. For the lucky ones, such teams can be a launching pad to bigger and better opportunities, which is what Jackson, 24, was hoping for. But after a grueling, 89-game season in which the former Long Beach State standout hit .261 with three homers and 48 RBIs, the offers never came.
“I’d worked my ass off all year to try and get picked up, and it just didn’t happen. And at the point where I was at, I kinda felt out of love with the game,” he recalls.
Brendan Jenkins, could relate, and not just because Jackson — whom he’d known since middle school in Pleasanton, California — had talked to him about it. Jenkins, 25, had followed a somewhat different baseball trajectory but also ended up playing for an American Association team, as a pitcher. And like Jackson, he too could sense that his playing days were coming to an end.
“I always loved college baseball in the United States because I always saw myself growing as a person and a player,” says Jenkins, who played for a junior college team before transferring to USF (University of San Francisco). “But as soon as I went to professional baseball, in the American Association, I stopped seeing myself grow as a player and a person, and so it kind of took the love out of baseball for me.”
Packing their bags
Back home in California at the end of the 2018 season, the two old friends compared notes. But they didn’t just commiserate; they hatched a plan. What if they could have one last baseball hurrah before hanging up their cleats for good? And what if, they asked themselves, they could do it together?
The impetus to their plan came from another old teammate, a guy named Evan Brisentine who currently pitches for a team in Switzerland. From him they learned, to their surprise, that there are baseball leagues in many European countries, and that teams are eager to recruit foreign talent, albeit for very modest salaries.
“[Brisentine] was the Swiss pitcher of the year last year and he was like, ‘Yeah dudes, you totally should come do this.’ So we were like, ‘Okay, let’s check it out,’” Jackson explains.
He and Jenkins also found out about a website called Baseball Jobs Overseas that specializes in matching independent players with professional or semi-pro teams around the globe, including in France, which is where the two Californians set their sights.
Their idea was to land on the same team — to play together again for the first time since high school. And after fielding offers from different clubs in the D1, as France’s 12-team, semi-professional league is known, they found just the right opportunity in Sénart, a sprawling suburb about 35 kilometers south of Paris.
“We were kind of a package deal and Sénart wanted us and it was great,” says Jackson.
That the club, the Templiers, is one of the league’s best was an added bonus, so in March, Jackson and Jenkins packed their bags and made the long trip from San Francisco to Paris.
“When the opportunity came up to play with [Jenkins] I was like, ‘I have to do this,’” says Jackson. “And taking six months to go live abroad is something I could most likely never do again in my life, so I was like, ‘Let’s do this.’ Six months, and then I’ll move on to the next chapter in my life.”
Vying for the title
Those six months are now just about over and, truth be told, living abroad hasn’t always been easy. The language barrier is particularly trying. But the two Californians have also had a lot of fun. On days off they sometimes take the commuter train into Paris, where mostly they just wander around checking out the sights, taking occasional breaks to idle in sidewalk cafes.
“In America they get you in and out of restaurants, but here you sit down for two hours. And no one’s on their phone,” says Jackson. “Plus we don’t have [mobile] service, so we’re not on our phones either. We just get to sit and talk and relax and walk around.” That’s something Jenkins appreciates about France too: the long lunches. Nothing’s rushed. “It’s actually its own event,” he says.
Their main focus, nevertheless, has been baseball and the pursuit of a D1 championship for Sénart, which was runner-up in the league two of the previous three seasons and brought on Jackson and Jenkins as part of a major roster upgrade. The team also recruited pitcher Joe Rivera, a former Texas Rangers prospect, and outfielder Carlos Belonis, who was originally signed by the Milwaukee Brewers.
The four recruits meshed well together, and in the regular phase of the season, the Templiers posted a league-best 19-1 record. They also beat their arch-rivals, the Rouen Huskies, in a mid-season tournament called the Challenge de France. And individually, the two old baseball buddies have excelled. Jackson batted .341 during the season and led the D1 in runs scored. Jenkins went 13-2 and with a 1.68 ERA.
Earlier this month the team accomplished its goal of securing a spot in the best-of-five championship series, against Rouen. But in the first two games, played Aug. 18 in Sénart, the Templiers came out flat, giving the Huskies a commanding 2-0 series lead. With Game 3 set to take place this Saturday (Aug. 24) in Rouen, the team is now just one loss away from elimination.
Jackson and Jenkins are still hoping for an epic comeback — the ultimate storybook ending to their final season as baseball pros. And why not? Stranger things have happened. But even if they lose, the old friends head home soon knowing they were able to write this final chapter on their own terms, as teammates once again, and with memories that’ll last a lifetime.
“It’s been a great ride, but you can’t keep pushing it,” says Jenkins. “That’s why we decided to just go play baseball overseas, enjoy our time and call it a career.”
By Benjamin Witte (email@example.com)