MONTPELLIER — It may be autumn, when most baseball players are happy to hang up their cleats and enjoy a bit or rest and relaxation, but pitcher Owen Ozanich is itching already to get back on the field.
Given what he went through back in June, the right-hander can be forgiven his eagerness. Midway through his first season with Parma Clima, one of Italy’s top baseball clubs, Ozanich took a line drive to the leg that shattered his shin bone.
The gruesome injury put a premature end to what had been a strong Italian-league debut for the French-American pitcher, who did most of his growing up in Burlington, Vermont, but moved to France after university to join both the French national team and the country’s best professional club, the Rouen Huskies.
Four months after that fateful game in Parma, Ozanich is back in France, only rather than return to Rouen, the veteran pitcher opted to bring his talents south, to join the Barracudas in sunny Montpellier.
The weather, as he explains in the interview below, wasn’t the only draw: the 30-year-old is also excited about his new team’s prospects for the 2020 season — and with good reason.
The Barracudas haven’t won France’s top-division baseball league, the D1, since three-peating in the mid 1990s, when the legendary Canadian coach Greg Hamilton was at the helm. Nevertheless, they tend to be one of the league’s more competitive teams, and finished third in the 12-team D1 this past season.
With Ozanich on board, Montpellier should now have one of the league’s top pitching staffs. The team has plenty of young talent too, and word has it that fan favorite Larry Infante, who batted .348 this year and previously played alongside Ozanich in Rouen, will be back too.
The Barracudas have plenty of potential, in other words. But first they’ll need practice and, for Ozanich in particular, a bit of patience. Opening day, after all, is still six months away.
(The interview below has been edited for clarity and brevity)
Question: Earlier this year you suffered a pretty serious injury. What went through your head at that moment?
Owen Ozanich: I definitely thought about what’s next, as it was happening. I remember thinking that. [My teammates] were like, ‘Don’t look, don’t look. Look up.’ And I remember thinking, ‘S**t, this is not good.’
Q: Thankfully you recovered quickly, and in fact, Parma Clima invited you to come back for the 2020 season. Why did you choose instead to return to France?
OO: I told them I was more focused on the long term rather than on just one more season, or maybe two more seasons. I said that for me the most important thing was the long term, having the opportunity to have a real impact not just as a player, but as a coach eventually.
I feel like I did well this year, but if I have the opportunity to have something more concrete in baseball and have an opportunity to coach, then why not — especially with the injury — why not make the move?
Q: What about the Montpellier Barracudas makes you feel like you’ll have that opportunity, that impact?
OO: [Montpellier coach] Jean Michel [Mayeur] and I were actually talking before. And I think when the injury happened it made everything come into perspective. You realize how quickly everything can change, and so then we really started talking about how good of a team we could have here, and what my role could be, not only with the Division 1 team, but with the club in general.
With Jean Michel we’re going to start a pitching school that will focus primarily on the youth teams all the way up to the guys in the academy, or maybe even older, like the Division 1 guys. It’s something that’s needed, because throughout the levels of baseball in France, the general weakness seems to be the pitching.
It’s a long-term project for sure. It’s not just one year or two years, it’s a long-term project. To have someone with the vision like Jean Michel, I mean, I don’t think there are too many people like that in France, who have that vision and are really just baseball guys, so that made it even more appealing to come here.
Q: I understand that you’re also going to coach the club’s Under-15 team. As a player, though, how does it feel to be returning to France’s D1?
OO: There are two sides of it. On the one hand, when I left France I felt like I didn’t have much more to prove, or I felt like that sense of motivation was kind of gone. Now, coming back from this injury to a club that hasn’t won in a while, in like 20 years or something, I feel like there’s a new motivation.
I feel like that fire inside is just burning to get back out there and prove to a lot people that, number one: Montpellier is a really good team; that we can win the championship. And personally that I’m still a good pitcher and a good player. So I feel like everything happened for a reason.
Q: And just how good can the Montpellier team be?
OO: I think we have a shot to win it. It sounds like Larry Infante is coming back — the shortstop who played Triple-A. Obviously everyone in France knows Larry from his days in Rouen and Paris before. And if Kevin Canelon comes back, I mean that’s the top pitcher in the league! And we have another American guy coming in, James Murray, who’s a pitcher and first baseman.
Plus there’s rumors of some younger guys coming on board, but already this team is stacked with talent. If you look at the Under-23 lineup, the national team, out of the nine players on the team, four are from Montpellier, so almost half the team. Maël Zan will be here more than last year. Fred Walter, a third baseman who’s in college in America right now, he’s a good player; Nolan Soliveres, another college guy in America; [Fabian] Kovacs…
So when you start looking at the rosters on paper, if you can imagine the Rouen lineup and the Sénart lineup, we match up pretty favorably to both of them… If we play like we’re capable of, I think we can beat Rouen for sure.
By Benjamin Witte (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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