Friends, family members and affiliates of the Vipères baseball club in Valenciennes, in the far north of France, were in high spirits this past weekend, and with good reason.
It’s now been 30 years since the club was established, and to celebrate, the Vipères threw a two-day bash with food, drinks, live music, and, of course, plenty of opportunities to play baseball.
Club president and cofounder Marc Williamson recalls that early on, the Vipères were only able to attract nine members — literally the bare minimum to field a baseball team. Today the organization has teams for all age groups (there are 12 in total, including a cricket team) and nearly 200 members.
Not only that, but this past season marked the first time in club history that the Vipères participated in the country’s top-division of baseball, the semi-professional D1. In fact, it was more of a leap than an ascent considering that in 2018, the club’s top team played two rungs down, in the D3.
Red Sox fever
The Vipères owe their promotion to a decision by the FFBS, French baseball’s governing body, which chose starting this year to expand the top league from eight to 12 teams. But it was also thanks to the decades of hard work and dedication by the club’s many players and volunteers — and to the vision of its founders — that the Vipères qualified for one of the coveted new D1 slots.
“It’s a national recognition, and also a big deal locally, because there aren’t that many teams from our city [in any sport] that have had an opportunity to play in the first division. It’s an acknowledgement for the players too,” Williamson told Le Baseblog in a phone interview.
The club president was still a teenager when he first caught the baseball bug. He has family in England, he explained, and was exposed early on to cricket. But it was on a trip to New England, in the United States, that his passion for bat-and-ball games really blossomed.
It was the late 1980s, and to get his English up to snuff, Williamson went for a couple of weeks to Providence, Rhodes Island. “There I became a big fan of the Boston Red Sox, because we watched the games every day,” he said.
That, and a subsequent trip to the United States — this time to New Hampshire — planted the seed in his mind to start his own baseball club, a seed that began taking root when, back in Valenciennes, he spotted a young man at his school wearing a Minnesota Twins t-shirt. The two got to talking and voila! The rest, as they say, is history.
A rough start
Little did they know back then just how much the club would grow, and that 30 years later the Vipères would be competing in the D1 alongside the country’s powerhouse clubs like the Rouen Huskies and Sénart Templiers.
That it did is clearly cause for celebration. Thus the festivities last weekend at Vipères Park, on the banks of the l’Escaut Canal. But the 2019 season was also a challenge for the D1 newcomers — to say the least.
In their first official appearance in France’s “big league,” the Vipères faced off against the Savigny Lions, and got crushed, losing both halves of a double header (1-9 and 6-20). Things didn’t get any easier the following weekend against the reigning (and future) champs, the Huskies, who beat Valenciennes 15-2 and 14-0.
The Vipères would end up losing their first 22 games of the season, many of them blowouts. “So far they’re struggling a lot,” Williamson acknowledged. “The pitching is a lot stronger [in the D1], with lots of different effects, more careful placement of the ball.”
But there were also some bright spots in the season. Abraham Antepaz, an outfielder from Venezuela, batted .323, with 32 hits and four home runs in 99 at-bats. And after all that losing to start the campaign, the team’s first win — when it finally came, on July 7 against Paris UC — was that much sweeter.
The Vipères beat Paris UC again later in the month, and again with pitcher Sabu Fernando Valera of Venezuela on the mound. Valera finished the season 2-1 with a 3.71 ERA. The team as a whole went 2-30 on the year, a rough D1 debut indeed, but also an important learning experience.
The good news is that Valenciennes will be back in the D1 for the 2020 season and, with a bit of luck and plenty of hard work, the team will hopefully have a bit more success the next time around. “It takes time to adapt, but little by little the guys are getting habituated,” said Williamson.
By Benjamin Witte (firstname.lastname@example.org)