Would The MLB Really Play Ball In Paris?

Baseball is growing in France — petit à petit (illustration credit: Bertrand Hauger)

MONTPELLIER — A recent visit by a representative of the world’s foremost baseball league has people wondering if the MLB might eventually field a game or two in France.

Given how little most people here seem to know or care about the sport, the prospect seems, at first glace, a little far-fetched. But the MLB has been clear that it wants to make more inroads in Europe, and if that’s the case, what better place to shine a spotlight on the league than in the City of Light? In other words, pourquoi pas Paris?

MLB’s senior vice president for international, Jim Small, posed exactly that question in an interview with Sport Stratégies, a sports marketing publication in France, where he touched down earlier this month and even took a tour of the country’s biggest sports stadium, the Stade de France.

“It’s still early,” he said about the possibility of holding a showcase game in Paris. “[But] we’re going to see what might be done.”

Just how serious Small is about the possibility remains to be seen. But he did take the time, while in the French capital, to meet with the minister of sports, Roxana Maracineanu, as well as with Didier Seminet, head of country’s baseball and softball federation, the FFBS.

People here already like MLB gear. But could they get into the game? (B. Witte)

The visit came less than four months after the MLB made headlines by holding its first ever regular-season games on this side of the pond — in London, where approximately 120,000 people turned out for a pair of meetings between the arch-rival New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

And as part of its ongoing effort to build an “old world” fanbase, the league has already committed to repeating the experiment next summer, with games planned featuring the Chicago Cubs and Saint Louis Cardinals.

England is a logical springboard for the North American league given the shared language and a culture that already holds bat-and-ball games (especially cricket) in high esteem. But unbeknownst to many, baseball also has its followers — and players, and leagues of their own — in mainland Europe.

France is no exception. There are dozens of baseball clubs scattered around the country, teams for all age groups, and a semi-pro league — the D1 — that even recruits players from abroad. And while it’s true that the sport flies very much below the radar still, there’s also evidence that it’s growing: according to the FFBS, the country’s various clubs now have nearly 14,000 registered members, up from 8,600 a decade ago.

What France doesn’t have is the kind of pioneer player — an international star — who can do for baseball what the recently retired Tony Parker did for French basketball. Someone who can raise the sport’s profile, in other words, and reposition it from the fringe to the mainstream.

Interestingly, neighboring Germany does have a player of that stature: star outfielder Max Kepler, who grew up in Berlin before being recruited, a decade ago, by Minnesota Twins.

“Having heroes like Max Kepler is huge for us. They’re the fertilizer that will help us continue to grow the sport,” Jim Small told the U.S. sports network ESPN earlier this year. “We’re not where we want to be, but when you consider where we once were in Europe, we’re definitely making progress.”

D1 players Larry Infante (left) and Carlos Belonis (right) both played in the U.S. before coming to France (B. Witte)

Europe has a few other rising stars as well. Martin Cervenka, a catcher from the Czech Republic, plays for a Double-A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, and a player from Italy, Alberto Mineo, has made it to the Double-A level with the Toronto Blue Jays organization.

France, for its part, has never had a player reach the MLB, but it does have a few who’ve made it to the minor leagues in the U.S. Teenage pitcher Yoan Antonac, who grew up playing for the Montpellier Barracudas club, in the south, signed a deal just last year with the Philadelphia Phillies organization.

Another French player who has drawn attention in recent years is a young woman named Mélissa Mayeux, who currently plays softball for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette but originally made a name for herself — and even drew the attention of MLB scouts — as a hardball player. She also led France to victory this past summer in the first ever Women’s European Baseball Championship, held in Rouen.

There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation when it comes to French baseball. To really take off here, the sport could definitely use a Kepler-esque ambassador. But will the country be able to produce such a star without baseball first becoming more built up, popular and mainstream?

What is clear is that a showcase MLB game (or two) in Paris — assuming it’s more than just idle talk — wouldn’t hurt matters. So there you go Monsieur Jim Small. Make it happen!

By Benjamin Witte (benjawitte@gmail.com)

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