Why France Is Getting So Into The Spirit Of … Baseball5!

A whole different ball game (credit: Bertrand Hauger)

MONTPELLIER — The newspapers didn’t cover it, and except for the organizers and participants, no one was there to watch. But on a sunny Saturday in December, just outside the medieval center of Montpellier, a couple of dozen French university students made sports history.

More specifically, they spent the afternoon smacking a squishy, bright yellow ball and sprinting from base to base, their sneakers squeaking loudly on the gymnasium floor of the Montpellier CREPS (Centre de Ressources, d’Expertise et de Performance Sportive) sports complex. And by the look of things, they had a lot of fun doing it.

“Once you learn [the rules] it’s very very cool. You have your game plan and you just enjoy it. It’s very cool,” Sabrina, an exchange student from southern Germany who is working on a physical education degree at the University of Montpellier, told Le Baseblog.

Baseball5 was the last thing the 21-year-old expected to get involved in when she arrived in France three months ago. And yet, there she was representing her new school against a group of fellow physical education students from the nearby University of Nîmes in what turned out to be the country’s inaugural, inter-university competition for the sport.

“It’s a real first,” said Lahcène Benhamida, a technical advisor with France’s national baseball and softball federation, the FFBS, and the lead organizer of the event. “It’s a ‘friendly’ meeting, because we’re not registered as a part of a specific university championship, but I get the impression that the students are really competing. Each team really wants to win.”

All you need is a ball

Sabrina can be forgiven for knowing nothing about Baseball5 prior to her arrival in France. Few people here have ever heard of it either. The same goes for just about everywhere else in the world, which makes sense given that the sport was only established in an official sense — by the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) — last year.

There’s no bat, but players still run the bases (B. Witte)

Its origins, though, are much older. As the name suggests, Baseball5 is a derivative of baseball, but differs in some pretty fundamental regards. There’s no pitcher, no bat, and players don’t need mitts.

Also, there are just five players per team rather than nine — thus the “five” part of the name. But there is a ball — a rubber one that the “batters” serve to themselves, by tossing it into the air and smacking it into play — and bases to run.

Baseball5 is actually a codified version of a street variant of baseball that developed in Cuba and elsewhere around the Caribbean, and that the WBSC is making a concerted effort right now to push on a global scale.

The confederation’s logic is that Baseball5 is more accessible than traditional baseball and softball, and could thus serve as a kind of gateway to help grow the parent sports. Again, it doesn’t require any expensive equipment, the rules are watered down, and since the bases are just 13 meters apart — as opposed to 27.4 meters (90 feet) — it can be played just about anywhere.

It’s a game, furthermore, that requires skill, but depends less on speed and strength, and is naturally adapted, its promoters claim, for co-ed competition, which is how the one-day tournament in Montpellier was organized, with men and women sharing the field.

The students from Nîmes have been practicing Baseball5 on a regular basis for two months now, and together formed three teams for the Saturday event. The less experienced Montpellier students had one team. A fifth team was made up of athletes connected to the CREPS, a publicly-funded sports training center.

Fair ball! (B. Witte)

The CREPS players, with their formidable physiques, were by far the most developed athletes in the competition. But they were also complete Baseball5 novices and finished dead last, apparently proving the point about the sport favoring skill over strength. One of the three Nîmes teams finished first.

Spreading the word

To promote the sport, the WBCS has created promotional videos, organized a handful of international events, and helped finance projects within individual countries.

Interestingly, France has proven to be a willing partner in the effort despite the fact that baseball and softball continue to be what people here describe as confidentiel. They’ve never gone mainstream, in other words, even though there’s a semi-professional baseball league — the D1, which recruits a number of foreign players — and dozens of clubs around the country with baseball and softball teams for all ages and skill levels.

“Baseball and softball are developing here little by little. It’s gradual, but progressive,” the FFBS’s Lahcène Benhamida, who’s been involved in the sports for about 30 years now, explained. “By that I mean that we’re one of the rare [sports] federations that gains new members every year — to the tune of about 500 to 700. It’s a good sign, and shows that the work we’re doing as a federation is paying off.”

Still, selling baseball and softball as a worthy pastime has never been easy or obvious in France. And that raises the question of whether it’s worth trying now to promote an even more obscure version. The FFBS, nevertheless, feels confident that Baseball5 can take off here, and that its accessibility will benefit traditional baseball and softball.

Last year, on the CREPS campus in Montpellier, the Federation and WBCS helped build Europe’s first permanent Baseball5 field. The facility opened in October, 2018.

New sport, new field (B. Witte)

That same month, the FFBS sent a team to Havana, Cuba for one of the sport’s first international tournaments. One of the players chosen to represent France was Carrie Pitcher, 28, a Montpellier native who is a fixture on the country’s national softball team.

“It was just a wonderful experience,” she said of her Cuban adventure. The best part of the trip? “The beach,” Pitcher joked. “And the mojitos.”

The Baseball5 promotional effort is in even fuller swing this year, with training sessions being offered in French schools and universities, and competitions like the one Benhamida organized in Montpellier. And in early 2020, on the weekend of Jan. 18-19 in Paris, the FFBS will hold its biggest Baseball5 event to date: a two-day French Open at INSEP, the Institut National du Sport, de l’Expertise et de la Performance, in the 12th arrondissement.

“People are already interested in our discipline,” Benhamida said of baseball and softball. “Now, thanks to Baseball5, we’re trying to open them up even more to the public.”

By Benjamin Witte (benjawitte@gmail.com)

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