SAINT-ÉTIENNE — One of the cold economic realities of baseball in France is that to make ends meet, most players also need to hold down a job. Hasely Medina is no exception, and in his case, that means working the night shift for an American auto-accessory manufacturer.
But while the brawny 38-year-old works to live, what he really lives for is playing ball, even if that means hours-long weekend commutes from his home in Saint-Étienne, an industrial city near Leon, to places like Nice, where he played last year.
This season he’ll be joining the Cometz baseball club in Metz, on the complete opposite end of the country. It’ll be his fifth French team since arriving here more than a decade ago from Cuba.
It was there, in Havana’s La Timba neighbirhood, where Medina first began playing béisbol — the island nation’s national sport — at age five. That same year his father left Cuba for the United States.
Medina stayed behind with his mother, a dancer, and two sisters, and shared a home near the Plaza de la Revolución with his large extended family.
“There were 22 of us,” he recalls. “In the family we had doctors, musicians and athletes. I took the baseball track. I always followed the example of my uncle, who was a good player.”
Growing up, the sport was everything for the young Habanero. He played before school, at school, and again after school. And like every other baseball-obsessed kid in Cuba, he dreamed of playing one day for the national team.
“It’s not about the money. In Cuba it’s about representing the country. Wearing the jersey,” Medina explains. “At least that’s how it was in my time. I hope that hasn’t changed. The young people today are different. Things evolve.”
What hasn’t changed is the level of play. The talent pool is deep on the Caribbean island, and as good as Medina was — and still is — he eventually reached his ceiling within the Cuban system. As a teenager he was pre-selected for the all-city team in Havana, but playing against guys who in a few cases even made it to the major leagues in the United States, the competition eventually proved too fierce.
What Medina couldn’t have known then was that decades later he’d still be playing ball, albeit across the ocean, in France’s top-division league, the D1, as well as in Poland, which is where, incidentally, he rang in the New Year.
He goes there occasionally to work out, Medina explains. He likes to run in the cold winter air, and swim in chilly water. Poland, apparently, does a body good.
That the nearly 40-year-old player would go to such lengths to keep in shape is testament to his determination. And it’s not just during the off-season that Medina has to self-motivate. Last year, playing for Nice Cavigal, he could only really be with the team for game days — Sundays — meaning that during the rest of the week, he had to work out alone, keeping his skills sharp by whatever means available. The Cuban will face a similar situation this season with the Metz club.
His fondness for Poland also says a lot about who Medina is as a person, and how he’s changed since leaving Cuba and starting an entirely new life in Europe. “Baseball’s not even my favorite sport,” he says. “What I really like is skiing.” He’s not joking — Medina hits the slopes every chance he can.
“Friends tell me I’m the strangest Cuban they’ve ever met,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t really eat much rice. I go back to Cuba and I can’t really handle the heat anymore. I don’t really dance salsa. And I don’t drink rum. I don’t like it. Can you believe that?”
Like a rolling stone
What Medina does like is trying new things and taking on different challenges, which is good, because since first joining the D1, he has certainly made the rounds, starting with Paris Université Club (PUC), a team that dominated the league in the 1970s and 80s but hasn’t won a championship since 2000.
It was with PUC that Medina also had his most memorable season — in 2014 — when the team went 21-7 and made it all the way to the league championship series after knocking out the Rouen Huskies. Rouen went into the season having won nine straight titles, and has won the championship every season since then too, but that year the Sénart Templiers took the crown after beating PUC in the finals.
Since then the Cuban has taken on a real journeyman role, with stints in Chartres, Saint-Just-Saint-Rambert (just a few kilometers northwest of Saint-Étienne), Nice and, starting this year, in Metz. “It’s thanks to baseball that I’ve really gotten to know France,” he says. “The sport has given me so much.”
But at each stop on his baseball journey, Medina has also put a lot into the sport, and into each of the teams that have given him an opportunity— and even after all these years and regardless of the talent level around him.
His most recent port of call, Nice, wasn’t even in the D1 until last season, when the French baseball federation (the FFBS) decided to expand the league from eight to 12 teams. Not surprisingly, Nice Cavigal struggled, especially in the regular phase of the season. But with Medina’s arrival in May (he joined late because of contract issues), things started to turn around a bit. They won six of their last 10 games, and the Cuban himself had a phenomenal year at the plate, hitting .461 — tops in the league — with 41 hits and two home runs in just 89 at bats.
He’s now hoping to repeat that success and help lift the Metz Cometz into the D1’s upper echelon. “I made it,” Medina says about his unconventional baseball career. “And I’m not done yet.”
By Benjamin Witte (firstname.lastname@example.org)