BÉZIERS — The grass may be a bit patchy in places, and the infield in need of some grooming, but the backdrop is arguably the most stunning of any baseball park in France.
Dominating the view beyond the outfield fences is the gothic Saint-Nazaire Cathedral, the defining feature in the old-world skyline of Béziers, which rises up in the distance above the Orb River. Nearby, but invisible from the field, is the Canal de Midi, meandering towards its end point on the Mediterranean sea, just a few kilometers away. Along the other side of the park the occasional freight train rumbles by.
Lionel Teixidor has his eyes focused on the foreground, however. On this sunny Saturday in mid January, the vice-president and general manager of the Béziers Pirates baseball club is watching the action on the diamond, where about a dozen pint-sized players are trying — and mostly struggling — to field grounders.
“They’re the future of the club,” he says of the group, all aged 9 and under (U-9).
A lifestyle choice
To the uninitiated, the number and diversity of French baseball clubs may come as a surprise. The sport is everywhere, but also nowhere, at least terms of public awareness. It’s confidential, as they say here — hidden, but in plain sight.
Still, baseball and softball are growing in France, as evidenced by the total number of registered players. Nationwide there are now approximately 14,000, up from 8,600 a decade ago, according to the FFBS, France’s nearly century-old baseball and softball federation.
What’s more, the people who do play here bring a remarkable amount of passion to the table. And ultimately, it’s that love of the game — and the camaraderie among and even between clubs — that has kept the sport alive in the face of a prevailing culture that is largely inclined to ignore it.
“More than a passion, I’d say that baseball in France is a lifestyle,” says Lionel Teixidor, who took up the sport quite by chance starting when he himself was just 9 years old, at a recreation center in the nearby village of Montady, population 4,000.
There happened to be a ball and bat there and, more importantly still, an instructor of sorts who eventually organized the boys into a team — the Tigers! “After that I never stopped,” he explains. Teixidor and his older brother, also a baseball player, later joined the Béziers Pirates club, which was launched in 1987 and initially had only a “senior” team, for teenagers and adults.
These days the senior squad participates in France’s D2 (second-division) league, and finished third last season behind the hot hitting of 21-year-old infielder Alexandre Deschamps, who batted a sizzling .526 in 26 games, and some dominant pitching by Riley Moore of California, who went 11-4 with a stingy 0.88 ERA.
A second wind
The Pirates also have a co-ed softball team, and on Sunday, Feb. 2 will host the finals of the Winter Series, an off-season league for clubs from all around the southern Occitanie region. But as recently as a decade ago, the organization was struggling to stay afloat. Starting in the late 2000s, Teixidor explains, a lot of club members left — for personal or professional reasons, or to go study elsewhere.
The player/coach had been with the Pirates for about 10 years at that point, and the wave of departures felt like the end of an era, the twilight of what had been a special time in his life. “The club had given me everything: trips, friendships, adventures, even thrills,” he says.
Teixidor admits that he considered parting ways himself, to go play for another club — Montpellier, perhaps, or Toulouse. But he also saw himself as “the natural person” to take over the helm, and ultimately decided to stick it out and try to give back to the Pirates all that the club had given him over the years. “I said to myself, ‘No, we’re going to be patient, and we’re going to rebuild.’”
Guiding the ship during those interim years wasn’t easy, but Teixidor received a boost, starting in 2013, when François Bonnet, the current club president and one of the original founders, agreed to come back aboard. Having that second person to help organize the club made all the difference, Teixidor recalls.
“When you no longer feel like you’re all alone, you get a second wind,” he says. “[Bonnet] decided to rejoin me on this adventure, and we got to work in a really serious way. With a lot of passion and desire.”
From 2 to 27
Their natural impulse was to focus on the senior team, which Teixidor coaches and still plays for (he hit an impressive .427 last season and led the squad in RBIs, with 28). And in regional competition, the team did very well, evening winning the Occitanie championship in 2016.
But Teixidor and Bonnet also knew that for the Pirates to have a viable future they’d need to cultivate the youth teams too. “At the senior level we dominated the regional championship, but we couldn’t do anything else,” Teixidor explains. “We didn’t have any kids, very few coaches. We were basically just two people trying to do everything for the club.”
The situation was particularly grim for the U-9 category. Membership dropped at one point to just two players. That was about five years ago. And just as he had several years earlier when so many of his teammates and friends left the club, Teixidor — this time with Bonnet working alongside him — faced a choice.
“That was the transition year, the year we had just two kids,” he says. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘What do we do? Do we stop? Or do we continue?’ And we decided that if we stop, we’d be back to zero. If we continue, at least we’d start with two. So we started with two, and later got it up to 10, then 15, then 20 — over the course of five years.”
This year the Pirates have a record 27 players aged 9 and under, along with 14 in the U-12 category, and 18 players for the U-15 team. Overall membership in the club currently stands at more than 110, up from about 40 in 2013, the year Bonnet returned. And for the first time in the 33-year history of the Pirates, the club is able to field a full team for every competition category.
“That was our goal, and we finally did it,” Teixidor says. “It’s a real victory. One that means even more than any kind of victory we can have on the field.”
By Benjamin Witte (firstname.lastname@example.org)