The Cometz of Metz, in the far north of the country, had every reason to hold their heads high last season, their first in French baseball’s top division (the D1). But as Opening Day of the 2020 campaign approaches — and with teams around the league reinforcing their rosters — the club knows better than to rest on its laurels.
As newcomers to the D1, their goal in 2019 was to be competitive, avoid relegation and, above all, show they really belonged. And in every one of those respects it was mission accomplished for the Cometz, who finished seventh among the league’s 12 teams* and earned at least one win against every group they faced (with the exception of the Sénart Templiers).
That was then, however. With just about two months left before their second D1 run begins, there’s a sense in Metz that it’s either muscle up, or risk mediocrity. The team is hoping, in other words, to build on last year’s success and, if all goes according to plan, make the playoffs.
“It won’t be easy. For any of the teams. I was already impressed by the quality of the D1 last year — and I think that everybody is strengthening for 2020,” says David Ten Eyck, the club’s president. “But with a season’s experience under their belts, I’m confident that the overall level of our team will improve again.”
The man from Havana
Meeting that goal will depend on practice and hard work, and on intangibles like team chemistry and momentum. But the other big piece of the puzzle is recruitment, and on that front, Ten Eyck has had a very busy off-season, starting with the move, early in the transfer period, to bring on one of the league’s most seasoned veterans: Hasely Medina of Cuba.
A late arrival last season to Nice Cavigal — another team promoted in 2019 to the D1 — Medina, 38, quickly made up for lost time and ended the year with a league-best .461 batting average, with 41 hits (including two home runs) in just 89 at bats.
The Metz Cometz will be Medina’s fifth French baseball club since moving here from Havana more than a dozen years ago. But as he told Le Baseblog in a recent sit-down interview, his enthusiasm for the sport — and for his adopted country — hasn’t diminished one bit.
“It’s thanks to baseball that I’ve really gotten to know France,” he said. “The sport has given me so much.”
A trio of eastcoasters
The broad-shouldered Cuban won’t be the only new face in the dugout this season. Starting late last month, the Cometz announced the names of three other foreign recruits, all university graduates from the east coast of the United States.
The first is Nick Miceli, a jack-of-all-trades player who can pitch and catch. After completing his studies at Wesleyan University**, in his home state of Connecticut, the now 25-year-old took his talents to Australia, where he collected 156 strikeouts and posted a 2.66 ERA in 100 innings for the Dodgers of Golden Grove, just outside of Adelaide.
The following year (2019) Miceli not only switched continents — joining the Bonn Capitals in Germany — but also positions, playing mostly as the team’s catcher.
Joining Miceli in Metz will be another New Englander, pitcher Sören Hanson, who played for Colby College in Maine (in the same sports conference as Miceli’s alma mater) and like the Wesleyan alum, also spent a season in Australia.
A starting pitcher during his university days, Hanson moved over to relief during his time with the Canterbury Vikings, outside of Sydney, and excelled, going 5-0 and giving up just one run in 17 appearances. He also had a chance there to play third base.
More recently still, the Comtez announced that a third American player — Danny Wilson of North Carolina — will also be joining the D1 squad this year. Like the other two U.S. recruits, he is a two-way player who can hit and pitch.
A graduate of the University of North Carolina Asheville, Wilson played more than 200 games as a member of the school’s Bulldogs, which compete at the Division 1 level in U.S. collegiate athletics. His final year he started in all 52 of the team’s games, including seven as a pitcher.
Wilson also led his team in both hits (58) and RBIs (48). And over his full four-year career with the Bulldogs, he collected 132 RBIs, fifth most in school history.
Tapping into tradition
The new recruits won’t, of course, be playing alone, and for the Cometz — just as for all the teams in the D1 — success will also depend on the club’s core of homegrown French players. The defending champion Rouen Huskies, winners of the last five D1 titles, have proven that point year and again.
The Metz club did suffer one significant setback in that regard. Veteran Victorien Roze, who spent years with the club and hit an impressive .351 last year with 40 hits, will be joining the Cougars of Montigny-le-Bretonneux for the 2020 season.
But David Ten Eyck says the Cometz have also managed to bring on some new French players, and that overall, the number of adults and young adults available not just for the D1 team, but also for club’s lower division squads, is growing.
“There’s really a very rich baseball-softball tradition in the Grand Est region, and the reason we’ve had some initial success in Division 1, is that we’ve been able to tap into that tradition. That, and the fact that there’s now a very strong youth dynamic in Metz, and in the east of France in general,” the club president explains.
Ten Eyck is also hopeful that catcher/second baseman Omar Prieto, a Puerto Rican who played university ball in the United States, will be able to return for at least part of the season. Prieto batted .350 for the Cometz last year with a team-high 43 hits, and was recruited this year to play professionally in Puerto Rico. But there’s a good chance, Ten Eyck says, that he’ll be able to rejoin Metz sooner rather than later.
“That’s a big deal for us, because it will be the first time that we’ll have managed to bring back a top foreign player for a second season,” he says. “Omar’s a leader — well-respected in the club, and around the D1, and he knows the way we work. So having his arrival to look forward to helps us a lot.”
Whether it’s enough to boost Metz into the playoffs remains to be seen. But where there’s a will, there’s a way, and the Cometz — despite their relative inexperience in the D1 — certainly seem motivated.
“There will be a lot of hard fought games, all through the season. And I don’t think anybody will have an easy ride in the quarter-finals,” Ten Eyck says. “It’s going to be a big challenge for our players. But ultimately, that’s good for the D1, and for French baseball.”
By Benjamin Witte (email@example.com)
*The D1 will have just 11 teams for the 2020 season due to the relegation of the Valenciennes Vipères, another newcomer to the league last year.
**Full disclosure: the author also graduated from Wesleyan University so will do his best (but no promises) not to be overtly biased in favor of Nick Miceli (the league’s new greatest player).