Next Stop, Arizona: France Begins Its Quest For The World Baseball Classic

Montpellier’s Mael Zan is a relative newcomer to the national team (Image credit: B. Hauger, B. Witte)

TOULOUSE — And… they’re off! The bulk of the players representing France in the upcoming World Baseball Classic (WBC) qualifiers (March 13-18) take to the skies today with high hopes of making history in the Arizona desert.

France has never reached a WBC, a once-every-four-year event that next takes place in 2021. But there’s a sense among players and coaches that this time around, things could be different, that Team France may finally have what it takes to punch their ticket to international baseball’s biggest show.

For one thing, the event’s organizers have expanded the field for next year’s Classic from 16 to 20 teams, and that could certainly help the cause for countries, like France, that have always been on the outside looking in.

What that means in practical terms is that to qualify, the French will need to finish first or second in a six-team competition that begins March 13 in Tucson, Arizona. The five-day mini tournament will also feature the national teams of Pakistan, Brazil, South Africa, Nicaragua and Germany.

Team France feels confident too about the talent level they’re bringing to the table this time around, with a roster that includes both French and foreign-born players, some with substantial amounts of professional experience.

One of those is Ariel Soriano of the Dominican Republic, who relocated to France two years ago with his wife and twin boys after a number of years playing minor league ball with the Tampa Bay Rays organization, in the United States.

The talented Mr. Soriano, Team France’s baby-faced assassin (B. Witte)

Since his arrival, the 28-year-old has been a sensation in France’s top-division (D1) league. He took home MVP honors as a member of the La Rochelle Boucaniers in 2018, batting .411 with 37 hits in just 24 games played. Last year, with the D1 champion Rouen Huskies, Soriano was equally impressive, especially in the finals against the Sénart Templiers, when he batted a sizzling .470 in the leadoff spot.

“We’ve been preparing already for a month in Toulouse and we’ve got good team, a really good team,” he told Le Baseblog this week. “One of the coordinators told me that [France] has never had such a good team. We’re really really strong, with good pitchers, good hitters, good defense. I can’t wait for the games to begin.”

Oh, and in case you haven’t heard, Team France has a pretty good manager too: Bruce Bochy, an MLB legend whose willingness to guide Les Bleus at this critical juncture is still leaving people in the world of French baseball a little dumbstruck.

A big league player who went on to coach both the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants, the recently retired skipper famously won three World Series titles in a span of just six years (2010, 2012 and 2014).

“We’d all like to be in their place to be able to learn from [Bochy] and talk about his career. And what a career it’s been — as both a player and coach,” Jean-Michel Mayeur, head coach of the Montpellier Barracudas club, said of the players chosen for the national team. “He’s got so much big-league knowledge, of how the game works, and clearly for them it’s a real opportunity.”

Mayeur hopes all that experience could end up helping his season as well given that four of the players selected for Team France will be wearing Barracuda orange come April, when the D1 campaign kicks off.

Pitchers James Murrey and Owen Ozanich, newcomers to Montpellier this year, are both making the trip to Arizona, as is 20-year-old Mael Zan. The fourth Barracuda playing for the French national team is pitcher Ismail Pontiac, a freshman this year at Cochise College in Douglas, Arizona, southeast of Tucson on the U.S. border with Mexico.

“I’m excited about the qualifier tournament because I think they’ve put a lot of work into it,” Murrey, a Chicago native who moved to France nearly a decade ago, said of the organizers behind this particular national team. “I mean, Bruce Bochy’s going to be the manager. That’s like a hall of fame quality persona within the world of baseball. It’s a completely different dynamic.”

By Benjamin Witte (benjawitte@gmail.com)

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