MONTPELLIER — Bundled in a heavy, black parka, his hands buried deep in his pockets, Owen Ozanich looks on stoically as about two dozen teenagers run evening drills at Greg Hamilton Baseball Park, in the outskirts of Montpellier.
The 30-year-old pitcher and coach has been under the weather for much of the week, and the tramontane — the blast of mountain-chilled air that raked the region all afternoon — isn’t helping matters. Suffice it to say, this is not one of Ozanich’s better days.
Still, the soft spoken Franco-American from Burlington, Vermont would be the first to admit that overall, he’s at a pretty magical moment in his life. Ozanich is settling into a new city in the sunny south of France, has a new coaching job at the local pôle espoir baseball academy, and will soon be pitching for a new team: the Montpellier Barracudas.
Oh, and this week he also has a date with destiny — in the Arizona desert, which happens to be where his parents now live. It’s also where Ozanich, one of the aces for the French national team, is hoping to make history by helping his adopted country earn a first-ever berth in the World Baseball Classic (WBC).
To qualify, Team France will have to finish first or second in a five-day tournament that begins March 13 and will also feature the national teams of Germany, Pakistan, South Africa, Nicaragua and Brazil.
There to help them reach that goal is the team’s new coach: former Major League Baseball (MLB) player and manager Bruce Bochy, who famously won three World Series titles (in a span of just six years) as skipper of the San Francisco Giants.
Having someone of that stature at the helm is a new thing for French baseball. For Ozanich and his teammates, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime learning opportunity.
“It’s kind of surreal,” the Vermonter says of his collaboration with the MLB legend. “We all watched the Giants on television the last decade, and before then the Padres. My dad was a huge Padres fan, and I remember him introducing me to baseball watching Tony Gwynn, and Bruce Bochy was [Gwynn’s] teammate and then his manager. It’s definitely not something I would have ever expected.”
Two lost seasons
Besides baseball, Ozanich and Bochy have something else in common: They were both born in France. But the respective baseball trajectories that would eventually lead them to the country’s national team couldn’t have been more different.
A decade ago, when the coach won his first World Series in San Francisco, the player was on the other side of the country trying to pick up the pieces of a collegiate baseball career that had come to a crashing halt, and through no fault of his own.
Growing up, Ozanich was a bright spot in the Burlington baseball scene. A member of the only Vermont little league team to ever reach the New England title game, he also had success at South Burlington High School, winning a state championship his senior year.
That autumn the hometown hero enrolled at the University of Vermont (UVM), joining the Catamounts as a walk-on. Playing at the NCAA Division 1 level took some adjustment, especially when it became apparent that another player — a future major leaguer named Matt Duffy — would beat him out for the starting shortstop role. Ozanich persevered, though, by focusing instead on pitching, and had a relatively successful first year with the team.
But just before the start of his sophomore season, in 2009, word came down that for budget reasons, UVM would be axing its baseball and softball programs at the end of the school year. For the players, the announcement was both unexpected and deflating, and in Ozanich’s case, his numbers that second season — his last — took a dive.
“It was really disappointing, especially being a Vermonter,” he recalls. “I think there were two or three Vermonters on the team, and it was tough. It’s tough for anybody, but especially if it’s your home state, you feel it a little more I think.”
The program’s demise also presented Ozanich with a tough decision: transfer to another university to keep playing NCAA ball, or focus on just finishing up his degree requirements in Burlington. The pitcher chose the latter, even it meant forgoing the game he loved. And that, in turn, meant rethinking his post-graduation plans.
By the autumn of 2010 — just as Bochy was hoisting his first MLB championship trophy — Ozanich was contemplating the possibility of working for Delta Airlines.
“Looking back at it now, I don’t know how close I was to getting drafted,” he says. “But I know that five other guys from the team did end up getting drafted, and that can only happen after your third year or fourth year, so that chance was done away with.”
Best laid plans
What Ozanich didn’t count on was an unsolicited phone call from France, where his status as a dual French-American citizen had caught the attention of the Rouen Huskies, the then — and still now — reigning national champions in France’s top-division, semi-pro baseball league, the D1.
Baseball is hardly big business here. And yet, scattered throughout the country, are clubs full of passionate players, coaches and administrators. The top organizations compete in the D1, which features a mix of local, mostly unpaid amateurs and professionals, many of the foreign imports, who earn more of a stipend than a proper salary.
Despite the paltry pay, the offer — to come play for Rouen that summer and also try out for the French national team — was one that Ozanich just couldn’t refuse. Delta Airlines, he figured, could wait. A foray in France, he imagined, could be a lot of fun.
But it was also an opportunity to break back into baseball, and one that the former Catamount was determined not to squander. Ozanich pitched for the Huskies that summer, and pitched well, helping them win their seventh title in a row and eighth in nine years. Soon came an offer to play winter ball in Australia.
The following summer he was back in Rouen, for the second season of what would end up being an eight-year run with the team. During that span Ozanich posted an incredible 91-15 record, with 748 strikeouts, and in 2015 completed the only perfect game in league history. In the meantime, he established himself as a regular with the French national team. Needless to say, that Delta Airlines job he’d put on hold his first summer in France never happened.
More recently, though, Ozanich did experience one significant setback: After the 2018 season, the UVM alum took his talents to the higher caliber Italian Baseball League (IBL), where he signed with Parma Clima, the same team former Red Sox slugger Manny Ramírez is slated to join this year. But after a strong start with the club, Ozanich took a line drive to the shin last June that broke his leg.
It was the first major injury of his unlikely career, and served as a bit of a wake-up call, a reminder that the wild ride he’s been on since coming to Europe won’t last forever. The injury was one of the reasons he decided to return to France and find a city and a situation — with the Montpellier Barracudas organization — where he could start to put down some deeper roots.
The time he lost last season is also an added motivation as he prepares to take the mound in Arizona — to prove that he can still play at a high level, and to take advantage of this opportunity, especially with Bruce Bochy onboard, to make a little French baseball history.
“It feels different because I think we’re getting hungrier, and the guys that are still around from the past decade or so want it more every time,” he says of the WBC qualifier tournament, which kicks off Friday, with France taking on Germany, one of the tougher draws in the pool.
“It’s hard to say in advance how the chemistry is going to be, but we feel like everything’s aligning itself in the right place,” Ozanich adds. “And obviously, with someone like Bruce Bochy as a manager that just adds to our confidence. We like our chances.”
By Benjamin Witte (firstname.lastname@example.org)