Holding Out Hope For A Chance To Play Ball In France

Catcher Andy Cosgrove and Koda, his trusty husky.

MONTPELLIER — There are some things, obviously, that are bigger than baseball — even in the best of times, which this period of fast-spreading illness and upended lives most certainly is not.

Andy Cosgrove knows all that, and knows that if ever there was a moment to put matters in perspective, to relativize his own particular predicament, this is it.

“There are other people who are going through a lot worse, maybe struggling a lot financially, or maybe they’re actually sick, so I’m trying to keep a positive attitude,” the 23-year-old catcher told Le Baseblog from his home in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Be that as it may, Cosgrove — a former Minnesota Twins prospect who also spent time in the Frontier League — can be forgiven for feeling disappointed right now. “Bummed,” in his words. And unsure, like the rest of us, about what’ll happen next in this unsettling time of coranavirus, confinement and closed borders.

‘The perfect summer’

Two days from now Cosgrove was scheduled to board a plane to France for the start of what promised to be the adventure of a lifetime. It was to be his first-ever trip to Europe, and his first season in France’s top-division baseball league, the D1.

Not only that, but he and a good friend, a former Clemson University player named Patrick Cromwell, had managed to sign with the same team: the Montpellier Barracudas. Adversaries in their university days, when they’d played on rival teams in the highly competitive Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), the two young Americans would now be joining forces, and in the sunny south of France.

“It was working out to where it could be the perfect summer,” Cosgrove said.

But then came the COVID-19 outbreak, and the drastic measures being implemented here, there and everywhere to try and contain its spread.

Last Monday, March 16, the Fédération Française de Baseball & Softball (FFBS), French baseball’s governing body, announced an official moratorium on all baseball, softball and Baseball5 activities, including practices, until June 1. The next day, at noon, the entire country went into “lockdown,” with residents ordered to stay in their homes except for the occasional excursion to buy food or medicine.

Most people expect that the initial 15-day confinement period, as ordered by President Emmanuel Macron, will be extended by weeks or even months as France and other countries around the globe scramble to fend off the deadly virus that has already taken more than 11,000 lives worldwide.

Cosgrove had followed the news closely enough to know that his upcoming journey to France could be delayed. But it wasn’t until this week, when Montpellier head coach Jean-Michel Mayeur sent word of the FFBS announcement, that he knew for certain the trip was off, at least for the time being.

“I’ve been a little devastated,” he acknowledged. “Patrick [Cromwell] played in Germany last year, so he’s seen a little bit of Europe, but I’ve never been across the pond, so I was excited to get over there and live in a different culture and have new teammates. It’s just really sad.”

A waiting game

On the opposite end of the United States, in southern California, Patrick Cromwell is struggling with the unexpected turn of events as well.

The 24-year-old position player is living with his parents and siblings right now. A brother who plays college baseball in Oregon just had his season canceled and returned home yesterday. Another brother who plays for a nearby junior-college team is on a forced and indefinite hiatus too.

Cromwell (left) with Clemson teammate Chris Williams, younger brother Brian, and their father

On Thursday, California Governor Gavin Newsome issued his own “stay-at-home” order. But even before that, there wasn’t much for Cromwell to do but stick around the house. A week ago he’d tried to practice at a neighborhood high school, but got sent home by a janitor who said the property was now off limits.

“I can’t really go hit to stay in shape. I can’t really go the gym. Everything’s starting to shut down,” he told Le Baseblog just hours before the governor’s announcement. “I guess it’s just a waiting game right now, which is weird. It’s something that we’ve never been a part of. It’s just different.”

Cromwell, like Cosgrove, was champing at the bit to arrive in Montpellier. The two friends have been sending texts back and forth and even wondered, at one point, if they could push their flights forward — to make it here before the lockdown.

“I was fired up. I couldn’t wait. It helped that I was going to be able to go play with a buddy, with Andy. And obviously I was excited to play for a team like Montpellier that’s been very successful in the league. That was super enticing for me too. I played in Germany last year for a club that was… pretty bad. We were like last place, so the complete 180 to where I’d be playing for a team that was competing for a championship was super exciting for me.”

Great expectations

That the Barracudas have such high hopes for the season makes the long delay that much more of a punch in the gut.

The team already had a solid core of young, homegrown talent, and a pitcher, Kevin Canelon of Venezuela, who was lights out last season. For the 2020 campaign they added two more elite arms, Ozen Ozanich and James Murrey, and even managed to bring on a former major leaguer, 46-year-old Desi Relaford, who spent 11 years in the big leagues.

For Cosgrove, who built his baseball reputation as a defensive catcher — someone who can protect the ball and “handle a pitching staff,” as he explains — heading to a team with such a talented, experienced rotation was particularly exciting.

For now, the two friends aren’t giving up hope. They plan to fly to France in late May, just before the moratorium lifts. This year’s D1 schedule provides teams with about a month of downtime starting in late July, so presumably at least some of the missed games can be rescheduled.

“I’m thankful that they didn’t just cancel [the season] straight up, that they’re still trying to make a push to have the season,” Cromwell said. “I’m hoping that nothing else happens and we can get this thing going, cause I could still get four months over there and make the most of it.”

Montpellier looks primed for a real run this year… if they’re allowed to play (Credit: Bertrand Hauger)

But he also knows that with the coronavirus epidemic continuing to race its way around the globe, there’s no telling what will happen. Across the country, in Raleigh, Cosgrove is having to grapple with the same uncertainties. For now, at least, he still has a job coaching at a nearby sports performance facility, although more and more of the families of the children he teaches are starting to keep their kids at home.

Cromwell, for his part, doesn’t yet have a back up plan. Baseball players can’t telework, obviously, so if the D1 season ends up being canceled, he’ll have look for a job of some kind, depending of course on when he’s allowed to leave the house.

The situation raises larger questions too — about when and where the two players will next take the field, and about how much longer their run in the sport can last.

“It almost makes sense that there’s a curve ball thrown in, that something happened,” Cromwell said of his on-hold season in Montpellier “Because it was just too good to be true.”

By Benjamin Witte (benjawitte@gmail.com)

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