It goes without saying that the last-minute postponement of the World Baseball Classic (WBC) qualifiers — just as Team France was about to play its opener against Germany — was a sacré punch in the gut for Les Bleus.
But before everything up and evaporated, the event was, by all accounts, pretty amazing. And that’s important to acknowledge, especially now, in this crazy time of coronavirus and abundant, ceaseless bad news.
The team went into the qualifying tournament, in Tucson, Arizona, with high hopes, and deservedly so. France has never earned a berth in the WBC — the “big show,” as far as international baseball is concerned — but had reason to believe that things might be different this time around.
Confident in the strength of their 28-man roster and encouraged by a change in the qualifying format (there are four extra spots available for the next Classic compared to past versions), the team also boasted some serious star power on the coaching end. The squad’s manager, Bruce Bochy, won three-time World Series champion as skipper of the San Francisco Giants (2007-2019).
Interestingly, the players didn’t actually meet their new head coach until they’d all gathered in Tucson, about a dozen days before the qualifiers were due to kick off. But from the outset, as infielder Felix Brown of the Sénart Templiers told Le Baseblog, the “Bochy effect” was more than apparent.
Brown, 31, has played with Les Bleus several times over the past decade, and often takes it upon himself, he explained, to help motivate and keep his teammates focused. No wonder he earned the moniker “el veterano.” But on this particular trip, Brown realized there actually wasn’t much for him to do in that regard.
“Guys were so professional in their attitude. They did it on their own,” he said.
It helped that a number of the roster members really are professional baseball players, including a couple with Major or Minor League experience. But Bochy’s presence seemed to have a big impact as well, including on the other trainers, Brown explained.
“Just Bochy being there, even the coaches step it up. It is very impressive to see,” the Team France veteran, who was also with Les Bleus for the 2016 WBC qualifiers, in Panama, recalled. “It was one of the things that impressed me this time around, just what kind of impact Bochy has.”
In the presence of greatness
Unlike Brown, catcher Ivan Acuña of the Savigny Lions is a newcomer to the national team. But he too saw right away how much positive energy Bochy — along with fellow coaches Joe Bochy (Bruce’s brother) and Steve Smith — brought to the team.
The trip over from France was a slog, with flights to Los Angeles and then Phoenix, followed by a late-night van ride to Tucson, the 25-year-old Venezuelan explained. The weary travelers were expected, furthermore, to attend an early practice that next morning. But at breakfast, when the dazed, jet-lagged players finally met Bochy and his staff in person, “the whole atmosphere changed,” Acuña recalled.
“Those three guys [the Bochy brothers and Smith] just brought a very positive energy. And once we got to the field it was the same way, like ‘Oh, this feels good.’ There was no pressure at practice. Everybody was super loose, like we’d been practicing together for two or three months even though it was just our first day with the actual team together.”
Brown described Bruce Bochy as a fairly quiet man, but entirely approachable at the same time. Acuña had a similar impression, and took advantage to talk to his new coach as much as possible, especially about their shared experience of playing winter ball in Venezuela.
“He’s such a humble guy. There’s no other way to describe it,” the talented catcher, who hit a scorching .409 last year in his first season in France’s top-division (D1) league, said of the legendary manager. “He’s just very down to earth. You can approach him and ask him about anything.”
Bochy’s presence also brought the team a bit more media attention than it might have received otherwise. The same went for the Brazilian squad, skippered by former Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin, a 2012 Hall of Fame inductee.
Acuña said that he had a chance to chat a bit with Larkin too. Earlier in his career the Venezuelan spent a season playing for Larkin’s brother Steve in West Virginia, so had that as conversation starter with the MLB legend.
Going up against with Giants
But while brushing shoulders with baseball greats is no doubt one of the more exciting aspects of participating in such an event, the main focus for the players, obviously, was to prepare for the tournament ahead.
The Bochy connection proved to be a real blessing in that regard as well, as Team France was able to play a pair of highly competitive scrimmages against prospects for the coach’s old club, the San Francisco Giants.
The games — against up-and-coming pros who’d already had month of spring training under their belts — were no small challenge for Les Bleus. And in the second game, facing Logan Webb, a hard-throwing righty who’s vying for an MLB rotation spot this season, the French team lost 0-5.
But in the first game, France’s pitching held strong, and the offense cobbled together just enough runs to beat the Giants’ prospects 3-2.
“We didn’t have very many hits, but certain guys came up in key situations, and we scored three runs against professional pitching,” Felix Brown explained. “It was a good opportunity to put things in perspective and open our eyes as to where we were with our preparation.”
To qualify for their first-ever WBC, the French team would need to finish first or second in its group, which also included Germany and Brazil, as previously mentioned, plus the national teams of Pakistan, South Africa and Nicaragua. Doing so would be easier said than done, but there was a sense — especially after those games against the Giants — that Les Bleus were up to the challenge.
Bochy acknowledged as much in comments published by the Fédération Française de Baseball et Softball, French baseball’s governing body. “We were ready,” he said.
Brown put it a slight different way: “I think we were all on cloud eight and a half,” he told Le Baseblog. “I don’t want to say cloud nine because that would be a bit too optimistic, but we were definitely on cloud eight and a half. Like I said, we had very good chemistry, which is a good indicator of a championship team.”
That combination of hunger and preparedness made it that much harder to swallow when, concerned about the spreading COVID-19 pandemic, the organizers nixed the tournament at the 11th-hour annulment.
But the players are also confident they’ll eventually have a chance to pick up where they left off and give their WBC quest another go. Word has it that Bochy will be back, and it may just be that all the adversity will give Les Bleus an even stronger sense of purpose.
By Benjamin Witte (firstname.lastname@example.org)