Finally, Some Light At The End Of The Tunnel For French Baseball

Eager for the coronavirus to be ‘outta here’ (Image credit: Bertrand Hauger)

MONTPELLIER — French baseball isn’t back per se. At least not in the way it returned recently in Italy, the Czech Republic and just about everywhere else in Europe, where top-division baseball leagues are finally in action — or soon set to resume — following a long, pandemic-imposed hiatus.

Non. Here, the sport’s governing body, the FFBS, opted back in May to just axe the 2020 season, and with that, to quote the inimitable Ed Rooney character from the 1980s teen-classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, “Les jeux sont faits. Translation: the game is up.”

Now though, after months of disappointing news on the baseball front, there’s finally a sense in France that things are turning a corner of sorts. And come September, when players are normally wrapping things up for the year, there will even be a few live-action (albeit unofficial) games taking place. More about that in a second…

Blazing trails

First, it should be noted that a bit later in the year — starting Nov. 12 to be precise — one group of French players will have a chance to participate in an event that very much is the real deal: the Women’s Baseball World Cup.

The 12-team competition, organized by the Switzerland-based World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC), is as official as it gets. It’ll also be uncharted territory for France, and not just because the tournament takes place in Tijuana, Mexico. Andale!

France will be Europe’s sole representative in the World Cup (Credit: WBSC)

The 9th such event since the tradition was established in 2004, it’ll be the first for the French national women’s team, which was formed just last year. Les Bleues qualified for the 2020 Women’s Baseball World Cup by winning the inaugural Women’s European Baseball Championship, a three-team tourney held last summer in Rouen.

Turns out that just this past week, at least some of players who’ll be representing France come November were back in Rouen, this time practicing under the guidance of super-coach (and power pitcher) Keino Perez of the hometown Huskies.

A “league” of their own

Last year Perez led the Rouen club to yet another title in France’s top-division (D1), semi-professional men’s league. Their victory in the finals against the Sénart Templiers earned the Huskies their 5th straight D1 championship and 14th in the span of 15 years.

The cancellation of the 2020 season means that the powerhouse club will have to wait until next year to defend their crown. The same goes for the run they planned to make in the European Champions Cup, which was supposed to take place last month in Ostrava, Czech Republic but was also scrapped.

Nevertheless, word has it that the Huskies have also returned to the practice field of late, and not just for shits and giggles (pardon my French). In fact, the players have a new and fairly pressing reason to get back into the swing of things: They’re planning to play some actual games — including against their arch-rivals from Sénart.

The Rouen club broke the news on its website this past Monday, announcing that starting Sept. 6, the Huskies, Templiers and four other teams (all from Paris or surrounding areas) will play in what amounts to a two-month mini season.

A six-team mini season will begin Sept. 6 (Credit: Rouen Baseball 76)

Joining last year’s D1 finalists in the eight-date Challenge Suzanne Bricaud, as the competition is called, will be the Tigers of Thiais, Savigny Lions, Montigny Cougars and Paris PUC (Paris Université Club). The top two teams will meet on the weekend of Nov. 7-8 for a best-of-three finals series.

The games don’t count in any kind of official sense, but as Xavier Rolland, president of Rouen Baseball 76 (the Huskies), explained in the club’s communiqué: “The guys prepared all winter. Not playing at all would be terrible for them.”

California dreaming

Elsewhere, clubs from the far north to the deep south are also getting back into the swing of things, with practices, scrimmages, and hopefully some “friendly” matches too.

In Metz, the Cometz baseball and softball club kicked off a week-long day camp this past Monday for children under 15. And from now until mid August, there will be daily activities held at Cometz Field, the organization recently announced.

On the other side of the country, in the far south, the Montpellier Barracudas may try to play some games south of the border, in Spain. There’s been talk too of organizing friendly matches against Stade Toulousain, which also competes in France’s 11-team D1.

Ozanich, Polit and Monks (from left to right) work on their skills (B. Witte)

In the meantime, some of Montpellier’s coaches and players are braving the southern sun to help two of the club’s up-and-coming players — talented teenagers Julien Monks and Luc Polit — prepare for their upcoming adventure in southern California, where they’ve both been accepted to attend Ventura College (and play for the school’s Pirates baseball team).

Tutto bene! (Or at least better)

One of the players helping train Monks and Polit is Owen Ozanich, a D1 veteran and former Husky hurler who also had an opportunity, last year, to play in Italy’s Serie A1 league. An ugly leg injury cut his Italian adventure short, but come next month, the Franco-American pitcher will have a chance to pick up where he left off.

Ozanich has just reached an agreement to rejoin his old team, Parma Clima — in the northern city of Parma — for two games in mid August. And if the squad continues to play as well as it has so far in this shortened season (right now they’re 3-1), he’ll be able to suit up again in September for the league championship series.

“It’s definitely a chance to kind of make things right and end on my own terms over there, given how things ended abruptly last year,” Ozanich told Le Baseblog. “The goal is to help them in the limited time there and then go back in September should they make it to the Italian finals.”

Speaking of Italy, there’s one other French connection worth noting. Infielder Ariel Soriano, who won a D1 title with the Huskies last season and a league MVP award the previous year (with the La Rochelle Boucaniers), is also playing ball right now for an Italian team.

D1 sensation Soriano is taking a swing at Italian baseball (Credit: Nettuno 45)

Originally from the Dominican Republic, the former Tampa Bay Rays recruit now lives in Toulouse but managed (no surprise if you’ve ever seen him play) to earn a spot with the second-division club Nettuno 45, on the coast just south of Rome.

Both Soriano and Ozanich were members of the French national team that took a truncated trip to Arizona this past spring in hopes of earning the country its first-ever berth in the World Baseball Classic. The qualifier tournament ended up being suspended on the eve of France’s opening game, against Germany.

Needless to say, this long period sans baseball has been deeply disappointing for the players, coaches and fans alike. But it also seems like the French baseball and softball world is at last turning a corner. On y croit!

“What the northern teams just announced is pretty optimistic,” said Ozanich. “Here down south it’s trickier. There are fewer teams and we’re further apart from each other. But we have the climate on our side, so maybe we can extend the season into October, November and play some Spanish teams.”

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