MONTPELLIER — The mid-summer sun can be unforgiving in this part of the world, especially in the afternoon hours. Little wonder the Spanish have their cherished tradition of retreating indoors for a daily siesta.
But on this July day in southern France — just inland from the Mediterranean sea and 150 kilometers northeast of the border with Spain — there’s no resting for teenagers Julien Monks and Luc Polit, who high-step their way across the dusty, grassless outfield of Montpellier’s Greg Hamilton Baseball Park before starting in on a series of fielding and hitting drills.
There isn’t an ounce of shade either, or a cloud in the sky. “It’s a hot one,” says one of the two coaches here to oversee the training session.
Still, given everything the two young men have been through the past couple of months — the spring spent locked down in their respective homes, their summer baseball season cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic — Monks and Polit are pretty pleased about the chance to practice.
They also have a good and pressing reason to work out: Depending on how things transpire with the COVID-19 crisis, the pair may be shipping out in the coming weeks to California, where they’ve both been accepted to attend Ventura Community College, northwest of Los Angeles, and join the school’s baseball team, the Pirates.
“After I while I didn’t know what to do,” Polit says of the mandatory shelter-at-home period, which began in early March and ran until mid May. “I threw the ball against the wall, but then I was like, ‘Is this even [worth it]?’ You get frustrated, but then there was this college [that invited us to attend] and once we were accepted it was all better. It’s like now we’re practicing for Ventura.”
Baseball is still very much an obscure sport in France — confidentiel is the word people here use to describe it. And yet, scattered throughout the country are numerous baseball and softball clubs that together, according to the FFBS (the sport’s governing body), have about 14,000 licenciés (official members).
There is even an 11-team, semi-pro league that imports talent from places like the United States, Dominican Republic and Venezuela. Some of those players have experience in the U.S. minor leagues, and the team Monks and Polit planned to play for this summer — the Montpellier Barracudas — was even expected to bring a former MLB player aboard this year.
But with all those different clubs operating year-round, France also grows talent. The best of the best are invited early on to join the country’s junior national teams (which are grouped by age) and compete against their peers from other European countries.
And when they reach high-school age, a number of the top French players are channeled into the Pôle France Baseball in Toulouse, a publicly-funded academy that trains young student-athletes and helps a handful of them each year enter university programs in the United States.
Like Monks and Polit, players who follow this trajectory often start by attending a U.S. community college. Two other up-and-comers, Pierre-Emmanuel Planes and Lilian Amoros, plan to attend Clarendon College, a community college in Texas, the FFBS announced earlier this year.
The hope from there is to transfer after two years to a four-year school, ideally one with a Division 1 (D1) baseball program, and then, if things go really well, sign a pro contract. It’s a long and extremely competitive road, but the two recent Pôle France grads aren’t afraid to think big.
“A good D1 school would give us a chance to play and get better for another two years and then, if we can, get drafted and play professionally. That’s our goal,” says Monks.
In addition to attending the same baseball academy and playing for the same top-division French team, the Barracudas, the two 18-year-olds (whose birthdays are just a few days apart) have one other thing in common: They both have one parent from the U.S. and speak fluent English.
Monks was actually born in the United States, in Boston, but moved to Rennes, in northwestern France, when he was 5. His mother is French but his father hails from Rochester, New York. Polit grew up in the opposite corner of France, in sunny Montpellier, but always spent a couple of weeks each summer in Louisiana, where his mother grew up.
Given their American connections, it’s hardly a coincidence that as boys, the two gravitated toward baseball. Monks says that his dad played in high school and is a big-time Boston Red Sox fan. Polit was introduced to the sport by his cousins, in Louisiana. Both insist, however, that in neither case were they pressured into playing.
Polit says that his parents didn’t even like the sport all that much until he started playing. They prefer college football, he says. And when he first joined the Montpellier Barracudas club, at age 9, it was at his behest. After another summer of playing ball with his American cousins, Polit came back to France asking to play.
Monks has a somewhat similar story. When he was 10 he attended a Fourth of July event at a park near his home in Rennes. Someone had organized a baseball game that day and invited him to participate. Monk enjoyed it so much that, like Polit, he asked his parents for help finding an area club and soon joined the Rennes Redwings.
“They never even mentioned [baseball] before I went to the park that day for Independence Day,” Monks says of his parents. “I just wanted to play so I played. But they were happy to help when I needed it — to come here, for example, and to go to Toulouse.”
The waiting game
Both players showed promise early, and were invited to represent France in different youth competitions. Later, they also attended Montpellier’s Pôle Espoir, a junior academy and feeder program for the Pôle France in Toulouse, where they both recently received their high-school diplomas.
Getting accepted to Ventura College is the culmination, in other words, of years of hard work and dedication, and Monks and Polit have good reason to be proud of their accomplishment. The two friends are also happy to be embarking on this new baseball journey together.
“It helps a lot,” Monks says of the fact that he and Polit will be joining the Pirates as something of a package deal. “I think that when we get there it’ll be easier to integrate with the other players, and to get used to California, and the new atmosphere… we’ll be more comfortable over there.”
What they’re not, obviously, comfortable with is all the uncertainty still being caused by the coronavirus outbreak. As thrilled as they are with the opportunity that awaits, the two young Franco-Americans also know it’s too soon to celebrate.
Monks and Polit may be flying off to California in just a few weeks — thus the afternoon practice sessions under the blazing southern sun. But they might also have to wait until January, which would mean returning to Toulouse to keep training with the Pôle France.
Holding off until January, if it comes to that, will be hard, they admit. Testing their talents in the country that invented the sport will be a huge challenge, but it’s one they both feel they need at this point in their careers.
“Pôle France is a really good level, but the problem is we’re only 20 kids,” Polit explains. “The competition over there [at Ventura] is only players of our level or higher.”
They’re also champing at the bit just because of the adventure of it all: the thrill of moving to a new country, of immersing themselves in a different culture, and in a school setting unlike anything they’d experience here in France.
“I’m looking forward to the games, the season, playing against good teams, in front of scouts and other college coaches from D1,” says Monks. “But I’m also excited about living close to L.A. That’s going to be fun too.”
*All photos and text by Benjamin Witte (firstname.lastname@example.org)