When Plan B Means Packing A Bag For… Poland!

Medina (right) with Barons coach Marcin Musiałek (center) and teammate Dominick Golubiewski

Hasely Medina was supposed to be in the far north of France right now, gearing up with the revamped Metz Cometz for what he hoped would be a solid playoff run in the D1, the country’s semi-pro, top-division baseball league.

That, at any rate, was the plan — until the coronavirus outbreak prompted the World Health Organization to declare a global pandemic. Shortly afterwards France went into mandatory lockdown, and French baseball’s governing body, the FFBS, postponed and then opted, ultimately, to suspend the 2020 baseball season outright.

Like the other 200 or so players who expected to compete in the D1 this year, the Cuban-born Medina had no choice at first but just wait and see. But then, when the FFBS announced in May that it was writing 2020 off completely, the 39-year-old scrambled for a backup plan.

The result is that Medina — a D1 veteran who had a sizzling .461 average in 89 at-bats for Nice Cavigal last season — now finds himself a couple of countries away, in Poland. More specifically, he’s in the southwestern city of Wrocław, the country’s fourth largest and home to the Barons, one of six teams in the Ekstraliga, Poland’s equivalent to the D1.

The ‘Killer Bs’ are off to a hot start in 2020

Medina’s loyalties lie with France, he told Le Baseblog this week. That’s where he has lived for more than a decade, works and would prefer to play had the pandemic not scuttled his plans. “I’m still committed to Metz,” he said. “I’m still with Metz, but I came to play in this league because there’s no baseball in France.”

In the meantime, though, he’s pumped to be in Poland — and with good reason. Nice Cavigal, Medina’s last club, had an overall record of 10 wins, 30 losses last year. So far this year, the Barons are tops in the Ekstraliga standings at 9-0.

A last-minute league

The “no baseball in France” thing isn’t entirely accurate. Several hours after I spoke with Medina, the FFBS went public with plans to hold a season (of sorts) after all. The French Summer League (FSL), as it’s known, will feature regional pools, be played in a reduced number of venues, and have games on just four different weekends over a seven-week span beginning Aug. 8.

Finally some summer baseball in France (credit: FFBS)

It’s an encouraging development given all the disappointing announcements that came prior. And because it will involve a mix of D1 and second-tier players, the FSL will be a great opportunity for clubs like the Saint-Aubin de Médoc Blue Jays — which won a championship last year in the Under-18 category — to test themselves against different, higher-level competition.

But the mini-season isn’t, in any real way, a replacement for the lost D1 campaign. Of the six teams that qualified for last year’s D1 playoffs, only two — the Sénart Templiers and La Rochelle Boucaniers — will compete in the FSL, and even in those two cases, a number of of the pro-level players who’d planned to suit up for the D1 season will be missing.

As far as the clubs go, the most notable absence in the FSL are the perennial champion Rouen Huskies, who will play in a separate, non-Federation-backed league starting in September. Medina’s Metz Cometz, last season’s 7th place finisher in the then 12-team D1, also opted out.

Guys like Medina can be forgiven, in other words, for finding alternative employment, especially given how long it took the FFBS to go public with its own back-up plan.

Medina (on the grass, front row) with his new Polish club

“At that moment, when you don’t know if you’ll be able to play in the D1 but you’ve trained for it, when there’s a lot of indecision on the part of the Federation, but then finally they say that you won’t play, that’s when you need to seek out another path, and you do it,” the hard-hitting Cuban explained.

“That’s it. You have to find your route,” Medina added. “We’re elite players… That’s the level we worked so hard to attain… and so you have to find [a playing opportunity] that matches that level.”

The D1 diaspora

Securing those kinds of baseball opportunities is no easy task, even in the best of times, which 2020 certainly is not.

Because of the pandemic, eligibility rules in many of Europe’s top-level leagues are stricter than normal. Complicating things even more, as the baseball news site Extra Innings recently reported, is the cancellation of this year’s minor-league (MiLB) season in the United States. As a result, a number of Europe’s best players are back on this side of the pond, making roster space in the top European leagues even more of a precious commodity.

Medina and the handful of other D1 players who did mange to make it onto a team elsewhere have every reason, therefore, to count their blessings. They should also give themselves a huge pat on the back.

Needless to say, the list of D1 pros taking the field in other European leagues right now isn’t long:

  • Infielder Larry Infante, a former Los Angeles Angels prospect who played in Montpellier last year — and in Saint-Just-Saint-Rambert, Paris and Rouen before that — is with the Brasschaat Braves in Belgium right now.
  • Pitcher Owen Ozanich, who spent several years in Rouen but planned to play for the Montpellier Barracudas this year, will have a chance, starting next month, to join the top-division Italian team Parma Clima for at least two games. He was in Parma last season as well before exiting with an ugly leg injury.
  • Also playing in Italy at the moment is Ariel Soriano, who moved to France two years ago from the Dominican Republic, had two scorching seasons in the D1, earned a spot on the French National team, and now plays for Nettuno Baseball Club 1945, southwest of Rome.
  • And joining Medina in the Ekstraliga are three other D1 standouts: Yorfrank López, Douglas Rodríguez and Harvey García, all from Venezuela and all playing this season in Osielsko, a village of approximately 3,500 in north-central Poland.
López (left) and Infante enjoying a mid-game chat in 2019 (Credit: B. Witte)

López, a former Detroit Tigers prospect, went 8-5 last year for the Montigny Cougars last seasons and was selected earlier this year to join the French national team that made a truncated trip to Arizona for the ill-fated World Baseball Classic qualifier tournament in March.

Rodríguez, a 12-year veteran in the D1, has an incredible 572 career hits in the French league. And García, from Caracas, actually made it to “The Show” — MLB — for a brief stint in 2007, appearing in eight games for the Florida Marlins. The right-hander struck out 15 in 12 innings of work. Last season he pitched for Paris PUC.

The three Venezuelan-born players will have a chance to cross paths with fellow “Frenchman” Medina the weekend after next, when Dęby Osielsko goes head-to-head with the undefeated Barons.

“It should be fun,” Medina, who also did a stint earlier in his career with the Osielsko team, said of upcoming D1 reunion game.

“It actually reminds of playing in France,” he added, speaking about the overall experience of playing in Poland. “On my team there are five foreigners, including two Cubans who came over from the German league. And the level is really, really high. It was hard at first, having not played for six months. I had to train a lot. But now I’m back.”

By Benjamin Witte (benjawitte@gmail.com)

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