The French Summer League, A Whole Different Ball Game

An Opening Day with soaring temps and facemasks (B. Witte)

TOULOUSE — This wasn’t the Opening Day anyone expected or hoped for — and not just because of the COVID-19 safety precautions, or the canicule that’s cooking the country right now.

For one thing, it came four months late. It’s also fair to say that the last-minute, mini-season that kicked off today — the French Summer League (FSL), it’s called — isn’t the best baseball France has to offer. Many of the country’s top clubs aren’t participating, and even the elite division (D1) teams that did sign on aren’t playing with full rosters.

But never mind all that. What counts now is that nearly half-a-year after the coronavirus pandemic ended the 2020 season before it could even begin, French baseball is back.

Woo hoo!

And on this sizzling Saturday afternoon in Toulouse — and simultaneously in Paris, La Guerche de Bretagne and Nice — the first of the FSL’s 11 participating teams finally had a chance to do what they’ve been yearning for since last autumn: play ball!

“I’m happy. We had to stop baseball because of the coronavirus. It’s a scary thing, and it’s something that changed the world. But now that we can finally play we feel good,” catcher Luís Delogu of the host team, Stade Toulousain, told Le Baseblog.

“Last night I went to bed excited, thinking about how today was the day, wondering what I’d be able to do. And thanks to God, things worked out well for us,” the Dominican-born player added.

Truth be told — and despite the fry-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk temps (it hit 37 Celsius in Toulouse) — it felt great to be out there as a spectator too. All in all, about 40 people showed up, decent numbers by French baseball standards. More than half were speaking Spanish, and one little boy had a blast shouting allez papa, alllez papa every time his dad came up to bat.

Taking an early lead

The action on the field wasn’t bad either:

Stade Toulousain, one of five clubs in the 11-team FSL that would normally be competing at the D1 level, got off to an inauspicious start. Pitcher Gary García’s first throw was down and outside. The leadoff hitter for the visiting St-Aubin-De-Medoc Blue Jays didn’t bite on the second pitch either, and García was suddenly down 0-2 in the count.

Toulouse hurler Gary García had a solid day on the mound (B. Witte)

But from there, the pitcher locked in and struck the batter out. Two quick outs later and it was the Toulouse team’s turn to take their first swings of the season. Some iffy defense by the Jays, combined with a monster home run by Delogu, put Stade Toulousain up 4-0 after the first. After that they never looked back. García pitched five scoreless innings, and the home team finished with an 8-0 victory.

“I looked for the right pitch and gave it all I got,” Delogu said of his first-inning blast.

In the FSL’s other Opening Day games, Nice Cavigal beat the Meyzieu Cards 4-0; Paris PUC, playing at home, prevailed 7-1 over the Sénart Templiers; and in La Guerche de Bretagne, near Rennes, the hometown Hawks beat the Bréal-sous-Montfort Black Panthers by an American football-like score of 22-20.

Delogu (red helmet) celebrating with this teammates (B. Witte)

When, where and how

France’s various baseball clubs were supposed to be taking the field starting in April. It’s now August, just three weeks before le rentrée, when students return to school and parents head back to work. In a normal year, the D1 would already be close to wrapping things up for the season.

Everything is off schedule, in other words, and time is very much of the essence, which is why the regular phase of the FSL involves just three weekends of action (spread out over the course of six weeks).

Also, as a way to reduce travel time and thus make things more “COVID friendly,” the participating teams are grouped into four pools (organized by region), with games being played in a reduced number of venues.

Here’s how it works:

Paris PUC and the Sénart Templiers are in Pool 1 together with a combined team, called Hauts-de-France, made up of players from the Dunkerque, Ronchin and Valenciennes clubs in the far north of the country. The three teams play again Sunday in Paris and will next meet on the weekend of Aug. 22/23 in Valenciennes. The pool’s third and final set of games will take place in Sénart, just south of Paris, on the weekend of Sept. 12/13.

Pool 2 groups together three teams from western France: the Bréal-sous-Montfort Black Panthers, the Hawks of La Guerche de Bretagne, and La Rochelle Boucaniers. Of those, only the Boucaniers competed last year in the D1, and La Rochelle pitcher Pablo Ossandon, for one, is hoping that experience will help the club land a spot in the FSL playoffs (more about that and the end of this section).

“We’ve got a very good team this year, so we’re really going for it. We’re going to do everything possible to win [the competition],” Ossandon, a Chilean player who before joining La Rochelle won a D1 title with the Rouen Huskies, told Le Baseblog earlier this week.

Pablo ‘the Python” Ossandon (B. Witte)

After this weekend’s games in La Guerche de Bretagne, the three clubs next gather in La Rochelle, for the weekend of Aug. 22/23, before their final set of games on the weekend of Sept. 12/13, in Bréal-sous-Montfort, just west of Rennes.

Toulouse and St-Aubin-De-Medoc are in Pool 3, along with the Raiders of Eysines. The three clubs will next play in Eysines, outside of Bordeaux, on the weekend of Aug. 23/24, and then in St-Aubin-De-Medoc, just a few kilometers from Eysines, for the Sept. 12/13 weekend.

Last but not least is Pool 4, made up of just two teams: Nice Cavigal and the Meyzieu Cards. This weekend they’re in Nice, on the Mediterranean coast. They’ll play again on the weekend of Aug. 22/23 in Meyrieu, near Lyon, but don’t have any games scheduled for the final weekend of the FSL regular phase.

Once all those games wrap up, the top team in each pool will advance to a one-day playoff, to take place in Sénart on Sept. 19. And the very next day, Sept. 20 (a Sunday), the two finalists will compete for the FSL crown.

On the road again

Of the dozen clubs that participated in last year’s D1 season, fewer than half — Sénart, Paris PUC, La Rochelle and Nice (plus a few players from the Valenciennes Vipers) — are competing in the FSL.

Among those sitting out are the defending champion Rouen Huskies; Montpellier Barracudas, who finished third last season; and the Savigny Lions and Montigny Cougars, which also made the 2019 D1 playoffs; and Metz Cometz, which had lined up a number of exciting recruits and were hoping for something of Cinderella run this year.

Taking their place are teams that normally compete in the D2, French baseball’s second tier. The competition level is varied, in other words, and is a cut below the normal D1 standard. At the same time, for clubs like the St-Aubin-De-Medoc Blue Jays — which won an Under-18 title last year — the FSL offers a unique opportunity to really push themselves.

The St-Aubin-De-Medoc Blue Jays will look to bounce back (B. Witte)

Either way, the teams and players that chose to join the hodgepodge league for what remains of this crazy summer are there because they want to be. The pop of the mitt. The crack of the bat. The fresh-cut grass. All of it is better late than never, and for that reason, the FSL is something be savored and enjoyed by all, fans included.

“Everything changed with COVID. Here we are in August and we’re only now getting a chance to play,” said Pablo Ossandon. “But I’m super happy. Here [in La Rochelle] all we wanted is for the games to begin, to be able to play against other teams. We’d been doing scrimmages, but playing against guys you know isn’t the same as going against teams from other places.”

“I really missed the traveling too,” the right-hander added. “Going to other cities, being together with the team, sleeping in hotels, going out to eat together. All that. We’ve trained a lot recently we’re just ready to play.”

By Benjamin Witte (benjawitte@gmail.com)

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