Les Pionnières: Making Hardball History On An Uneven Playing Field

Marjorie Brunel, MVP of Europe’s first women’s baseball championship (Credit: B. Witte)

COLMBIER-SAUGNIEU — Barbed wire-topped fences line the main road, giving the Zone Cargoport, behind the Sainte Exubery airport outside of Lyon, the look and feel of an abandoned military base.

On one side is a sprawling quarry, quiet on this Sunday afternoon; on the other a rusty warehouse and a rotating, vintage-era radar antenna. Low on the horizon, large commercial jets drop periodically into view en route to the nearby landing strip.

Needless to say, there are nicer places in France to spend an unseasonably warm, mid-September day. And yet, Margorie Brunel, who drove hours to get here from her home in Montpellier, wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

“I feel sooo good, but I admit I was a little nervous, because this is our first real game,” the 28-year-old project manager says.

Who’s on third?

The game, in this case, is baseball. It’s not a hugely popular sport in France. People here describe it as confidentiel. It’s hidden from view, in other words, not unlike the rough-and-tumble baseball diamond, tucked away in the middle of the Zone Cargoport, where Brunel and her teammates on the Colombier-Saugnieu Bats are taking on the Devils of nearby Bron Saint-Priest.

Still, baseball does have roots and a growing presence in France. Scattered throughout the country are more than 200 clubs. And according to the sport’s nearly century-old governing body, the Fédération Française de Baseball et Softball (FFBS), the clubs together have approximately 14,000 licensed players, up from about 8,600 a decade ago.

There’s nothing novel, in other words, about a weekend baseball game out here near the airport, where the Bats have played and practiced for years. What is quite unusual, though not unheard of, is that the home team’s third baseman isn’t, in fact, a man.

Brunel was hitless but happy in her first real game in months (Credit: B. Witte)

French youth teams are technically co-ed, but relatively few girls sign up, and those that do tend to be channeled toward softball as they get older. The two sports — softball and baseball (also known as hardball) — have much in common. The former, though, is played with a larger, doughier ball and on a smaller field, and has long been the expected alternative option for female athletes.

Blazing trails

The result of this tradition — in France and everywhere else in the baseball-playing world — is that senior-level baseball teams to be all male. And indeed, Brunel, who has a decade of softball experience but only took up hardball last year, is the only female player not just on the Bats, but on either baseball team.

On this particular Sunday, the young woman is hitless but very much holding her own on defense. Still, as the lone woman on the field, her presence doesn’t go unnoticed.

Elle a du courage la petite, parce que la troisième base c’est pas facil — She’s brave, that young lady, because third base isn’t easy to play,” one of the Devils players comments out loud after Brunel boggles a hard-hit line drive.

What the proverbial peanut gallery perhaps doesn’t know is that Brunel also plays third for the recently created French women’s national team, and that in their first major tournament — last year’s inaugural Women’s European Baseball Championship — she took home MVP honors after batting .500 (with 7 RBIs and a ridiculous .900 slugging percentage) in four games played.

The FFBS made the decision to create the women’s team to address what in the words of the organization’s president, Didier Seminet, was a blatant injustice. “Letting girls play baseball up until the age of 15, but then telling them that ‘no,’ you’re not allowed to keep going, was just so wrong,” he recently told Le Baseblog.

France hosted and won the pioneering event

To coach the team, the FFBS turned to André Lachance, former head coach of the Canadian women’s national team, and under his tutelage, Brunel and her teammates went undefeated in the three-team European competition, beating Holland 5-2 in the final.

What’s more, the victory gave France a coveted berth in the 2020 Women’s Baseball World Cup, a biennial, 12-team competition that is scheduled to begin Nov. 12, in Tijuana, Mexico.

“I hadn’t really played baseball before, and I wasn’t even sure I’d make the final roster, but in the end I did, and it was one of the best adventures I ever had in sport,” Brunel explains. “Even if it’s just the beginning of something that hasn’t really grown yet, we were part of that first team, that first championship. And it was just magic. Just wild.”

Unforeseen circumstances

The World Cup promises to be an equally thrilling adventure — assuming, of course, that it takes place as planned. The COVID-19 pandemic already caused the tournament to be postponed once, and Brunel and her teammates have had enough disappointment in this crazy year of illness and uncertainty to be wary of counting chickens before they’ve hatched.

One of those teammates is Geraldine Gauzelin, 39, another softball player who shifted quickly to hardball last year when the national team was formed. She and Brunel play softball together for the Rabbits of Clapiers-Jacou, outside of Montpellier, in France’s top-division (D1).

Geraldine Gauzelin, head coach of the Bats, plays catcher for Team France (Credit: B. Witte)

Riding high still from the excitement of their successful first foray into baseball, the two women were extra enthusiastic about this year’s season with the Rabbits, especially after the team reached the finals of a pre-season tournament across the border in Spain.

That was in March, just days — it turned out — before the two countries would shut the border and both go into a prolonged lockdown period. Within a few days, the FFBS ordered a freeze on all baseball and softball activities. A couple of weeks after that — on April Fool’s Day no less — the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) announced the indefinite postponement of the Women’s World Cup. And in May, the FFBS decided to cancelled the D1 seasons outright.

“We had a great team. We felt ready,” Guazelin, a native of Lyon, says of the Rabbits. “We’d spent the whole winter training and in terms of morale, we were just on fire. ‘This is it,’ we told ourselves. ‘This is our season. We’re going for it.’ And then everything just crumbled, and there was nothing else in sight.”

The challenge ahead

But then, in early June, the WBSC offered some much appreciated light at the end of the tunnel. The Women’s World Cup would go ahead after all, but in November rather than September, the international body announced.

The next month, Brunel, Guazelin and others on the national team’s 40-person short list finally began gathering for practices, albeit just once every two weeks. In the meantime, some of the country’s D1 and D2 men’s teams began preparing for actual games, in an FFBS-organized tournament, the French Summer League, that began in August.

For the country’s women players, in contrast, there’s been little opportunity for that kind of live competition. The one exception is a four-team, all-women’s tournament taking place right now in the greater Paris region.

‘The guys know me,” Brunel says of her Bats teammates (Credit: B. Witte)

France is a relatively big country, however, and for players who are based in the south, Paris is prohibitively far. Brunel found a different way, therefore, to get back on the field — by joining the Bats, where Guazelin is head coach.

Playing under a female coach who is also a good friend makes the experience of playing with all male teammates a lot easier, Brunel acknowledges.

“I know that being a woman on a boy’s team where the boys don’t really know you, you can spend a lot of time on the bench. But here, [Geraldine] is the coach, plus the guys know me. We’ve played co-ed games together. So it’s a lot easier,” she says.

More than anything, she and Guazelin are just happy and relieved, after the long period of inactivity, to be out on a baseball field again. Things are back in motion, finally. And even though there are no certainties, there’s also a sense they can start thinking in earnest about the challenge that awaits in Mexico.

“I just want to play, soak it all in, and watch the other teams play too,” Guazelin says. “In terms of the ambience, nothing else compares to a world championship. We’ve just got to take advantage of every second because it’s just a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

By Benjamin Witte (benjawitte@gmail.com)

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