MONTPELLIER —The autumn temps are mild on this mid-November, midweek afternoon, even by Montpellier standards. And the sun, low on the horizon, bathes the dusty diamond in an amber glow and casts long shadows behind the 20 or so teenage boys gathered in the city’s otherwise empty Greg Hamilton Baseball Park.
The picture perfect conditions are especially appreciated after the rainout, the Sunday before. But it’s not just the lovely weather that makes the players and coaches feel so fortunate to be out here in the open air, at a time when so many of their countrymen are confined, once again, to their homes.
This past spring, to contain the so-called “first wave” of the coronavirus pandemic, France ordered a prolonged lockdown that put all sports — baseball included — on ice. There were no practices. No games. Nothing. Foreign players who’d been contracted to play in the country’s semi-pro league, the top-division D1, were told to stay home. In May the season was canceled outright.
The restrictions were eventually lifted, but three weeks ago, amidst a new surge in COVID-19 infections, the government ordered a second lockdown, once again forcing the country’s roughly 200 baseball and softball clubs to put everything on hold and just… wait.
There are, however, a few notable differences with this new round of shelter-in-place rules: Schools have so far been allowed to stay open, and there’s an exception allowing sportifs de haut niveau — high-level athletes — to continue training.
Books and baseballs
That’s where the teenagers involved in today’s scrimmage come in. The boys, all aged 13 to 16, attend what’s known as a pôle espoir, a certified sports academy that doubles as both a regular school and a talent incubator.
Attendees, most of them boarders, take academic classes but also play a lot of whatever sport their particular pôle espoir specializes in — baseball in this case. Their schooling, in other words, has everything to do with sport, and as such, the boys qualify for the lockdown exception on both counts: as students and haut niveau athletes — heureusement!
“It just makes me so happy, because when I heard the talk about another lockdown, my heart really sank thinking that we’d have to stop training again,” says Guillaume Saucier, who at 16 is in his last year at the pôle espoir.
The teenager first learned about the sport at age 10, when one of the coaches from the nearby Montpellier Barracudas club — which has a close, overlapping relationship with the pôle espoir — led an initiation activity at the boy’s elementary school. Soon after, Saucier joined the Barracudas and then, at 13, tried out for and was accepted to attend the academy, which currently has 23 student-athletes.
What’s the best thing about the experience? “Just being able to play baseball every day. It’s my sport. My passion. And when the weather’s nice in Montpellier…” he adds, looking around appreciatively. “It’s super.”
A “must win” game
Saucier would eventually like to play ball in the United States, starting at the collegiate level and then, who knows, maybe even go pro. For now, though, he’s concentrating on helping the “Reds” keep their lead over the “Blues.”
At the start of the month, when the new lockdown went into effect, the student-athletes split into two squads — a red team and a blue team — with the goal of playing a 12-game “November Series.” Coming into the day, the Blues, coached by former D1 pitcher Thomas Meley, had a solid 4-1 lead in the series. For Saucier and his teammates, therefore, today’s contest is a “must win,” says Owen Ozanich, coach of the Reds.
Calling the balls and strikes is Jean-Michel Mayeur, who manages both the pôle espoir and the Montpellier Barracudas, and is head coach of the latter’s D1 team, which finished third in the league in 2019 but, except for a handful of friendly matches in October, wasn’t able to play at all this year.
Mayeur, who also coaches France’s under-15 national team, has been an integral part of the pôle espoir since its origins as a regional training center, years before it gained national accreditation, in 2011. And like Guillaume Saucier, he’s both thrilled and relieved that — despite the lockdown and the overall freeze right now on French baseball — at least the young academy players can continue training.
“The boys practice every day, so for them to completely stop, from one day to the next, it just kills the rhythm, and some of them can lose their motivation,” he says. “Being able to train right now is hyper important for their personal and athletic development.”
Development is, of course, what the pôle espoir is all about. It’s also what Mayeur finds most rewarding in his role as coach and manager: helping these young players grow not just as athletes, but as people — from boys to young men.
“It’s the best sport in the world, and it’ll help them in their lives, because baseball teaches us so much. Everybody strikes out, and so it’s about having confidence in yourself regardless, about weathering the ups and downs,” he says. “Baseball’s incredible, and that’s just really something I want to share, because here in France, people don’t know about it, and that’s a shame.”
Training players through the academy system also helps develop French baseball as a whole, with the result being that each year, the country not only imports players to join the D1 league, but also exports a handful of prospects — to colleges and universities in the United States in Canada, and even, in few instances, to MLB organizations.
Such was the case with pitcher Yoan Antonac, a Montpellier product and pôle espoir alum who signed in 2018 with the Philadelphia Phillies, for which he currently plays minor league ball in the United States.
The Montpellier pôle espoir is one of three such certified baseball academies in France. The others are in Bordeaux and Rouen, home of the perennial D1 champion Huskies. Together they make up a tri-part tributary system for the country’s sole senior-level academy, the Pôle France in Toulouse, which trains 17- and 18-year-olds and is the final outlet point for the country’s small but proud talent pipeline.
Other notable baseball exports include Mélissa Mayeux, who made history five years ago as the first female player added to MLB’s international registration list, and Ernesto Martínez, who signed with the Milwaukee Brewers organization in 2017.
Mayeux currently plays softball for the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, whose Ragin’ Cajuns are one of the top collegiate teams in the United States. Martínez last played for the Rocky Mountain Vibes, a Colorado-based Brewers affiliate in the Pioneer League.
“Before, there wasn’t the same structure in place here, with the different pôle levels,” Jean-Michel Mayeur explains. “The players were with their clubs, and even if they were still in the under-15 age group, they’d go to the Pôle France, but without that foundational training. Here, what’s important, is that they develop that base. That wasn’t in place before, so there’s definitely an improvement in that regard.”
All text and photos by Benjamin Witte (firstname.lastname@example.org)