MONTPELIER — To say that Jean-Michel Mayeur’s reputation precedes him isn’t — at least in my experience — just a figure of speech.
Before I ever had a chance to speak with the Montpellier Barracudas general manger in person, I’d been told about him, including by his best-known predecessor: Canadian baseball legend Greg Hamilton, who managed the club in the mid 1990s.
Mayeur, now 38, was just a kid at the time, too young to play under Hamilton on the club’s top-division (D1) team, which famously won three league titles, and all in a row (1993-1995). They knew each other, though, and the Canadian — who still keeps tabs on developments in Montpellier — is well aware of all that Mayeur contributes to the Barracudas and to French baseball in general.
“He’s integral to the coaching environment and the development environment,” Hamilton, now the director of national teams for Baseball Canada, told Le Baseblog in a 2019 phone interview. “He and the other coaches would have been young players when I was there… but they’re the life of the club right now.”
Mayeur’s name also came up — unsolicited — in a conversation I had early last year with player-coach Lionel Teixidor of the Pirates baseball and softball club in nearby Béziers. We were talking about French baseball in general, and about what keeps the sport alive and kicking here despite its relative obscurity.
“It’s thanks to people who are ultra-invested,” Teixidor explained. “People who are crazy-passionate, like Jean-Michel Mayeur in Montpellier.”
‘A tennis racket and hundred years’
A year later, almost to the day, I’m in the cluttered Barracudas clubhouse talking to the “ultra-invested” man himself. This is our first sit-down interview, and as if to prove Teixidor’s point, Mayeur launches into an impassioned play-by-play of events that occurred a full decade earlier, in the Norman city of Rouen.
The skipper is talking a mile-a-minute, and his recall for detail is impressive as he walks me though Game 4 of the 2011 D1 title series, between his Barracudas and the then (and still now) reigning champion Rouen Huskies.
Mayeur was doubling as both head coach and starting catcher at the time, and playing at home, his Barracudas took a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series. The third game, in Rouen, went to the Huskies. But Montpellier — needing just one win to secure its first D1 crown since Hamilton’s magical three-peat — was feeling good still about its chances.
It didn’t hurt that Rudolph “Butch” Ware would be taking the mound in Game 4. The club’s lone American, Ware had a full arsenal of pitches. But he was also a university professor and often not available to play. On that day, though, he was suited up and ready to go, and feeling particularly confident and locked in, Mayeur recalls.
“Don’t worry guys,” Ware told his teammates. “You can give them a tennis racket and a hundred years and they’re not going to touch me.”
Early on, the American pitcher put his money where his mouth was, striking out five in the first three innings. “He was more focused than he’d ever been,” Mayeur tells me. “You could really see the frustration on the faces of the Rouen players.”
The crowd was on edge too, as was the first-base umpire, who’d been heckled, Mayeur remembers, by an inebriated fan. The tension mounted, and then reached a breaking point in the fourth inning, when Rouen skipper Robin Roy came out to challenge a call and the already irritated umpire — now completely out of patience — sent the home team manager packing.
“Y’er outta here!”
That only added to the bad blood, and in the fifth, after Ware made a side comment about a call at first that went in Rouen’s favor, he too got the heave-ho.
“Butch says, in English, ‘it’s your game, your call, blue.’ And the umpire ejects him from the game!” Mayeur, still frustrated all these years later, recalls. “I was so mad. You can’t just get rid of our best pitcher in Game 4 of the series.”
Taking the bitter with the sweet
The turn of events ended up costing the Barracudas dearly. They lost the game and, ultimately, the series, and haven’t been that tantalizingly close to a D1 championship since.
“I’m not saying we would have won,” Mayeur explains. “It’s just that [the ump] took away our best chance of winning.”
And yet, as bitter a pill as it was to swallow, that loss in the 2011 finals did little to dampen his enthusiasm for coaching or his prodigious energy. It’s also a testament to Mayeur’s love of the sport that the story he shared came, in fact, in response to a question I’d posed about his “best memories as a player in coach.”
Yes, he and his Barracudas lost; they blew a golden opportunity. But to be in that position, they’d also played some of their best baseball. And in Game 2, Mayeur himself got to play the hero, collecting a decisive, two-RBI hit off Rouen ace Owen Ozanich, who now, incidentally, plays for and coaches alongside Mayeur in the Barracudas organization.
There’s nuance in that little anecdote too. Ozanich remembers it as “the hit that broke open the game.” But Mayeur admits that he flubbed it, that if the defense had handled things differently he probably would have been — should have been — out.
“It was a walkoff hit, but a lousy one,” he says, laughing. “But we won the game. That was the important thing.”
That’s the thing about baseball. A player can have a fantastic individual performance in a losing effort, or play piss poor in a victory. A person’s best and worst moments can happen in the same series, in the same game even. Like life itself, the bitter comes part-and-parcel with the sweet.
Developing a baseball addiction
More than anything, the sting of that 2011 finals loss left Mayeur hungry for more, and so, in 2012 — his last year as a player — he was back with the Barracudas, as he was again in 2013 and every year since.
These days he’s busier still, juggling not only his duties as skipper of Montpellier’s D1 team, but also as the club’s general manger. On top of that, he heads the local pôle espoir baseball academy, one of just three in the country, and manages France’s under-15 national team.
He really is, as Greg Hamilton put it, “the life of the club.” But the club, it’s fair to say, has also been a huge part of Mayeur’s life, going all the way back to his childhoood, when he first decided to take a crack at baseball after seeing the Hollywood sports comedy Major League, starring Charlie Sheen and Tom Berenger.
“I saw that movie as a kid, when I was like 8 or 9, and I thought it was awesome,” he says. “Around here, everyone plays football. Baseball is absolutely unheard of. But you watch that movie and you say to yourself, ‘Yeah, I’d like to try that.’”
Mayeur admits he wasn’t all that good at first. But he had fun, and especially liked the social aspect of the club. More than anything it was the group of friends he made there that kept him coming back those first few years.
Then, as he reached high-school age, things started to click on the playing field as well, and he remembers one year in particular — 1997 — as a real turning point. Over the course of that year he played in nearly 100 games, Mayeur recalls. There were tournaments in Montpellier, but also in Paris, Austria, and Spain. By the end he was exhausted, in physical pain, and… completely hooked!
“You play so much that afterwards you’re just dead,” Mayeur recalls. “I’d lost my voice. My arm hurt. My legs hurt. All my muscles were sore. But then, the next day, all you can think about is, ‘I can’t wait for the next tournament.’ It’s like a drug.”
From there he moved up, eventually, to the D1 team, as both a catcher and pitcher. He made a few national team appearances as well, and during that run, Mayeur had some very productive seasons. In 2011, the year the Barracudas came so close to winning it all, he batted a solid .310, collecting 40 hits in 129 at bats. He hit .302 the year before that, and .336 in 2008.
‘This year and every year’
Mayeur’s transition to coaching came earlier than he’d anticipated. He was still very much focused on playing when, in 2009, the team’s then skipper left for professional reasons, creating a vacancy that Mayeur, as one of the group’s veteran players, agreed to fill.
Taking on the double role of player-coach was challenging, he recalls. But Mayeur also realized early on that he had a real taste for the leadership role. And after the 2012 season, when he saw his numbers slide, he opted to put all his energy into managing.
It’s never easy for a player to hang up the cleats, and the longtime Barracuda was no exception. “You tell yourself afterwards that you could have gone a few more seasons, that you still could have hit, even played catcher,” he admits. But Mayeur also embraced the shift to full-time coaching, and continues to relish his role as a baseball teacher and strategist.
“To be in charge, to have your own team, do what you want, make the substations, give the signs, talk thing over, give advice… all the really inspired me, and since then I haven’t stopped,” he says of transition from player to coach.
What Mayeur hasn’t yet done is win that elusive D1 crown. Granted, the economic realities of the league don’t really help the cause. The Barracudas lack the resources enjoyed by clubs like the Rouen Huskies, winners of 14 of the past 15 titles, or Sénart Templiers. It’s not an excuse; just a reality — one that Mayeur has to grapple with each season.
Still, I’m curious to know how important it is for Montpellier’s Monsieur Baseball to break the club’s more than 25-year title drought and finally win another championship. And so I ask him.
“Yes, it’s important,” he says. “But not in the sense that when I finally win one, I can say, ‘Oh good, now I can do something else.’ The objective is always to win, to be the best team in Europe. That’s the goal each time. And so yeah, I want to win it all this year. But I want to win next year too.”
By Benjamin Wittte (email@example.com)