French Baseball’s Argentina Connection, Part 2

Milar made his way from Buenos Aires to the Boucaniers (Credit: B. Witte)

France and Argentina have plenty of common ground when it comes to sports. Both are football powerhouses, with four World Cup titles between them: Argentina in 1978 and 1986; France in 1998 and 2018. They’re strong in basketball too, each with a number of players in the NBA, are passionate about rugby, and have a history of producing world-class tennis players.

But unbeknownst to most, the two countries also have small but plucky baseball scenes that date back more than a century and continue, little by little, to grow and evolve. French baseball’s governing body, the FFBS, was founded in 1924. The very next year, across the Atlantic, enthusiasts in Buenos Aires founded the first Asociación Argentina de Béisbol.

In France, the country’s top players compete in the 11-team D1 league. Argentina has its own semi-pro league, the LAB, launched five years ago in the cities of Córdoba and Salta, plus the much older Liga Metropolitana de Béisbol (LMB), based in and around the Argentine capital.

The ties that bind (Credit: Le Baseblog)

The twin worlds of baseball français and béisbol argentino are separated, of course, by more than 11,000 kilometers of ocean. And yet, there are some very intriguing connections, believe it or not, between the two.

In the first part of this seriesLe Baseblog focused on a pair of pitchers, Yoimer Camacho of Venezuela and Sam Belisle-Springer, a French-Canadian, who went face-to-face in last year’s D1 finals. Interestingly, both had previously spent time in Argentina’s LAB.

They’re not the only players, it turns out, to have had a foot, at one point or another, in both countries. Next we’ll look at three more peloteros, including a young man from Puerto Rico who ventured to Argentina not once but twice, and managed in that span to play for just about every team in the LAB.

Omar Prieto

French baseball fans may remember Omar Prieto from his stint, back in 2019, with the Metz Cometz in far northern France. It was the club’s first year in the D1, and the infielder/catcher played a big role in helping the Cometz to an overall record of 27-13, good enough for seventh place in the French league’s final rankings.

In between stints with the LAB, Prieto made a big impression in Metz too (Credit: Metz Cometz)

Prieto, who hails from Levittown, Puerto Rico but played university ball in Michigan, batted .350 for Metz and led the team in hits (43), RBIs (29) and total bases (59).   

What people may not know is that prior to arriving in France, the boricua (Puerto Rican) had already made a serious name for himself across the pond, in the LAB, where he joined the Pampas club, in Salta, for the 2018 season. We went on to earn league MVP honors.

Pampas failed to make the postseason, but that left Prieto eligible to join the Águilas — Yoimer Camacho’s team — for the semifinals, and then suit up for the Córdoba Falcons in the finals.

The Falcons ended up winning the league title, earning a spot in the 2019 Serie Latinoamericana de Béisbol tournament, where the Puerto Rican continued to shine, batting .400 in the event with six hits, including a grand slam against the Caimanes de Barranquilla, the tournament’s Colombian entry.

Prieto was ‘en fuego’ in the 2019 Serie Latinoamericana

“I had the best time I could ask for in my baseball career,” he told Le Baseblog. “The experience went beyond my expectations. Playing alongside the best players from Argentina and great players from other countries in Latin America was a dream come true for me.”

After his foray into French baseball, Prieto returned to Argentina that following September, again suiting up for Pampas, which had since been renamed Los Vikingos. For the postseason he joined yet another team, Los Infernales, again winning the LAB title.

“I am forever grateful to Argentina and all the people that made it possible for me to participate and leave my mark,” Prieto added.

Théo Lakmèche

Camacho, Belisle-Springer and Prieto are all what are known here as “import players” — foreign recruits, in other words. But Argentina also served as a landing spot, in 2019, for one of France’s most accomplished home-grown products.

Born and raised in Thiais, south of Paris, Lakmèche got his start with his hometown club, the Tigers, before making his D1 debut, a decade ago, with the Savigny Lions.

Lakmèche played in Córdoba, Argentina in 2019 (Credit: B. Witte)

The 29-year-old catcher has also represented his country on numerous occasions, helping France win a title in the 2012 U21 European Championships, in the Czech Republic, and later playing for the men’s national team, including in 2020, when Les Bleus trained briefly — in the lead-up to the ill-fated World Baseball Classic qualifiers — with MLB legend Bruce Bochy.

As the young Frenchman’s skills developed, new opportunities came knocking, and Lakmèche didn’t hesitate to answer the call. In the winter of 2018/2019 he took his talents “Down Under,” to the South Australian Baseball League. Next came a stint in the Czech Republic’s Extraliga, where he played for Olympia Blankso, and that following winter, he headed off for what was then completely uncharted territory for a French player: Argentina!

“The experience was incredible,” Lakmèche says of his “winter” (summer in Argentina) with the Condores, in Córdoba. “My teammates really brought me into the fold. Argentines in general are really welcoming and outgoing.”

The former Thiais Tiger suited up last season for the La Rochelle Boucaniers (Credit: B. Witte)

The Frenchman admits that when it comes to the baseball infrastructure in Argentine, there’s definitely room for improvement. But the pitching, thanks in part to the many Venezuelan imports, is strong, he says. “And on a personal level it was really formative and enriching.”

Ramiro Milar

Less than two years after Lakmèche became the first and only French player to ply his trade in Argentina, the catcher’s current team — the La Rochelle Boucaniers — decided to reverse the experiment and extend an invitation to a bona fide Argentine player.

We’re talking, in this case, about Ramiro Milar, the last but by no means least person on our list of cool France-Argentina connections, and one who turned more than a few heads this past year with what proved to be a stellar debut in the D1.

Milar was a stand-out in his first season in France’s D1 (Credit: B. Witte)

Baseball is never an obvious choice for a boy growing up in the Argentine capital’s historic Caballito neighborhood. And in Milar’s case, his introduction to the sport was all the more unusual in that it came, in a manner of speaking, by way of… Japan?

The story, as he recalled it to Le Baseblog, is this: One of the young Argentine’s brothers decided to take a crack at learning Japanese, and so began attending weekend classes at a Japanese cultural center. Milar, just 10 at the time, tagged along, and it was there, at the school, that he first noticed a group of kids playing baseball.

“I asked them, ‘Hey, can I try it?’ Me, I’m a lefty, but they put me as a righty and I swung and missed,” he said. “But then they put me as a lefty, and I hit the ball, and thought, ‘Whoa, this is such a nice feeling.’ After that they gave me a glove. And then you throw and catch and the feeling just got me. And that’s how it started. Out of curiosity.”

Milar (and teammate Lakmèche) during the 2021 Challenge de France (Credit: B. Witte)

Talent and hard work led to opportunities with local teams and eventually, like his La Rochelle teammate Lakmèche, to a chance to represent his country. That’s when Milar set his sights on yet another challenge: playing university ball in the United States.

The plan got off to a decent start. The young Argentine was accepted to attend a now defunct school in New York called Globe Institute of Technology. But after just one year there, the school closed down. Next he enrolled in a community college in Illinois, but to remain eligible to keep playing baseball, Milar then needed to transfer to a four-year program, something that for financial reasons proved impossible.

In the meantime, he moved back to New York City and worked as a personal trainer, building up his body and playing baseball here and there, in local leagues but also occasionally for the Argentine national team. The last full season he’d had, however, was back in 2017, and so taking a shot this past year at French baseball — especially after losing yet another year, in 2020, due to the pandemic — was in many ways a leap of faith.

Milar’s high hopes — that his timing would return, and that all the hard work he’d put in at the gym would pay off — panned out in the end, and in a major way. In his first season with the Boucaniers, the now 26-year-old led the team in both hits (29) and average (.349) and tied for first in the league in doubles with 9.

“It’s true. It had been a long time since I’d played a long season, and I feel really good about my performance and enthusiastic about all the adjustments and improvements I can make for next season,” he said.

-Benjamin Witte

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