Champ de Rêves: A French baseball diary from one player chasing his field of dreams
MAY 28, 2021
In any non-pandemic year, millions of tourists flood the streets of Paris, searching for the effervescent magic that comes from the City of Lights. The agenda of their trips vary: monument visits; Eiffel Tower escapades; boat cruises on the Seine; fine wine tasting; tranquil morning brunches at a café or brasserie; or casual strolls through the city’s picturesque streets.
When I return home to the United States, I expect a customs officer will duly inquire about the purpose of my visit abroad. I, in turn, will not mince words: I went to Paris for the baseball.
Let me step back for a moment and explain what I’m up to. I am an upperclassman at Penn State, pursuing a degree in broadcast journalism. I also enjoy dual citizenship, with a French mom and an American dad. In this time of the coronavirus, I have taken some time away from the university’s main campus in State College, Pennsylvania, to pursue other study projects in Paris.
And to pursue baseball. It’s always been my favorite sport to play, and I was a team captain and starting pitcher in high school, first team all-division my senior year in Silver Spring, Maryland. Good, but not Division I good. Still, I always wanted another chance to play at a higher level.
So now, my plan is to:
- first, join a university-level club team in the Paris area;
- second, play well;
- third, get invited to a tryout with the French national team;
- fourth, make the team;
- and, fifth, play in the under-23 European championships.
Simple, yeah? Far-fetched? Maybe a little, maybe more than a little, but you can’t do it if you can’t dream it.
I arrived in Paris last month and have been adjusting to life here bit by bit.
My apartment is a far cry from the relative luxury of being an American college student. My 6-foot-4, 245-pound frame barely fits into the tiny shower. And if I had a friend over for dinner, 1½ of us might fit around the table.
Nonetheless, a couple of pieces of the plan have already fallen into place – for instance, I have already made a team.
You can’t do it if you can’t dream it.
Just last night at practice, I played catch and long-toss with Pietro Briggi – a 35-year-old veteran of Italian baseball, a Verona native, and my teammate on the Paris Université Club (“le PUC”) baseball team, which plays in the French Division 1/Division Êlite.
Our venue is very impressive, surprisingly so. Located in the wooded Bois de Vincennes, a 45-minute metro ride to the Parisian outskirts, bat and glove in tow, the Stade Pershing is where the PUC plays its games. It is by no means a major league ballpark, but it is still very respectable.
Instead of 320 and 400 feet, the left and center field walls are 98 and 122 meters from home plate, respectively. The pitcher’s mound is called “le monticule” and home plate is called “le marbre.” But it’s still baseball – the distance from the mound to home remains 60 feet, six inches.
Over the past month, I have met several incredibly talented teammates from France, Venezuela, Poland, Spain, the Dominican Republic, and the list goes on – with spoken languages including French, Spanish, Italian, and English.
Some of these players have been on the diamond since the age of about 7, like myself. Many are now in their late 20s or even 30s — so they are more experienced than college players in the States. They’re all amped for the start of the season in June.
They found baseball in every imaginable way, from playing it as children to seeing it on Italian cartoons. But what they have in common is their love for the game. Also, each French club team is allowed to have a couple of ringers who receive a stipend and housing.
Despite the experience-level of my teammates, I think I’ve shown that I’m one of the better pitchers on the roster and I’m competing for playing time as a catcher and hitter.
I’ve made a small adjustment on the mound to move my weight forward and adopt a more violent delivery. This helped me find my form in January, when I threw 87 mph in a practice session with my travel ball coach back home in Maryland.
Earlier today, I tried on contact lenses for the first time, knowing that 90 mph fastballs will be difficult to catch if I have to sit behind the plate, and I really don’t want to injure my pitching hand because I couldn’t deal with a pitch thrown to me.
It’s all pretty exciting, but also a little nerve-wracking. A lot of people have made sacrifices and extra efforts for me to be here, including my parents and professors. I want to show it was worth it, and my pride is on the line.
The time to resurrect my baseball career is now.
Every great athlete has his or her training regimen. Nobody gets great without work, and it has to be more than checking a box. It takes being focused and faithful.
By no means am I a great athlete. Baseball was my only sport in high school. However, I am an athlete, and my spot for preparation these last few weeks has been along the River Seine.
Last year, during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I promised myself that I would run at least a mile every day in the month of June – with the endgame being some sort of personal renewal, both mentally and physically, from the redundancy of the pandemic.
This year I’ve had the same goal. Thus far, I have run every day in June – with my route typically taking me in front of the cathedral of Notre Dame, now covered in scaffolding as it is renovated following the disastrous fire of 2019, and the world-renowned Louvre art museum.
Maybe in a normal year, my toughest issue would be avoiding tourists. But this year it’s been avoiding the Paris COVID-19 curfew. Once the curfew went from 7 pm to 9 pm on May 19, I found myself working late and starting my runs at 8:30 pm or 8:45 pm. This led me to keep my antenna up for any police patrols in the area. Luckily, I was never stopped, and the curfew moved back to 11 pm on June 9. Now, I can even run after returning home from baseball practice – which is very helpful in itself as running is a widely used arm recovery (“récuperation,” as we say in French) method for pitchers.
Running on the Seine has its perks and downsides. The river has led me to discover both the best and worst that Paris has to offer, from picturesque sunsets and awe-inspiring monuments to the stench of trash and pollution, along with the sad sight of homeless tents along the river.
Every time I run by these makeshift homes, I ask myself whether I have the right to simply run instead of helping these individuals – who will likely never have the opportunity to enjoy similar athletic pursuits. The inequality is a serious gut-punch.
Sometimes, an inescapable sense of loneliness blindsides me as I run past the hordes of young people sitting in circles and chatting into the night — I’ll keep the alcohol and smoking mentions in this diary to a minimum. The sight of couples kissing doesn’t help, either, as I ask myself how on earth I can be single in Paris.
If I’m not careful, this apprehension can devolve into a more somber thought. What if, in the end, this running is all a waste? One-tenth of 1 percent of these people on the Seine, if that, have ever even heard of baseball. The possibility of my baseball scheme being meaningless and doomed to fail is hard to put down during a run because it’s both depressing and, at the same time, inspires me to push harder.
After I finish, I then do a plank for three minutes, a couple minutes of six-inch leg lifts, 75 bicycle crunches, and 30 push-ups as part of my running routine.
Simply put, the grind may be meaningless to the people passing by – but to me, it’s far from it.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that my baseball-career-resurrection-dream has gotten this far. But not only am I playing baseball in France, as some of my Dominican teammates joked, I am no longer the only gringo in town.
During our Tuesday evening practice, I found myself playing long toss with a former pro ballplayer in the Cincinnati Reds organization. His name is Jake Ehret, and he spent some time in the minor leagues with the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, the Reds’ Double-A affiliate, among others. Before that, he won the 2013 College World Series with UCLA. Long story short: He’s pretty good.
Complete with a sticky, heavy, drooping wad of chewing tobacco, Jake calmly backed up and threw absolute darts right to my chest as we played long toss. He explained that he wanted to engage in some light work today as he had just arrived from Atlanta and was fairly tired. All the same, I could tell that he knew his routine. Every throw mattered.
Long toss up to 150 feet is typically a throwing program that helps pitchers strengthen their arms between starts or games. Ditto in this instance – as it had only been 48 hours since my first outing for the Paris Universite Club (PUC). With every throw, as Jake and I started mixing in offspeed pitches, curveball, slider, changeup, etc., I remembered specific successes and mistakes from Sunday.
It was my first time on the mound in a real French league game and just showed what a funny game baseball can be. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you play well enough to win but still lose.
My role on the team has evolved into being a starter, but not exactly in the traditional American sense. Rather, the idea is for me to throw for a couple of innings or once through the lineup as the “opener,” then give way to a more traditional starter. The idea is to shake up old strategies and give ourselves a better chance to win in the process.
Our opponent was Toulouse, the club team from the town of the same name in southern France. Going in, I had established a game plan with my catcher – Amin Touahri, our 29-year-old player-coach. Prior to the game, Touahri had emphasized that we needed to attack the strike zone early with the fastball, both on the inner and outer halves of the plate, while then transitioning to a mix of outside changeups and sliders no matter the ball-strike count. In our pregame bullpen session, I could feel the extra zip on my fastball, and it quickly became clear that I would be able to throw my changeup and slider for strikes.
While throwing to your own head coach could add some pressure and be mentally difficult, there was something very reassuring about the teamwork that this process involved. As it turns out, I enjoyed what I thought was a great first start, and Touahri told me (in French) once I exited the game after four innings – which was longer than we had initially planned – that “it was honestly a pleasure” catching me.
There were only 35, maybe 40, people in the stands at Stade Pershing, both legitimate fans and passersby intrigued by this game they had just discovered on a Sunday afternoon stroll. Nonetheless, it felt pretty electric to me.
As I ran back out onto the field before the third inning and began my warm-up pitches, I heard a voice holler out “Allez, Sébastien!” (“Go Sébastien!”) from the stands. It was one of the PUC softball players whom I had befriended weeks earlier. I discreetly tipped my cap to her.
Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you play well enough to win but still lose.
My key takeaways from the Toulouse game are simple: My changeup looks good and complements my fastball by fooling hitters with the speed difference. However, I need to be more dominant on the mound. Unfortunately, as was the case back in 2018 in high school, the majority of the opponent’s four hits off me were bloops that dropped in front of our outfielders.
Ultimately, I gave up three runs, all in the fourth inning. A fastball or two that I could have located more precisely, and maybe I could have shut them out. But in the end, those three runs were the difference, as we – the PUC – lost, 3-2, bringing our record on the weekend to 1-1.
I did have one emphatic strikeout on a beautiful – if I may say so myself – changeup to end the second inning, but to really succeed I need to bring that more often.
At Thursday night practice, I received one of the most gratifying compliments an athlete can receive.
Typically, our second practice of the week begins with “le Tabata,” a series of intensive, 40-second exercises: diamond push-ups; broad jumps; squats and deadlifts with elastic bands; Russian twists; ab work; jump rope, and more. It lasts only 30 minutes but challenges all of us as we move throughout the circuit two or three times.
Once we finished the Tabata in the batting cages, the team prepared to head over to the field for live batting practice and throwing. Soon thereafter, Touahri and his brother, Ilyas, came over and asked me if I had been lifting at the gym lately.
I duly answered “Oui” for the sake of simplicity – although, in reality, I have only been running every day and doing bodyweight and core workouts, per my earlier entry. Although French gym memberships in Paris are fairly inexpensive, I am on a tight student budget.
Then came the aforementioned compliment: “Ça se voit, mec, et même les autres l’ont dit.” (We can tell, dude, and even all the others were saying it).
It’s a funny exchange to happen this week, as I have to confess that on Monday and Tuesday, having managed little sleep and having worked all day, I opted not to run for the first time in all of June, favoring rest. The streak is over.
My response now: So what? I feel good, I needed the rest and there’s no reason to pump the brakes with unnecessary regret.
Haven’t been able to write for a bit. It’s been a stretch of low lows and high highs.
All week, I have been fighting a nasty case of bronchitis that I caught while working on another project, and the combination of fatigue, fever and cough has been exceptionally difficult. I found myself suffering from shortness of breath, needing to use an inhaler, and virtually chugging Doliprane – the French equivalent of Tylenol. And no, it’s not COVID-19. I’m vaccinated and I got tested: negative.
Nonetheless, I pitched today, which is Independence Day for Americans and just Sunday for the French, on the road in a doubleheader against Rouen, the defending national champs and the toughest team in the league. I’m leaving out the occasional downpours that halted the games and sent the humidity even higher on a day when the temperature was around 100 Fahrenheit.
While I was able to miss Thursday night’s practice to rest, coach Touahri confided in me that we were going to be missing a few players on Sunday, and the team really needed me. So I really wanted to make it, even though I was afraid my performance would be a shambles.
In hindsight, a few things stand out. I remember that, in my game, my two-seam fastball just wasn’t working, and I was missing high. When you miss high, number one, it hurts your control as you’re way outside the strike zone and you can’t even buy a strike from the umpire. Additionally, if you stay high in the zone, the hitter can really do some damage.
In the end, the result was positive: I pitched 4 1/3 innings with four strikeouts and four walks – meaning that my control was not always consistent, but still strong – and my slider and changeup weren’t as deceptive as usual, but they still got the job done. I was also able to work low and locate the ball well such that I produced several swings and misses and some called third strikes from the umpire.
When I left the game, we were down 1-0, not ideal but I kept my team in the game and gave us a chance to win. We were able to tie it 3-3 and then 4-4 in the ninth inning, before unfortunately losing, 5-4, on a walk-off sacrifice fly. That was that. Every ounce of strength that I had, I poured into that game.
Nonetheless, knowing that I threw very few first-pitch strikes – contrary to my usual tendency – and often fell behind hitters early in the count, working at a self-inflicted disadvantage, I was satisfied with how the day turned out.
Rouen’s field was in a magnificent setting, with a beautiful view and church bells ringing during the game. It was a great atmosphere.
They also love their baseball in Rouen, a town in Normandy with numerous fans and even walk-up songs on the PA system for their players. They’re actually a bit better organized than us from a visual and logistical standpoint, but we could and should have beaten them.
Finally, some good news.
On the ride home from Rouen, coach Touahri told me that he had received a call from Boris Rothermundt, the France national team coach and one of the leaders of the baseball federation, the governing body for the sport here. In case you were curious, there is no MLB equivalent in the land of the two-time World Cup soccer champions.
Rothermundt was asking for 23-and-under ballplayers in advance of the European Championships in August. Touahri recommended me as a pitcher!
ON THE TRAIN, NORTHWESTERN FRANCE
Last night, I stayed up until 2 a.m. to edit a highlight video for Rothermundt. I included several clips from the past several games, including my top moments from the Rouen game.
Little did I know, shortly before I boarded my afternoon train to the beach in Brittany for the weekend to see my family – my mom is visiting from the U.S., and we are meeting up with our relatives – I received a surprisingly detailed WhatsApp text message from the oft-succinct national team coach.
As I opened it, I knew my hopes of grabbing an unlikely roster spot on the French U23 baseball team were about to take a turn.
Rothermundt first informed me that I had made the list of 40 potential 23U players for the European Championships, but that he wasn’t sure I would make the pitching staff this year – and I would still have another opportunity in 2023, having been born in 2000.
I replied by saying that I am all-in this year since I do not know exactly what the future holds in baseball terms – not to mention in life terms. For example, I don’t have a job lined up yet after my May 2022 graduation and it could be on at least a couple of continents.
Following this initial exchange, I sent Rothermundt my passport and an ID photo per his request to confirm my status as a French citizen. Further, I also asked Rothermundt what I needed to work on in the coming weeks to increase my chances, to which he replied my earned run average (ERA) and my pitch velocity.
While Rothermundt accurately remarked that, according to the coaches in our league he had spoken with, my velocity was down from the 85-86 mph I hit in January, he also added that “La vitesse est une chose, l’efficacité une autre.” (Velocity is one thing, efficiency another).
The speed thing is not terribly surprising. To be honest, the week after the Rouen game, I was still sick, and my start this past weekend against another tough team, Savigny, was an outright mess – my first real bad start. Final stat line: two innings, eight runs, eight hits. Ouch.
As I finally felt better, I got out to dinner at a cool, cosmopolitan place in Paris with my teammates, where we met a couple of nice American girls from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, who quickly mentioned their boyfriends on seeing a table of 10 baseball players.
Bottom line, though: I haven’t been myself for much of the past month, and it showed on the mound.
Just before my train pulled into the station, Rothermundt followed up with me via WhatsApp again saying he had just come out of a staff meeting for the national team.
As it turns out, he is including me among the 26 final players for France’s 23U team, 20 of whom will be selected and travel to Verona, Italy, for the European Championships!
Of course, there is no guarantee that I will not be among the six reserve players to be “cut.” Nonetheless, I was and am extremely excited to hear the news.
Next stop: A four-day pre-selection camp August 17-20 to which all 26 finalists are invited. At the end of those four days, I will know. Rothermundt put it like this: “It’s up to you to continue (i.e., persevere), to show us that Savigny was an accident, and to display at the camp what you can bring to the team!”
It occurs to me now that he has to be in need of pitchers. I mean, isn’t everybody in baseball?
Still, it’s hard to describe the feeling of hearing that. It may be a cliche, but it’s a win-win. No matter what happens, I’ll lay it all out on the field at tryouts and leave that camp with no regrets.
MONTPARNASSE TRAIN STATION, PARIS
If nothing else, I got to wear the uniform.
The time is 4:12 p.m., and I am currently sitting in a patch of grass right outside the Paris-Montparnasse train station. I notice some young kids running around nearby, as well as numerous travelers enjoying their snack – or goûter, as we say in French – at outdoor tables.
A popular cliché holds that nice guys finish last. I disagree – but sometimes, amid a wealth of baseball talent, they admittedly don’t always finish first.
Right now, my body is exhausted. My legs, for one, are sore and rigid, a stiffness having built up over the past several days. My once-robust shoulder is simply drained from a full season’s worth of use. And, pardon the cliché, but my arm really does feel like a noodle.
The recoil and whiplash of this whole week, Tuesday through Friday, at French camp in the small town of Montigny-le-Bretonneux, is just hitting me.
The European Championships will be taking place next week without me, but I have no regrets whatsoever. From my standpoint, I did everything I possibly could.
Without further ado, let’s take it from the top:
Headed into camp, my arm was very tired. I had just tweaked my shoulder in-game on Sunday, and had been applying alternating hot and cold muscle cream in the interim before my train ride to tryouts.
Once I arrived, it quickly became apparent that my teammates eat, breathe, and sleep baseball. Several of them are playing junior college ball in the States, including a couple of them in Arizona. These guys, and I mean this as a compliment, were outright studs.
We had our first team meeting on Tuesday afternoon in the lobby of our Ibis hotel. The Ibis brand is to France as Econo Lodge or Quality Inn is to America: it’s not a Marriott, but at least it has the bare necessities. In small towns such as Montigny, Ibis can be the only option – a sort of tailor-made, low-key destination that mirrors the lifestyle of American minor leaguers.
Nonetheless, the meeting was rather quaint, with a dozen breakfast tables installed nearby in the hotel restaurant and a couple sofas here and there. Once everybody filed in and exchanged hellos by dapping each other up, we ran over the basics for the week: daily itineraries, team strategy, pitching and hitting schedules, pool play opponents for the upcoming Euros (Great Britain, Italy, and the Czech Republic), and new uniforms were all topics of discussion.
Fortunately, we were only a short walk from the Montigny stadium. The morning trips to the field with the guys produced some of my fondest memories from camp, blending French landscapes – bridges over train tracks, local shopping centers – with baseball chatter and the eventual sight of perfectly conditioned turf waiting for us at the field.
During Wednesday afternoon’s intrasquad game, I had two strikeouts (on a nasty outside slider and a high fastball), and I only allowed a couple hits that made it out of the infield. During my outing, I honestly still believed I could make the team.
Then one guy from Rouen hit a home run off me to left field on my very last pitch, but no big deal, right? I prepared well, I went in with a strong mindset, and my efforts paid off.
There ended up being only 23 of us at the camp. On Friday, that number dwindled down to 20.
I remember the moment I found out. Following our morning workout, my teammates and I walked up to the bleachers above home plate. There was a degree of inevitability that surrounded the ensuing minutes, as I revisited the week’s highs and lows over a plate of chicken.
Thursday morning was one of the lows. We were laughing and joking as we walked to the field, and a teammate who had been holding the radar gun during my outing said I topped out at 74 mph. Distraught and shocked at my inability to break 80, I then proceeded to make several mental mistakes during our morning rundown drills.
It was at that moment that I knew I was finished.
On Friday, the first player to be “cut” was a fellow pitcher. When he returned to the stands, he said the coaches wanted to see me.
Everything went very matter-of-factly, but amiably. Rothermundt and his two assistants thanked me for my hard work. I mixed French and English a bit and asked for arm care advice, to which they gladly obliged. One of the assistants grilled me on Thursday’s rundown drills, and Rothermundt said I had the mentality of a guerrier (warrior) – that I had proven myself in the French league, but that I just wasn’t up to par on the international level.
All things considered, it was an honest and positive send-off.
As I packed up my belongings, a Franco-Venezuelan teammate, José, reminded me of a lesson he had learned since being drafted by the Oakland Athletics: when you’re cut, “c’est toujours pour une raison” – it’s always for a reason. One failed opportunity opens up the door to another.
A few minutes later, I walked back into the team hotel lobby with my bags and suitcases packed. The immediate future was inevitable, and I knew I had to leave. Meanwhile, most of the guys were looking down at their phones, waiting for our — I mean, their — afternoon team meeting to begin.
Not knowing what would come of it, I stood up and, swallowing my pride, timidly reiterated what I had said to a few teammates back at the stadium: “Bonne chance pour la suite” (Good luck the rest of the way).
Upon hearing my comment, every single face in the room, coaches included, looked up to meet my glance and wished me well.
That, right there, is French baseball. Despite finishing dead last on the final roster as a reserve player, I was proud to be a nice guy among a team’s worth of them.
As a bittersweet smile crossed my face, I exited the hotel lobby to a sea of waves and thank yous, peacefully booking my Uber to the train station. Always best to leave on a good note.
After all, they’ll see me soon enough. The Euros are every two years, and I’ll be back in 2023.