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ROUEN, France — The best baseball in France was played on a recent Sunday afternoon in Rouen, on a spartan diamond beyond the soccer field at a municipal sports complex. Rouen’s team, the Huskies, swept a doubleheader against the Templiers of Sénart, outside Paris, on a cool, drizzly day when, at most, 35 spectators huddled under umbrellas on metal-and-plywood bleachers behind home plate.
The setting, though a short drive from the cathedral painted in a series by Claude Monet, might as well have been a high school field in small-town America. There were no turnstiles; no admission fee. The spectators arrived for the long day with canned sodas, sandwiches (saumon et crudités, or salmon and raw vegetables) and cold chicken hauled in coolers.
These who showed up to watch were largely players’ friends and relatives. Kim Mezger, an engineer visiting from Albany, was there to watch her brother, Chris, a pitcher for Rouen. “I tell people my brother is pitching in France,” she said. “And they always say the same thing: ‘There’s baseball in France?’ ”
The Huskies, who have dominated the top French division for most of a decade, winning 9 of the last 10 league titles, including this year’s, play in a virtual vacuum in France, where soccer is ubiquitous. The few fans who follow the American major leagues do so on their laptops.
The Huskies’ bankroll depends on local and regional governments and on some sponsorships. The league’s regular season lasts 28 games, all played in weekend doubleheaders because most of the players are native amateurs who fit baseball into everyday lives. Each team is allowed three international players, and among those are former United States collegiate players who did not land professional contracts in America and who yearn to keep playing somewhere, even in a country across the Atlantic that cares little about their sport.
Whoever does show up at a French league baseball game, on the field or along the fence, is clearly there for the love of the game. Xavier Rolland, the Rouen team’s president, casts baseball’s appeal in terms that might strike many of his countrymen as iconoclastic, even heretical.
“Baseball is culture,” Rolland said through an interpreter, adding: “It’s like wine. You can talk about wine for half an hour before you even taste it, especially in France. Baseball is wine, and soccer is beer. You just drink it, but you don’t talk about it.”
The Huskies’ best pitcher is Chris Mezger, a 23-year-old from Colorado who played for four years as a walk-on at Southern California. After he was passed over in the major league draft, he looked around for a chance to pitch somewhere and heard that a league in France might have a spot for him.
He had never been to Europe, but having studied French, he wanted to learn to speak it. A few teammates speak only French, and he has conversed with them whenever he can. “It keeps me honest,” he said.
This season, his first in the league, Mezger was 11-0 in the regular season with an earned run average around 0.50. “That’s one of the best parts of coming,” he said with a broad smile.
When Rouen played in its Sunday doubleheader against Sénart, it had clinched first place in the regular season with a 24-2 record, and Sénart was second at 20-6. Mezger pitched a complete game in the opener, a 7-0 victory. He allowed only two base runners through the first five innings.
In the early innings, the Sénart batters continually fouled off Mezger’s pitches to the opposite field, suggesting that they could not catch up with his fastball, which he relies on heavily and usually throws just shy of 90 miles per hour. Mezger, though, said he thought it was just as important that the batters found it difficult to pick up the ball from his unconventional delivery, in which the ball seems to pop out of his armpit. It also does not hurt that he stands 6 feet 10.
Rouen also won the second game, 10-4. Some of the baseball that day had the crisp feel of a decent college game. At other times, though, play was erratic and slovenly. Cutoff men were overthrown, routine grounders were kicked, and a Sénart pitcher was called for an unusual balk because nobody was covering first base when he attempted a pickoff throw.
Mezger said the play was actually better than he expected, but it was not on a par with, say, N.C.A.A. Division I. “My team at S.C. would definitely beat this team,” he said. The difference, he said, is in the depth of the rosters.
Mezger and three other players, including Ethan Paquette, who played two seasons in the Seattle Mariners’ system, have shared an apartment provided by the team. Mezger has also been given 350 euros a month in spending money.
Besides dominating the French league, Rouen this year also reached the final four of the European Cup, an international tournament that concludes this week in Nettuno, Italy. A significant reason for the Huskies’ sustained excellence is its year-to-year continuity: it is common for players to stay in the league for 10 years, even longer.
Baseball-Reference.com identifies nine French-born players in the history of the major leagues; the best known is San Francisco Giants Manager Bruce Bochy. But it is not entirely accurate to imagine France as bereft of native baseball talent. An academy in Rouen, independent of the Huskies, is training players. The Huskies’ regular center fielder, Joris Bert, a Rouen native, was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2007, though he did not advance beyond rookie ball in the Gulf Coast League. Last winter, a Rouen pitcher, Alexandre Roy, signed with the Mariners.
The league is about 50 years old. According to “Baseball in Europe,” by Josh Chetwynd, the French Baseball Union formed a league as early as 1912, and American and Canadian soldiers played the game in France during World War I.
The Rouen team, though, did not exist until 1986. Rolland, the Huskies’ president, was a university student then in Rouen, and he vaguely recalls taking part in pickup games with friends who wanted to play something other than soccer. Rolland’s father, Pierre, who had just retired as an engineer, helped get the team started, and the Huskies’ field is named for him: Terrain Pierre Rolland.
Xavier Rolland played second base until he was about 24. Now 46, he has a career as a television journalist; the Huskies and their numerous lower-division clubs occupy his spare hours. He offers a wry explanation for his continuing association with the team: “The mayor gave the field the name of my father, so I couldn’t do anything. Couldn’t leave now.”
Beyond his humor, Rolland says he is especially fond of the amateurs, the young Frenchmen who make up most of the rosters. Playing in the league demands dedication. The league stretches from the Mediterranean Sea in the south almost to the northern coast. Away games typically mean long drives in vans or buses. Some players cannot attend midweek practices.
“They have children, they’re working, and besides, they’re playing for the beauty of the sport,” Rolland said.
Nicolas Potier was one of those. On that Sunday in Rouen, he drove two hours from Alençon, near Le Mans, to watch the games. A native of Cherbourg, a ferry stop on the English Channel, Potier is a 32-year-old father and a high school teacher in Alençon; he speaks English fluently and far more elegantly than most Americans. With close-cropped hair, a compact build and a quiet manner, Potier could still pass for one of the players.
As a teenager, he encountered baseball on a trip to St. Louis and, he says, caught the bug. His high school, like most in France, did not field a team, but at 16 he landed a spot on a second-division club in Cherbourg. He played in the outfield for 10 years, through the end of high school, throughout college and into his first job.
That job was 200 miles from the team, he said, and continuing would have meant driving there twice a week for practice. “I wasn’t tired of playing,” he said. “I was tired of riding across the country in a van every weekend to play two games.”
Besides, he said, at 26 he was no longer the teenager who had fallen hard for the game. “My life had done quite a bit of changing,” he said. “You have to adapt.”
Mezger, the former U.S.C. pitcher, is adapting, but only in the interest of continuing to play baseball. He will return home to Colorado this fall, and next summer he hopes to play again with Rouen, or in the Netherlands or Italy, where baseball is more established.
He has a degree in linguistics, and he suspects that his long-term future is in academia. For now, he is a baseball player, period, and his “shot in the dark,” as he put it, has led to the time of his life.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Europe,” he said. “It was a chance to play baseball around here. And it’s turned out to be beyond any plan.”
At this moment my bats are being reviewed for approval for the European Leagues. A company in the Netherlands wants to sell them all over Europe. Baseball is bigger than you think over there and growing.
It's funny they talk about the guys from USC. My 23 year old LHP son who just finished his career at Western Oregon got invited to Australia to play and has been there about 2 weeks now staying with a host family. Endless Summer!