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Published: April 3rd 2008
One of the great perks of being here in Montpellier was connecting with the great Barracudas of Montpellier. Having crossed paths with them in the European Cup in Amsterdam, I briefly met the coach and several of the guys; they mentioned to me that if I were ever in the area that I should stop in for a practice. Now I was here in Montpellier, was in need of baseball practice to stay in shape until I get back to Lithuania for the season, and so on the Thursday before Easter I waited at the tram station for a car to pick me up and take me to practice.
My ride to the stadium was with Jean-Michel. Jean-Michel is the catcher for the Barracudas, in his mid to late twenties; in his younger days he played for the French National Team, and now works as a baseball coach and teacher at the C.R.E.P.S. baseball training center. I will not go into detail to explain CREPS or the system of the ‘formation’ for different sports in France, but let me explain it briefly. CREPS is a sports school where kids go to study and train in their respective sports. As I understand it, it is for the training of younger kids (middle school and younger) and is not a boarding school, but rather where kids go as a supplement to their normal studies. It is state-funded and fully state-run. For high-school age children there is ‘Le Pol’, a system of boarding schools with a sports focus that children attend in order to focus heavily on training for their sport. These are training grounds for the French National Teams in each sport; most of the elite athletes in France come out of the ‘Pol’ system (except for soccer players, because in France there is a separate system for training youth soccer players). This is certainly the case for the French National Baseball Team, as I believe all but a few of the National Team players, from Junior Nationals on up to Adults, attended the ‘Pol’ schools.
But I digress. My point is—this Jean-Michel who picked me up is a trainer at CREPS. On the weekends he plays for the Montpellier team as well as coaches the Cadets (13-15 yrs. old) team from his club. Like most of the baseball folks I have met in Europe, Jean-Michel lives, breathes, and oozes baseball.
The Barracuda Stadium sits atop a hill on the outskirts of Montpellier, in a sports complex with several tennis courts and a rugby field. The first day I arrived at the field our practice coincided with an American Football practice on the rugby field. For a sports enthusiast, it was a funny site: a baseball practice and an American Football practice simultaneous occurring on adjacent fields in the middle of France, just miles from the Mediterranean Sea. It made me chuckle.
It was a bit confusing trying to explain to the guys at practice who I was; ‘huh? You’re a professional baseball player in Lithuania but right now you are in Montpellier dancing with a dance company? And you speak French?” But I did not stress over it because no matter how I explained it, people always seemed to get it wrong (I know this from listening to them when they would introduce me to other folks). Except for Jean-Michel—he was right on the money every time he made an introduction. I attribute this to the fact that when someone asks you a question they generally only listen to your first sentence, and if the question requires an explanatory answer then rarely will they remember the details.
The Barracuda Stadium is like Yankee Stadium compared to Gintaras Stadijona, the baseball stadium in Kaunas. It has fencing all the way around, A bullpen behind each dugout, a snack bar, covered soccer-style dugouts with ‘Barracudas’ written on the roof, a scorer’s perch, blue tarp around the fences to block hitters’ and pitchers’ sight lines. The field was completely dirt. The whole field, and not just the infield. And the infield has a turf grass infield. It occurred to me that with such a hard surface in the infield, whichever team hit the most grounders would win the game because the ball would skirt across the turf and through to the outfield very quickly. In our practice we did a drill, in fact, where we put a full infield in as defense and hitters were supposed to hit only ground balls hard through the infield. Everything on the ground.
Compared to the Lithuanian guys, Montpellier guys are very small in size. French guys in general are smaller, though. But these guys were solid players—especially the top 6 or 7 of them. The team had one foreigner, Nathan French, a pitcher from Canada. This is his second season with the team. The team has four players who play for the French National Team, two of which are in Canada playing baseball and attending a University.
The team had another American the previous season named Brett from Claremont College in Claremont, CA. He initially came as a player-coach, assigned to manage and coach the Montpellier team. He is my age, and apparently it did not work out. The team lost their first seven games of the season, he was not comfortable as the coach and felt like too much was on his shoulders, and so after seven games the team hired Thomas Paquier to be their coach. From there the team went on a tear, winning 10 games in a row and making it to the playoffs, losing to the Rouen Huskiesin the semifinals. The team is looking to do the same if not better this season. In two months they will return two French players from a University in British Columbia, Canada, as well as two other players from North America.
The coach, Thomas Paquier, was a very nice guy and I liked how he ran the team and the practices. He was friendly and relaxed, but he got things done and the guys seemed very happy to play for him. He has a great sense of humor. The final practice I attended, the day they were to leave for their first series of the season, we took a light batting practice and then closed the practice with an interesting exercise. Coach Paq read out the starting lineup for the following day’s game; then we proceeded to do a drill that I have never seen before. Sort of a visualization drill. When Paquier clapped his hands he wanted each person to sprint out to their positions. Then when he clapped his hands, they sprinted back to the sideline. And each time the player ran out onto the field, they were to rotate over one position so that after nine times (simulating nine innings), each player had sprinted to each position. The purpose of this exercise, I think, was to get the guys to start thinking about the game, and to drill into them the importance of sprinting on and off the field from the first to the last inning. He stressed over and over that it is the details that will make the difference in this team being a good team or a great team this season. I would agree.
I think this is one thing that is lacking on my team in Kaunas—attention to detail. Often our guys don’t sprint on and off the field. Maybe they are tired, or they are thinking about their previous or upcoming at-bat. But in general it is because there is no habit or model for this in Lithuania. Also, it is a reflection of the fact that there is no one pushing these guys from underneath (younger guys challenging the older starters for their spots) or from the competition (Kaunas is by far the best team in the league, in the country). I think that this would change our team astronomically.
It is funny experiencing this Montpellier team and attempting to analyze the facilities, the players, etc….because after spending so much time in Lithuania it feels very luxurious to me. The team had a bag full of composite wood bats, more helmets than they needed, and several buckets full of practice baseballs. In Kaunas we are very limited with baseballs. We usually have about 20 or so of them circulating at one time.
And true, the Montpellier field is dirt, but it is a field. It is flat. There are fences. There is a backstop and dugouts. There are bullpens for the pitchers to warm up in, and there is a batting cage. The guys say, though, that the field becomes a dust bowl in the middle of the summer when there is very little rain.
The evening after my second practice in Montpellier I met up the guys and we went out for a Kebab and a Coke in the City Centre. After that we went to have some drinks at a bar called ‘Oxymort.’ It is sort of the “Barracuda Bar”--the baseball guys are friends with the owners, they know the bouncers, and seemingly everyone in the bar. They walk in and immediately beers arrive at their table. Hugs and kisses all around. The TV is immediately turned to ‘NASN,’ which is a station that broadcasts mostly ESPN shows and during the baseball season broadcasts MLB Baseball games. There were quite a few foreigners in the bar, mostly exchange students spending their semester abroad in Montpellier.
Sadly, I was having such a good time at the practices, with the guys, and hanging out in the city that I did not get any pictures of anybody; or of course I could be making it all up. Either way, it is a good story.
PS: ***Here is an interesting article in the Boston Globe about a guy who played baseball in Europe, in fact in France, for the same Bois-Guillaume Woodchucks that I played for last season. Check it out.
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