Politics
How do you think Trump did this week? Let us know

French connection to America's pastime

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

He built it. But the truth is, they never really came.

What he built was a baseball field with minor league pretensions but major league dimensions, with lockers, lights and artificial turf, and a concession stand that sells hot dogs that are tasty even if they come smeared with mayonnaise and stuffed into hollowed-out baguettes.

The home team, the Montigny Cougars, is one of the better teams in France -- not that it has a lot of competition. And though the field would be the envy of almost any town in America, it stands more as a monument to the enthusiasm of a rural mayor who went on to become a senator than to any love for the boys of summer.

Thirty years ago, Montigny-le-Bretonneux was a village 20 miles southwest of Paris, and Nicolas About was its only doctor. Over two decades, the village welcomed 2,000 new residents a year, mostly couples with young children.

"It gave a lot of work to the doctor I was and the mayor I became," says About (pronounced A-boo), now a prominent lawmaker with what has to be the best office in Paris, overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens.

At first, the only sports and culture the village had were soccer, boules and beer. The people wanted more. So About gave them more soccer and facilities for boules, a national sport akin to lawn bowling but done with small steel balls on sandy surfaces. He also introduced new activities such as judo, fencing and his favorite, handball.

Then one day he had the idea to start something altogether new. He'd seen people elsewhere in France with gloves throwing balls to one another. They had bats.

Baseball, he thought, why not baseball?

It was the late 1980s, and America's pastime was newly in vogue in France. Teens favored the American jerseys and caps even if the rules of the game were arcane. About raised the idea of building a field in his budding suburb, and immediately a few pioneers started a club.

"They understood they had to help me because it was a kind of cultural revolution," About recalls.

But there was no cry of "Vive le baseball!"

"They said no one wanted it, no one was asking for it," says About, 60, a tall, heavyset man with De Gaulle-esque features, gray hair and smiling eyes. Though he is not sporty himself -- he plays a decent game of handball but that's it -- he is canny about what a community and children need to grow.

And so he persisted with baseball not because he knew anything about the game or had even seen it played across the Atlantic. He just knew it was distinctive -- and it symbolized "the idea of the American dream."

But baseball, which was introduced here in 1889, the year the Eiffel Tower was built, has never really caught on in France and is played only at the amateur level. The national baseball federation has about 9,000 members, and France usually ranks below Italy, the Netherlands, Britain and Germany in quality of play and at competitions.

It's still not a game children play in the garden or during a barbecue. As is regularly noted, if you hand a French child a baseball, he'll immediately drop and try to kick it. (Of course, that's how the 1962 Mets played, and they won a World Series a few years later.)

On a typical spring weekend when the Cougars are on the field, there are only a few dozen spectators in the stands, and often the strapping players mix with the desultory crowd, wandering over to the snack bar for a square of vanilla flan or a waffle delicately sprinkled with sugar.

"Compared with soccer, where every little town has its own beautiful field," says Sylvain Hervieux, 34, who plays for one of the best elite baseball teams in France, "baseball has few fields, and finding a good one is always a problem." (Hervieux is typical of French players with multiple roles, including presiding over a local club, teaching gym and coaching a high school varsity team.)

Montigny's mayor knew instinctively that to build interest in the sport he needed a field. Determined to keep the local youths active, he persuaded a quasi-governmental agency charged with building green spaces in new suburbs not to bother sprinkling his town with lots of little patches of grass but to "gather them all in one place and make them a baseball field, and not to make it grass but artificial turf."

"All at once I had a new service for my youths, which didn't cost me a dime to build, and I didn't have to cut the grass," About says with a chuckle.

Completed in 1995, practically in the center of town, the field was the country's first artificial turf park and instantly became coveted by baseball clubs everywhere. It also was used for national championships and international competitions between high schools from all over Europe, and for soccer and other sports by local schools. Over the years it also helped increase, if only slightly, local interest in baseball and inspired legends such as Frederic Hanvi.

Hanvi started playing in Montigny when he was 6, and last year as an 18-year-old became the second Frenchman selected in a Major League Baseball draft after he was recruited as a catcher (called a "receiver" here) by the Minnesota Twins. (The first was Joris Bert, an outfielder drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers and now with one of their minor league teams.)

Christophe Herard, president of the Montigny baseball club, talks proudly about Hanvi, noting that his parents and friends eagerly watch his career. He is finishing school in France before he heads off in June for training in Florida.

"The [American recruiters] were placing a kind of bet on him," Herard says. "The road is still very long and tough . . . but we are going to follow him in Montigny."

But baseball remains a marginal sport in Montigny. Last year the town's gymnastics club was the most popular, with 1,100 members, followed by soccer with 850. With just 160 members, the Montigny baseball club may be one of the largest in France, but it's still smaller here than fishing and badminton.

Even when the championships for the top-level teams (equivalent to Class-A baseball in the U.S.) were played in Montigny, they drew only 100 people to the 230-seat stands.

It's puzzling if only because baseball seems in so many ways like a sport the French might like:

It's leisurely and permeated with romance, much like French cinema, and leaves plenty of time for analysis and hearty eating in the bleachers. And in the American imagination, baseball is so tied to what feels like the very French notion of terroir, which can be translated as territory but refers to a cultural attachment to the land. Baseball is rooted in a pastoral culture of summertime in the country with people cheering as much for a team as for the spirit of their land.

Both Herard and Eric-Pierre Dufour, president of the French Baseball and Softball Federation (FFBS), which regulates the games, are convinced the sport could develop if mayors got behind it the way About did and built fields and supported clubs.

"I'm always going to towns asking mayors to start clubs and build fields," Dufour says. "Maybe it would help if we had one big stadium, say, in Paris. But no one in the national ministry wants to give us the money."

Now busy in the French Senate, About rarely gets to the Montigny field and notes with good humor that the boulevard adjacent to the field was named for him only because "they didn't want me to be mayor again and wanted people to believe I was dead."

Still, he believes he was right to champion a new sport and build the field.

"At some point somebody told me, 'But Monsieur Mayor, we don't have baseball players, we don't need a field!' And I answered, 'If we build a field, we'll have some.' "

And he is still hopeful that they will come.

geraldine.baum@latimes.com

Pauline Ranger of The Times' Paris Bureau and special correspondent Rebecca Ruquist contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
58°