In Recent Years, Baseball Is Becoming More and More Popular With Frenchmen

Associated Press

Around a bunch of tables shoved together in the corner of a small restaurant in this country crossroads, a couple dozen sports enthusiasts from 12 towns and cities hammered out an agreement forming a regional Normandy baseball league for 1988.

Thus, on a rainy December morning 43 years after the Americans landed on the beaches not far from here bringing chewing gum and Spam, another American invasion appeared to be spreading.

Normandy, the rich, rolling countryside of dairy farms and apple orchards, joined Aquitaine, around Bordeaux, Ile de France, around Paris, Provence-Riviera, the Lyon region, Roussillion in the south and Franche-Comte in the east with a regional championship.

According to the French Federation of Baseball and Softball, there are now about 150 baseball clubs in France with one or more teams and about 8,000 registered players. Clubs have been sprouting like mushrooms in a damp forest for the past two or three years.

"Either it is a passing fad, like the skateboard, or a grassroots movement with a lot of development ahead of it," said Patrice Bienfait, secretary-general of the national federation, who was here to help set up a regional committee and form the league.

"We are treating it as a growing movement, giving it structure and a political framework, forming leagues and the like," he said.

Bienfait learned his baseball when the American NATO forces were still in France. Others have come to the game by various means, including stays in the United States, training courses provided by the federation, or simply catching the bug from friends who have acquired a ball, a glove and a bat.

The first national baseball federation was formed in 1927, but the sport was limited, played mostly around the metropolitan areas of Paris, Bordeaux, Lyon and Nice.

Bienfait is hard put to explain the rise in popularity of baseball.

"It is a sport that offers different sensations, different gestures, there is a certain fascination with the signs, the plays, something you don't get in other sports," he said.

"Also, people don't have much choice beyond soccer, rugby, tennis and judo. Baseball has a new 'look,' material and style. There is also a certain snob element, at least in the beginning."

In 1980, the federation developed a new elan. The immediate goal is to develop about 200 clubs around the country with 14,000 players. Clubs have from one to four teams for various age groups, depending on size of the town and interest.

The national federation has a special technical committee training coaches, umpires and scorekeepers, but to date is far behind meeting the needs. And many of today's French baseball diamonds are little more than grassy affairs set up on soccer fields.

With baseball set to become an Olympic sport in 1992, the impetus for development is there. The French started warming up by hosting the 1986 European Baseball Championship in 1986.

"Whether or not there is a French team in the Olympics depends on a number of things," said Bienfait. "They will have to beat some teams they haven't beaten yet."

The quality is still lacking, but not the enthusiasm, if only measured by the fact that 35,000 baseball gloves were sold in France last year.

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