France Makes First Showing At World Baseball Classic

When you think about France, baseball doesn't leap to mind, but the sport has a long history there, dating back to 1889. During World War I, French soldiers played baseball with American doughboys. And now there is a French baseball league. But the games are never televised and the fans are mostly friends and family. But this week, for the first time, France sent its top team to the qualifying matches for the World Baseball Classic, a tournament that was created when baseball ceased to be an Olympics sport. For many on the French team, this is the closest they will ever get to professional baseball.

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From football now to baseball. Ever since the sport was withdrawn from the Olympic Games in 2005, teams from around the world have come together every four years to compete in the World Baseball Classic. The tournament, which includes both amateur and pro athletes, will be held in the U.S. next March. Qualifying matches are taking place this week in Jupiter, Florida, and for the first time, the French team is competing. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley sent this postcard about the struggle to play baseball in a country where it's anything but the national pastime.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL PRACTICE)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The French national baseball team warmed up recently on a field in the Normandy town of Rouen. Anthony Cross grew up playing the game in his southern hometown of Montpellier. Cross says playing baseball is a challenge in France.

ANTHONY CROSS: It's not easy. You know, you don't get the nice fields with grass. You just get a dirt field. If you've got a fence, then fences all around the field, then you're really lucky.

BEARDSLEY: Cross' Canadian mother gave him a taste for the game early on, he says. Otherwise, he would have played soccer like the rest of the kids. Cross, like all young French baseball players, dreamed of going to North America to play. After high school at a special French sports academy, he did play four years of college ball in Oklahoma and then played a year in an independent pro league in Canada. Now, he's excited to play for team France. Teammate Boris Marche says playing in the classic is a great opportunity.

BORIS MARCHE: It's a wonderful experience for French baseball, like, in general, and a wonderful experience for the players because they're going to, like, be the closest they can get to professional baseball. And it's a good occasion for us to let people know in France that we have baseball here, and we can play and be competitive.

BEARDSLEY: Both Cross and Marche play for the Rouen Huskies, the best team in the French league, which won the national championship again this year.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Rouen, Rouen, Rouen.

BEARDSLEY: Their fans might sound rowdy here as they chant Rouen, Rouen, but most are actually the friends and family of players. And even playoff games like this are barely covered by the local media. French amateur baseball teams depend on funding from local and regional governments and some sponsorships. The league's regular season lasts 28 games, all played in weekend doubleheaders because the players earn only small stipends and have to work. To put it simply, French players don't get enough time on the field, says Francois Collet, with the French Federation of Baseball and Softball.

FRANCOIS COLLET: If players don't get the opportunity to go abroad, like in the United States, for a scholarship, then they have to keep playing baseball in France, but they have to work. And they're just playing on Sunday, and then they don't develop anymore as players.

BEARDSLEY: Collet says many of the best players between the ages of 18 and 20 end up quitting because it's too difficult to play. He says the key to attracting young players is getting baseball into school phys ed classes, but there aren't enough coaches. There aren't enough fields either, says Collet, because many cities are loathed to grant land for a complicated and obscure sport that takes up twice the space of a soccer field. And, says Collet, culture could also have something to do with baseball's slow progress in France.

COLLET: You know, the relationship between France and America is kind of I don't like you, I like you, I don't like you, and maybe the fact that it's an American game, maybe some French don't like it at all. I don't know, maybe.

BEARDSLEY: Still, baseball has a long history in France. The game was introduced to the country the same year as the Eiffel Tower in 1889 at the Universal Exposition. French soldiers played it in World War I in an effort to make the American doughboys feel welcome. Things were going well until a German U-boat sank a boatload of equipment coming from the U.S. But the game's popularity here lags behind other European countries. That's understandable, says Petie Kladstrup, who, with her husband, Don, is writing a book about baseball in France.

PETIE KLADSTRUP: In Germany, there is a bigger American presence with American air bases, American military implants. In Italy, for instance, there was a guy named DiMaggio, who inspired a lot of Italians to take up the sport. And the problem in France is partly that there is no big star.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASEBALL PRACTICE)

BEARDSLEY: Players here keep hoping that one day a superstar will emerge and rescue French baseball from obscurity. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News.

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CORNISH: And tonight, France is losing its qualifying game for the World Baseball Classic. Spain is up 8-0 in the ninth inning.

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