Baseball is played along an impressive line that cuts Paris in two. This line, which starts with a castle in the Bois de Vincennes and ends with another one in Saint Germain-en-Laye, travels along Rivoli and the avenues Sainte-Antoine and Champs Elysées. It is threaded by the Arche de Triomphe and the Grande Arche at La Defense, it cross stitches the palaces and gardens of the Louvre, and is held taught by the jumping boy on the golden pole at Bastille.
If you whip this line across the ocean, you’ll find Yankee stadium or maybe Fenway Park, another set of palaces for a decidedly different set of people. Or perhaps you’ll hit an old abandoned ballpark in another French speaking city, Montreal.
But you don’t have to leave Paris to play baseball. Simply go deeper into the woods of Vincennes and navigate through hundreds of soccer fields where you’ll find two regulation baseball fields and a single softball field. This is where Paris baseball is played.
Baseball in Paris is not the best of French baseball, and the French leagues are not the best of baseball anywhere. The Paris players are not playing a sport their fathers’ and grandfathers’ played, nor do they have any friends ouside of the club who even know what baseball is. And they know that, savor it. This is a subculture, impassioned. They own this sport.
They own a game that I, an American, have been invited to join. Bat and ball notwithstanding, it’s not the same game I know…
On the bench lay scattered the day’s work clothes. Dirt was spilling on to and out of big emptied baseball bags. On and under the bench lay blue and gray business suits, scuffed black shoes, soiled socks and underwear, and shirts stained with grease or ink or blood, the already forgotten traces of office workers, butchers, students, actors, electricians, sales guys, and all sorts of other alternate states. The bench was used to support these remnants from another life, abandoned as if fire had just been yelled.
The evening was still bright, the falling sun was cutting sharp colors all over the clearing in an otherwise savage forest. There was a covering of light and space, and of foreign sounds, constant, intermittent sounds in the distance, of cars, birds and short breezes. The baseball field spanned out like an open fan, its soft brown dirt and finely cut green grass outlined by the long powdery white foul lines. At the knob lay a collection of white, red-stitched balls and a pair of finely cut wooden clubs. The field lay untouched before a small group of eager athletes who were waiting for their coach to say or do something. He was standing before them, blocking their view. He began to throw his large voice over their heads so that a smaller group of players still on the bench could hear him.
“What are you guys doing in there? Get out here! The light is falling.”
There was not a sound except for the two youngest players in the far corner of the dugout still chatting, both impeccably fashioned in their new uniforms.
“Are you serious? You got that for 10?”
“10 plus another 30 for postage, but still we’re talking a lot better than a hundred!”
“Shit, and I spent 120 and waited 5 weeks!”
“These guys are incredible, shit”, the coached raised his voice, “Hey! 25 pushups for every minute late, starting from right now. So that’s already 25.”
“Fuck. I’m ready! I’m just tying up my shoelaces.”
“Coach, he’s putting on his MLB certified socks, spikes and shoelaces. He’s getting ready for the big leagues. He’s just waiting for the reporters to come before he makes his big entrance.”
“If he’d play half as good in the field as in his dreams, he’d be worth waiting for – but for now, he’s just MLB’s best customer.”
“Half as good? Ha! He’s a lot less than that, I can tell you – he can’t even catch up with a slow roller.”
“Fuck you all! You guys just can’t handle the brilliancy of my swing!”
“It’s the brilliancy of your uniform colors that we can’t handle, Green Boy. That bright green and orange is burning my eyes. What the fuck team is that anyway?”
“It’s a mix. Padres circa 85 and the first year of the Expos – before they gave us their cartoon colors – good ol’ orangey-red, white and blue.”
“You’ve got a great sense of history and an eye for color.”
“Ok, I’m counting at least 75 pushups.”
“That was no way 3 minutes!”
“It was and you’re getting close to a hundred pushups now. I’m thinking that if you get to 200, we’ll make the whole team do 200 pushups just because Green Hornet here can’t get up off his ass!”
“Ah, Coach, can’t we just start without him? I’m getting bored listening to all this shit about uniforms and pushups. I don’t give a shit about all that, I just want to play. Look at my glove, its got the shape of a fucking ball carved out in it, and its empty because of that piece of shit. It’s suffering, look at it! It needs to eat, to catch. I need to move.”
“We train as a team, we play as a team. We stay seated until we’re all here.”
“But baseball’s an individual sport.”
The coach stood before the team – a small man who nonetheless appeared larger than any of them. He was like a gate not yet opened and impossible to jump over. He stared at them, one by one, with a grimace. It was a show for him, this role of coach. He wanted to represent the divide between play (“this is a game, it’s about fun”) and discipline (“this is serious stuff, it’s about winning, excellence”).
“An individual needs to be fit and know the fundamentals. And he needs to work with the other players on his team.”
“And he sometimes needs to shine brighter than the rest!”
“He needs to coordinate his efforts with the rest of the team. That’s how he shines best.”
“Ugh, what’s all this BS about the team. I prefer buying baseball uniforms. Ha!”
The two boys on the bench finally joined the rest. They were younger by at least 15 years on the average to the rest.
“Some of us players are at the center of this team. Their talent is what gives the team its winnng edge, its colors. The rest of the team is just there to support the best.”
“Fuck, who here wants to support this green turd?”
“I’m talking more general here. It’s obvious. Some guys hit so well that we need to get them in the lineup every game. They get on base more often, they always make things happen, they drive in lots of runs. We need to have just enough other players to lend them support, to cover the holes. Of course, many of the greats don’t know how to field, so we put them in the field wherever they do the least harm – right field, left field, maybe first base, hopefully only DH – and we just teach them enough not to fuck up at what they suck at badly. They also might be shit baserunners, slow or just stupid, but it’s their bat that counts. They’re like good pitchers, all that matters is that a pitcher pitches well, keeps us in the game, gets the outs in critical situations, keeps the runs down, etc. They can be assholes, lazy fucks, they can like uniforms better than practicing, their fielding and hitting could suck – but all that counts, all that matters is how great are the best of the team and the rest of the team is there for support.”
“Holy shit, this guy’s a Nazi!”
“So, what are you saying? We wait for you because you hit like fuckin’ A-Rod? Any other thoughts to waste our time?”
“No, I’m ready to go, boss. Let’s go! Where’s my bat?”
“OK. Green-rod will now push himself up from the ground 150 times, showing the team once again that he’s both strong and useless. And the rest of us mortals will run the field 5 times!”