Young people sport Baseball caps, T-shirts and team jackets and speak of Nolan Ryan and Jose Canseco. Last year a department store featured a window display of replicas of 1939 New York Yankee flannels, along with balls and bats commemorating the 1927 and 1961 editions of the Bronx Bombers. Workers hustle from their offices, toting gloves and spikes, to practice in the fading sunlight.
Welcome to Paris.
Oui, Paris. France.
Baseball isn't about to replace romance or soccer as France's favorite pastimes, but it is becoming a more popular participatory sport. The F�d�ration Fran�aise de Baseball, de Softball et de Criket (la F�d�) reports that there are some 270 baseball clubs with close to 12,000 registered players in the country, remarkable growth since 1982 when there were 30 clubs with about 2,500 players. At least 10,000 more play the game without a club affiliation and in schools. La F�d� oversees three national divisions, with a total of 30 teams, plus more than 20 regional leagues, as well as the senior and junior national teams, several youth teams and the national softball team. There are three international class ball fields, Stade Pershing in Paris and Stade Paul Langevin in Sarcelles, north of Paris, both of which were built in 1989, and Stade de Veyrassi in Montpellier, which serves as one of the national training centers.
Baseball isn't a completely foreign concept for the French. Primary school children learn to whack a ball with a stick in a Gallic version of rounders called theque. The first French baseball club, called Ranelagh, was formed more than 70 years ago (it no longer exists), and la F�d� was founded in 1924. Interest in the game grew again following World War II, when American soldiers there played baseball, and later, as France gave up its colonial possessions and the so-called pied noir—French citizens who had been living in North Africa—returned to France. They, too, had been exposed to baseball by occupying American troops. Similarly, U.S. troops that advanced through Italy, combined with the strong immigration links between Italy and the U.S., planted the seed that has made Italy Europe's leading baseball power since the 1950s.
Baseball's phenomenal growth since 1980 is a part of what the newspaper Le Monde called "La nouvelle vogue am�ricaine." Parisians may be rude to American tourists, but they love sports that happen to be American. Basketball leads the trend, with European pros, public hoops and Olympic exposure paving the way for Magic and Michael to become household names. American football, known as le football am�ricain to avoid confusion with soccer, has made fans through NFL telecasts. Now baseball is gaining popularity, thanks to its new Olympic status and broadcasts of major league baseball on French television and on cable.
Former national team technical director Jean-Jacques Louis acknowledges that fashion has helped baseball gain its French foothold. "Youngsters already dress in American baseball jackets.... But quickly they're taken with the finesse of the sport, which values individual expression in a team concept," Louis told Le Monde. Pierre Callewaert, a writer for the slick French-language American sports monthly NewSport, calls the baseball boom a "ph�nom�ne de soci�t�," contending, "There's more fashion than passion to the French interest in baseball."
Gilles Thomas, 35, of Paris, learned baseball when he was in high school. He and his friends picked up the rules by watching games, "when there were 200 people playing on four or five teams." He stuck with baseball because he "liked the smell of the gloves."
Thomas has a degree in sports administration and works as a technical director for la F�d�, promoting baseball and trying to manage its growth. He believes registered players—those who belong to a club—will top the 20,000 mark by 1995, bringing "recognition as a real sport. People now know it's played, but they think it's a fashion." Thomas hopes that a French team can qualify for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta or for the 2000 Games, at the latest. His optimism grows out of the great strides he has witnessed over the past two decades. "The average level of play is much better now," Thomas says. "We look like ballplayers."
The French champion Paris Universit� Club's (PUC Hitachi) practice at Pershing resembles a workout at perhaps the U.S. junior college level. The park, in the Bois de Vincennes on the eastern edge of Paris, has a hand-operated scoreboard, dugouts, bleachers and fences measuring 98 meters (322 feet) down the lines and 122 meters (400 feet) in the alleys. Every day, from after school until twilight, four club teams and a dozen or more of their youth affiliates schedule practice at Pershing. They use a pitching screen and batting cage, which is pulled farther back than is customary in the U.S., so batting practice features a lot of pop-ups. Players take additional swings using a batting tee and net at the backstop.