What is this game, le baseball?
A visitor from the US introduces a French village to the great American pastime.
In 1974, when I was 24, I had the rare good fortune to spend six months with a family in France. That era was probably the last hurrah for a certain picturesque notion of France, the one from your high school grammar book, with little Paul and Paulette trotting off to école, with old men playing boules, with francs instead of euros, and with the sighting of an occasional beret. It was an age before the French discovered McDonald's, Disneyland, and supermarkets the size of airplane hangars.
The Thomases lived in the département of Vendée, half a mile from the village of Montournais, a traditional French town centered around a stone church and a village square. Downtown Montournais had a bakery, two small grocery stores, a butcher shop, a hotel, several cafes, a town hall, and a fishmonger. Mme. Thomas shopped at three or four stores each day, sometimes for each meal, gathering fresh ingredients.
Just outside the family home was a vegetable garden – M. Thomas's pride – lettuce, tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers, and onions picked daily for the evening meal.
From the garden, I could see a soccer field belonging to a nearby school (where M. Thomas was professor of English) and hear the cries and shouts of the players.
In other directions I saw farmland, gently rolling fields, small stands of trees. Across one field was a dairy farm owned by two brothers who were close friends of the family. We ate cheeses of the region, fresh farm eggs, and milk from cows we knew by sight.
My first Saturday in France, I unveiled my secret plan: a baseball game to be played on the school soccer field.
The week before I left America, I had trawled garage sales and flea markets and collected a team's worth of used bats, balls, and mitts, all stowed in an army duffel bag.
At the time, I wasn't sure exactly what I was going to do with my trove of equipment, but on that day, I decided it was a good time to teach the pastime to my new friends.
As in any sandlot game in America, I first commandeered some spare shirts and jackets and folded them into squares for use as base pads. M. Thomas led his students onto the field while a crowd of neighbors and onlookers watched me stake out the bases.
I unbuckled the duffel bag and passed out the mitts and balls. This was extremely interesting to the French – the oddest objects they had ever seen: "No, Sophie, that is not a chapeau. It goes on your hand. Your left hand."
About then, some of the older boys left their soccer-kicking and joined the tryouts.
I designated myself pitcher, manager, and captain, and appointed the most athletic-looking of the teenagers as infielders: première, secondaire, troisième. The six or seven little ones I sent to the outfield, which I considered the safest place for them.
M. Thomas wanted to bat first, so I arranged him at home plate, batting right-handed. When I went into my windup, however, he had turned 90 degrees and was now facing me, as if planning to use the bat like an ax. "No, no," I said. "You must turn sideways to me. Swing the bat as if you were swinging a tennis racket." This explanation was not sufficient.
His rational French mind seemed to judge that if someone was throwing a ball at you, you should face that direction in order to gauge speed and angle; and I wasn't able to marshal any intelligent answers to contradict him.
"Look," I finally said, "do it this way because I say so. And the right hand goes on top. I don't know why. Just because it does."
First pitch: a soft lob.
First swing: Strike 1.
Still – by what I could only gather was some Gallic love of paradox – M. Thomas's lunge and miss lifted his spirits. Perhaps it was the sheer challenge of the thing: "This small sphere is attempting to pass by me ... and I am going to hit it. Frapper la balle!"
By now, children, neighbors, uncles – everyone – seemed to be getting into the spirit of the game, and I had to remonstrate with my fielders to remain at their positions, to be ready for a base hit, ready to chase down a hot grounder and throw it to whatever base I would point to.
Next, half a dozen pitches: all misses.
I decided to forgo the three-strike rule as a gesture of international goodwill and also because M. Thomas wouldn't give up his time at bat.
Finally, the miracle occurred. As my latest pitch drifted across the plate, M. Thomas made contact. Not just contact, but a decent fly ball into left-center, causing my fielders to scatter like quail.
He had hit the sweet spot without even knowing what the sweet spot was. And everyone heard the beautiful sound: the crack of the bat! As unmistakable a piece of pure American bliss as was ever heard in the French Republic.
"Run!" I shouted. "No, not to third. To first, that way!" Off he went. Meanwhile I called to my outfielders: "Allez, allez. Go get the ball. No, not you, Monsieur. Keep running, keep running."
A last image of the game rises in my memory, probably a dream. Well, perhaps it doesn't matter. Somehow ...
Somehow, on that summer day 34 years ago, the ball has ended up in my hands and I spot M. Thomas rounding third, heading for home with a determination that I don't know the source of.
If I can beat him there, I can apply the tag. Now everyone stops and watches. They don't know the rules, don't understand what is going on, but they can tell that something is coming to a head in this very moment, in this climactic race to home of runner and fielder.
M. Thomas stretches to touch base.
I dive for the plate.
I score it an in-the-park home run. Give myself an error for missing the tag. Ring up the game as a 1-0 victory for France, and we all head home for a two-hour lunch.