What can we expect this year in the French D1? How did we get here to begin? And what’s next for baseball in France? Long-time D1 player and now manager, Owen Ozanich, breaks it down for us.
By Jason Daniels.
The 2024 French Division I (D1) season is shaping up to be the most competitive in recent memory. A series of league changes and wider national developments have combined to make the upcoming year one of excitement and intrigue. To learn more, we spoke with Montpellier Barracudas manager, and reigning DI champion, Owen Ozanich.
“Going into the 2024 season, the league is going to be the most balanced it has ever been,” says Ozanich. “[Ten years ago] we could have bet all our money that it was either going to be Sénart or Rouen [as] the champions at the end of the season, and we would have been right. Now that has changed.”
What exactly has changed? An unpacking of that claim is in order. But first, it is worth taking a brief visit to the past to see how far French baseball has come and how it got to this point.
If we are to understand the flow of French baseball over the past decade and a half, Ozanich’s story is a good place to start. He has been a dominant fixture in many of the nation’s largest baseball developments, triumphs, and power dynamics since 2011. To put it bluntly, French baseball during this period has gone the way of Owen Ozanich. And while correlation is not always causation, there is a great deal we can learn about baseball in France by looking at his journey.
The Face of French Baseball
With the Rouen Huskies Between 2011 and 2018, Ozanich was undoubtedly the premier pitcher in France. Over that span, the dual French-American citizen accumulated seven D1 titles, six Challenge de France championships, and numerous European Cup victories, in addition to leading the French national team staff.
By 2018, he had achieved nearly all he could at the D1 level. The following season, with a new challenge beckoning, Ozanich accepted an offer to play with Parma in Italy’s Serie A. It was a significant step up to one of Europe’s top two leagues. But the change of scenery was soon met with disaster after a line-drive comebacker in the European Cup severely fractured his left shin bone. Surgery and a metal plate ensued, dashing his hopes of a sustained run in the Italian league.
Ozanich was back to square one. Contemplating his next move was not easy. Fortunately, he retained a few contacts and admirers from his time in France, ultimately leading him to Montpellier.
“Coming to Montpellier was basically because of the relationship I had with the manager, Jean-Michel Mayeur,” he says. “We [had a] relationship playing against each other for so many years. I am really grateful for him for giving me what was like a second opportunity, a second chance after Italy, after having broken my leg. I was kind of lost for a bit and did not know what was next, but thankfully the door opened here after the door closed in Italy. And I just made the most out of the situation.”
As in Rouen, Ozanich saw plenty of promise in Montpellier. Its location in the south of France, minutes away from the Mediterranean coast, was not so bad, either. “The overall feel here was at the time they were really hungry to win, they had a lot of good young players, and the future looked bright. It was an easy pick in terms of seeing how good they could be in the future,” he says.
“It was a tough choice going from Rouen, where you have one of the best stadiums, a club that is really well-run, and a club that is ambitious and has good results to a club in Montpellier that many times fell a little short, especially in the semi-finals or finals. So a lot of people did not understand the choice at the time. But I think now, looking back, it is starting to make more and more sense. As people saw, we have a good team here, too. And we still have a bright future with a lot of young French talent.”
That French talent includes the likes of left-handed pitcher Ben Couvreur, who — at just 16 years of age this past season — helped to form a French core that, along with Ozanich’s stewardship as manager, led Montpellier to its first D1 title since 1995.
To the Academy and Beyond
When Ozanich first moved to Montpellier, most of his time was spent working at the Montpellier baseball academy on weeknights and weekends. That is where he and Couvreur first met. “It is funny, Ben Couvreur kind of arrived at the academy at the same time as I did. He was a 12-year-old coming over from Nice. And now he is a 16-year-old who [was named Senior] European Championship Best Pitcher, French Series MVP, and probably the top overall French prospect. So, it was really awesome to work with him and see his progress. He just kept improving every outing it seemed like.”
It is hardly a new role for Ozanich, who has trained and developed young French players since his early days in Normandy. “There was the academy [in Rouen] and I was lucky to work with [academy coach and Rouen manager] Keino [Pérez] for eight years and sent some pretty good pitchers out of Rouen as well — Esteban Prioul, Quentin Moulin. It is something I am passionate about,” he explained.
“I like coaching. I like working with pitchers, especially their mental aspect of how to attack hitters, how to go about starting a game. We are going to keep sending out good pitchers hopefully to the academy in Toulouse.”
The way it works is France has three “Pôle Espoir”, or regional academies for players between their middle school and early high school years. These are located throughout the country in Montpellier, Rouen, and Bourdeaux. France also has three academies that fall outside of the official federal academy system, located in Normandy, Sénart, and Metz. The best players from these academies then go to “Pôle France”, or the national academy in Toulouse, between their high school and early college years.
In all, Ozanich has worked with a number of top French pitchers during his time in the academy system, including Mathis Nayral, who is now at Cochise College in Arizona. “I just stress throwing strikes, attacking the hitters, working fast, mixing your pitchers,” he says. “It has been a good couple of years here at the academy.”
Division 1 for the Taking
At the moment, Ozanich is focused on Montpellier’s Division 1 team. This past season, he was promoted to manager, succeeding Mayeur, who stepped down to focus more on the academy. For Ozanich, that meant immediately gelling a group of players from all over the region, the country, and other nations. So far, as a league championship might suggest, the transition has been smooth. Ozanich says he wants to keep coaching and developing players as long as he can.
Looking ahead, Ozanich describes a changing landscape for French baseball. He sees one that will usher in a new level of parity throughout the D1 and one where it will be increasingly difficult to emerge as champions. What has led to this evolution and what does it say about the state of French baseball? Ozanich points out three main factors:
1. Fewer Teams, More Games
A big reason to expect tighter competition this season is the league is prioritizing the best of the best. “The league is going from 10 teams down to eight teams,” says Ozanich. “The two clubs that had a hard time winning — Nice and PUC — are going to drop down into the 2nd Division and the top eight teams are all pretty strong.” Furthermore, he points out “all the teams are going to play each other so there are not going to be any unbalanced pools. I told our guys I do not expect us to go 19-5 again in the regular season because every single weekend [series] is going to be tough….”
And as Le Baseblog recently pointed out, the league will add more games this year, totaling 28 in the regular season, up from 24 last year. Gone is the two-pool system, in which the 10 teams were divided into two roughly geographic pools, with the top two teams from each pool advancing to the playoffs. Now, all teams will play one another in an apples-to-apples competition.
2. The Talent Gap is Closing
No longer is the D1 a battle between just Rouen and Sénart. A handful of other teams in recent years have emerged as bonafide title contenders and thorns in the side of the old guard. Thanks to local development efforts, a shift in player recruitment, and a couple key departures from Rouen, teams are closer than ever to one another from a pure ability standpoint.
“When did it change? I do not know exactly. Gradually over a few years,” says Ozanich. “Definitely when Keino left Rouen and went to Toulouse [following the 2021 season], there was kind of a transition phase. [Rouen] still won the following year with Boris Marche as the manager, but now there are five or six teams that can legitimately say that they can win the championship.”
In addition to managing the Rouen Huskies, Pérez coached at the Rouen Pôle and the Normandie Baseball Academy, which began in 2014 as “an alternative for local players from the Rouen area…which is [for] the same age [group] as Pôle France [in] Toulouse,” says Ozanich. Pérez’ impact across the region and on France’s most successful baseball club was immense. By 2022, he and Ozanich had both left Rouen for southern pastures. With their influence on French baseball suddenly directed elsewhere, that began to tilt the power dynamics throughout the league.
As Ozanich states, “I think that a lot of [the competitive balance today] has to do with Keino’s departure to Toulouse. That obviously has brought a lot of the younger Toulouse prospects. They have started to look not toward Rouen or Sénart, but towards Toulouse, Montpellier, or towards La Rochelle — teams that are closer to where they are actually practicing every day. That has made the level of play a lot more balanced.”
How balanced? Ozanich takes us through each team in the league. “Toulouse and Montpellier – two teams that before had a hard time making the playoffs or the French Series, now they are probably two of the four strongest teams. La Rochelle has improved dramatically. Sénart is still really tough. Montigny has been good of late. They made the finals in 2018 and then this past season. They won the Challenge de France last year as well. Savigny have a really good team. A lot of people would probably have picked them to be in the finals last year. They have a lot of talented players. Obviously, Rouen is still in the picture. But you can see there are five or six teams that can legitimately win the championship, and that is a lot different than 10 years ago,” says Ozanich. And while Metz may have some more work to do to enter that conversation, Ozanich added that they also have talented players who can keep them in every game.
3. French Baseball Culture Is on the Rise
Ozanich also credits stronger D1 competition to a growing interest and awareness of baseball throughout the country. “A general increase in baseball culture and younger kids wanting to play baseball has also helped,” he says. At the local level, he sees baseball clubs successfully attracting and engaging with young players. “A lot of clubs developed like La Rochelle, [starting by] greatly renovat[ing] their ballpark. Toulouse has done much the same in recent years. Even teams like Savigny, which had a hard time before — they did not have a home field — now they are able to recruit some of the best younger French players. And that makes all the difference.”
Adding further intrigue to the 2024 season are new player rules that are set to be introduced, also reported by Le Baseblog. This season, French baseball requires that five of the nine players on the field at any given time must be “trained locally” or products of the French baseball system. Additionally, a pitcher “trained locally” must start at least one of the two games each weekend and pitch at least seven of the 18+ innings available each weekend. This may be a harbinger that power dynamics in the D1 could shift even more. Yet it is also a sign that French baseball has developed to the point where home-grown talent is prepared for a larger and more impactful role across teams in the league.
Complementing these trends, French infrastructure is improving. “On top of that, the league will also have strong facilities to show for in 2024,” says Ozanich. “What’s good for the league is that the eight teams that are going to be in Division 1, they are all going to have pretty nice ballparks starting next year. I said next year because Montpellier’s field [is not among the top facilities], but they are going to turf it all up and it is supposed to be one of the best stadiums in France.”
A Peek to the Future
Ultimately, these developments position French baseball to attract and nurture more homegrown talent. They will also help to grow a league that is increasingly competitive and entertaining. Ozanich, for one, is optimistic for what is to come. “I think the French league is going to be really good going forward. It is going to be a lot closer as far as the scores are concerned,” he says. “And it is going to [have] eight nice ballparks.”
As for who stands out in this revamped league, that much is undecided. Ten years ago, the sure bet looked like it was either Rouen or Sénart for the Division 1 title. Going forward, the only safe bet looks to be Ozanich remaining right at the center of it all.