Just about every man, woman and abuela in Chile will be glued to their televisions Wednesday night to watch La Roja, the country’s beloved but frustratingly inconsistent men’s national soccer team. The occasion? A semi-final showdown with Peru in the Copa América tournament, in Brazil.
I know because before moving to France, I lived in the long, skinny South American country for nearly seven years, and developed my own mild obsession with La Roja. I also know that even if the Copa weren’t taking place right now, Chileans would tune into some soccer game somewhere, because they’re loco for the sport.
They like tennis too, and rugby, car racing, horse racing, basketball, even golf. What people there don’t pay much attention to is baseball. ‘America’s pastime’ may be a favorite in many of Latin America’s northern countries — Cuba’s Fidel Castro was a player, as was the late Hugo Chávez of Venezuela — but it never gained much of a foothold in the south.
But what I didn’t know in all my years of living alongside the Andes, is that there’s one place in Chile that’s something of an exception to the rule.
The port city of Tocopilla, squeezed between the arid Atacama Desert and the cool Pacific Ocean, is best known as the hometown of soccer idol Alexis Sánchez — of FC Barcelona FC, Arsenal, Manchester United and, of course, La Roja fame. But it also has a soft spot for baseball, which was introduced to the area in the early 20th century by U.S. construction workers. And of all the standard bearers of that tradition, none has made more of a mark than Pablo Ossandon.
“Tocopilla is the cradle of baseball in Chile,” the 29-year-old, submarine-style pitcher explains. “Out of 36 national championships, Tocopilla has won 28. The people there really vibe off baseball. They fill the stadium. It’s the city’s sport.”
Baseball à la française
Ossandon is Tocopilla’s other prodigal son: the “Alexis Sánchez of baseball,” as various news outlets in Chile have proclaimed over the years. Nowhere near as well known his soccer counterpart, Ossandon has, nevertheless, earned something of a national reputation for carving out a professional career abroad, albeit not in the most likely of locales.
Sánchez rose to international fame by performing on soccer’s biggest stages, in the big-money arenas of Europe’s most storied clubs. Ossandon took a notably different route: Rather than take his talents to the United States or Japan or any of the other countries in the world where the sport actually matters to people, he made his way to… France.
The land of Balzac and Bordeaux has a lot of proud traditions. Baseball isn’t one of them, though unbeknownst to most — including most French people — France does have a 12-team, semi-professional league that has managed to survive, in one guise or another, for nearly a century now.
Most of the players in the D1, as the league is called, are French, and pay dues to participate in their respective clubs. But teams are also allowed to contract a few foreign players, who come here less for fame and fortune (the D1 provides neither) than for the chance to play somewhere — anywhere — and enjoy a taste of life in Old Europe.
The players earn more of a stipend than a proper salary, but every year a couple dozen young men from places like the United States, Canada, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic decide to give French baseball a shot. Some see the D1 as a way to extend their sputtering careers, or revive them maybe. Others come for the adventure. Most stay for just short periods: a season or two. And then there’s Ossandon, aka “el Pitón” (the Python), who doesn’t quite fit any of the above categories.
Big fish, small pond
For one thing, he’s the first and only Chilean to ever sign with a D1 team. Perhaps for that reason his expectations aren’t exactly on par with those of the other foreign players in France. For Ossandon, a baseball career in Europe seems to have been an end in and of itself rather than a step back after earlier successes, or a place-holder while he waits for the call-up from one of the world’s loftier leagues.
Part of that comes from the support he receives back home in Chile, a small pond, obviously, in baseball terms, but where Ossandon made himself into a big fish. In fact, it’s no stretch to call him Chile’s G.O.A.T., the greatest of all time, considering that the Círculo de Periodistas Deportivos, the country’s sports writers association, has honored him a record four times as the top Chilean baseball player.
He especially gets the star treatment when he goes back to Tocopilla. “I really feel the love where I’m there,” he says. “And that makes me feel really satisfied, because I know that I’m doing a good job of representing my homeland and that’s something that makes all athletes feel proud.”
There are some real benefits, in that sense, to coming from a country without a strong baseball tradition. The situation is somewhat similar for the D1’s French players, who by choosing a sport so far outside the mainstream don’t face the same kind of competition they would in soccer, for example, or rugby and tennis.
“It’s difficult to have recognition from people for what you do on the baseball field. But it’s also great because it’s easier to get onto national teams and stuff like that,” Greg Cros, a former member of the D1 Montpellier Barracudas, in southern France, told me. “Baseball’s been so great for me in that way — in terms of the people I’ve met and the countries I’ve traveled to. I went to Poland, the Czech Republic, the United States and Canada.”
A home away from home
The sport provided plenty of travel opportunities for Ossandon as well, first in Chile, where he began, at a young age, to play for the national team, and later in places like Brazil and Venezuela, where he attended baseball training camps and participated in international competitions.
His foray into professional baseball didn’t begin, however, until 2015, when he came to visit France with his future wife — she’s French — and took advantage to request a tryout with the perennial powerhouse Huskies of Rouen, the capital of Normandy. The Rouen coach liked what he saw and offered the young Chilean a chance.
Rouen has dominated the league in recent years, winning 13 of the past 14 titles. Its one loss came in 2014, the year before Ossandon joined the club, when the Templiers of Sénart, a suburb of Paris, finished first. With the Chilean on board, the Huskies recaptured the D1 crown, winning again in 2016 and every year since.
After two years with Rouen, Ossandon was transferred to the then second-division Boucaniers of La Rochelle, on the Atlantic coast. The team has since moved up to the D1 and recently squeaked into the playoffs after a 11-9 regular season. With the Boucaniers, the Chilean is unlikely to win another title, and his pitching numbers are down compared to previous seasons. Still, he’s happy with move.
For one thing, the weather’s better in La Rochelle — not a minor thing for man who grew up in one of the driest places on the planet. So is just about everything else in his life. Ossandon has a second job, working at an association that helps connect young people to school and job opportunities, and has a baby on the way. He’s settling down, in other words, which is perhaps the biggest thing that sets him apart from the D1’s other foreign recruits.
“My life has changed a lot here in La Rochelle,” he says. “I’ve got some Chilean friends. I have a group of Latino friends. The people in the baseball club treat me and my wife really well. They’re always inviting us to things, showing us around the region. Plus we’re living in a great location—both of us close to our jobs. It’s just great.”
By Benjamin Witte (email@example.com)