NEW YORK -- For Team France, this week's World Baseball Classic qualifier in Jupiter, Fla., takes the sport to a new level of proficiency for a country where baseball is just starting to build popularity. The French are in the Classic for the first time and will play their opening game against Spain on Thursday at Roger Dean Stadium. The French team has no current Minor Leaguers and is gathering this week for practice under the eye of manager Jim Stoeckel and pitching coach Eric Gagne, the former Dodgers closer who has the club's only real Major League pedigree. "This is very, very new for them," Stoeckel told MLB.com this past weekend in a phone interview. "This is on a baseball scale that the French have never seen."
Stoeckel, 60, is an international scout for the Reds. Gagne, at 36, is only four years removed from his last big league appearance with the Brewers and a couple of years away from trying to regenerate his career again with the Dodgers. At the end, he didn't make it out of Spring Training camp. "I really wanted to get him back involved," said Stoeckel, who worked in the Dodgers organization as Gagne was coming up through the system. "We were hoping maybe that he could pitch. But his lineage is only to a grandparent. You need a parent. He isn't eligible to pitch, but it'll be fun to have him as the pitching coach." By World Baseball Classic rules, a player must be a direct descendent of a parent who was born in that country to play on a particular team. Gagne was born in Montreal and is French-Canadian. His grandparents are French, but that's not enough. Stoeckel actually thought he had at least one active player: Brett Bochy, a reliever and the son of Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who was born in France. The younger Bochy was a 20th-round pick of the Giants in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft and just finished a 7-3 season with 14 saves and a 2.53 ERA in 41 games for their Double-A Richmond affiliate. But it was not to be. "We thought we had him, but the Giants shut him down," Stoeckel said. "Brett was eligible, but Brett came off a little tired arm, and so the Giants preferred that he didn't pitch anymore. I was really disappointed. It would've been fun to have him." Stoeckel has international coaching experience. He was the bullpen coach for the surprising team from The Netherlands that had a pair of upsets against high-level baseball nations in the first round of the 2009 Classic. Hall of Fame right-hander Bert Blyleven, who is of direct Dutch decent, was the pitching coach. Stoeckel also managed the Dutch National team two years ago during what turned out to be the last International Baseball Federation World Cup. "Bert was a blast to work with, and the guys loved him," Stoeckel said. "Those two wins we had over the Dominican and Puerto Rico were unlike anything I experienced in my whole baseball career. They were fantastic." By European terms, the Dutch are a baseball power. They along with Italy have dominated the continent for several generations. But France is another story altogether. The French come into the first of this year's four World Baseball Classic qualifiers as a decided underdog in a group that also includes Spain, Israel and South Africa. It's a modified double-elimination tournament, which means that the two teams playing to come out of the group must win twice to reach the finals. Stoeckel has been scouting in the U.S. and will have only one day of practice with his entire squad before it opens against Spain on Thursday. Spain went deep in the European championships and will have a roster replete with some Minor Leaguers. South Africa has played in the Classic since the inaugural tournament in 2006. Even Israel has former big leaguers Shawn Green and Gabe Kapler on its active roster. "They're going to look like a Major League club," Stoeckel said. The French? Not so much. "I started global scouting with the Dodgers in 1990, so I knew what was going on in France," Stoeckel said. "The French have a senior league, and my youngest son, Jeff, got involved with that as the field manager of the Paris University club in French Division I. Twenty of our 28 guys are coming from those European championships. They just finished. I would say we're a distant fourth in the tournament, out of four teams."
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.