Melissa Mayeux entered American consciousness suddenly on a Monday when MLB.com's Lindsay Berra reported that the French teen had become the first woman ever added to the MLB international registration list, making her eligible to be signed by an MLB team. Mayeux was caught off-guard, too -- not by the news, necessarily, but by the reaction.
She told France 24 that she expected maybe "an article would be written about it for the French baseball federation's website." Instead, it became a major news story, particularly in the United States. Mayeux was overwhelmed by the response -- she saw SB Nation's roundtable on the importance of her eligibility -- and although she admits that she never set out to be a symbol for women, she's happy about the attention.
Baseball is still a niche sport in France and throughout Europe. Mayeux was fortunate to grow up in Montigny-le-Bretonneux, a Paris satellite that has one of the nicest baseball diamonds on the continent, thanks to an ambitious former mayor who knew little about the sport, except that it symbolized "the idea of the American dream."
That silly vanity project may have a greater influence than anyone could have predicted if Mayeux goes on to advance the narrative of women competing in men's sports and help grow baseball's foothold in Europe. Emphasis on if, because even Mayeux -- especially Mayeux -- is quick to note that she has long way to go before she should even entertain the thought of playing professional baseball with the boys.
But there's no question she's off to a great start. After taking part in an MLB-sponsored hitting camp in Germany, she'll represent France as a member of the under-18 national team at the European baseball championship in the Czech Republic. From there, she'll play on the senior French women's team at the European softball championship, then take part as one of just four French players at MLB's European Elite Camp in the Netherlands in August.
Mayeux is enjoying the ride. For now, she doesn't mind towing the large bandwagon behind her.
Mayeux found time to answer questions from SB Nation over email while she was in Germany. She discusses following MLB from afar, her love for Mo'ne Davis, her favorite player (Ouai Jeets!), the disgrace of the designated hitter and how she's managing the sudden expectations of millions of onlookers. Responses translated from French.
How did you become interested in baseball? Through your family? How did your family pick up baseball?
I became interested in baseball because my older brother, Dylan, became passionate about the sport when he was five while passing by a field where a game was being played. I went to his practices with the club team for the city of Montigny-Le-Bretonneux (initials MLB!) and, at the age of three-and-a-half, fought with my mother to let me out of the stroller and let me practice with him. The game teaches great values, and my family quickly became passionate about it.
Do you also play typically "French" sports? Why baseball over those?
I don't know if there is a typically "French" sport. Cycling? Maybe thèque, a distant ancestor to baseball. There is pretty much every sport imaginable in this country. But to have fun or at school, I don't really play other sports other than baseball and softball. I manage pretty well at soccer, but baseball opened my eyes from the beginning. I didn't really give much thought to other possibilities.
Is baseball viewed as a "boys" sports like it is in the United States?
In France, the rules are that between ages 12 and 15 girls must be steered towards softball. I think that separation goes back a long time, without any explanation or justification. I was lucky that the president of the Fédération Française de Baseball et Softball and my coaches noticed my potential, which gave me an exemption to play with the boys. Some were deeply opposed to those who just trying to let me pursue my dream. Little by little, the rules were eased back within our national federation, then at the European level. That said, baseball remains, essentially, a male sport.
Was it ever weird to be playing with boys, or has it always felt normal?
I have always liked and found it absolutely normal to play with and against boys. On the field, I'm no longer Melissa Mayeux: I become a baseball player like anyone else. Baseball runs in my veins. It's the only thing that matters to me.
A lot of people here have already written how cool it is what you're doing. Is the reaction similar in France? Are you aware that you're generating attention overseas?
In France, baseball is still under-developed compared to football, rugby, judo, handball or cycling. Even reading newspapers, some still say, "Wait, we also play baseball in France?", without knowing that the federation was created during the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris and even practiced in Paris since the end of the 19th century. That surprises many on this side of the Atlantic.
I know that it has generated a lot of debate in the United States, but I admit that it seems a little abstract. All I can say is that to be on the eligibility list is a step in the right direction. All the better if it can help this great sport and encourage people to play or help the federation or academy find sponsors for youth programs.
Do you think about being a symbol for women at all?
I'm hesitant to perceive myself as a symbol of anything. Not because of ego, but because I'm just a 16-year-old girl who is still going to high school and who is practicing a sport out of passion. I can easily understand some of the messages one might want to associate with my actions. I'm going forward because of my passion, and if I can help those who would like to take the same route, that would make me happy. I am aware that this could help change attitudes. And why not? I find that a lot of women are true warriors on the field, with minds of steel. Some women, like Eri Yoshida (the first female drafted by a Japanese professional team), who I met in Japan, or Justine Siegal (first woman to throw MLB batting practice and coach a men's pro baseball team), who held a conference in Paris two years ago, are clearly symbols for me.
What are you goals? Simply play at a high level? Play in the World Baseball Classic?
Ultimately, my goal was that someone lets me play baseball for as long as possible. Today, when I achieve one goal, I create a new one. That's how I function. I work hard each day at the baseball academy in Toulouse. I do the most that I can to keep getting better. It's not easy to balance this daily discipline with my school work, especially while boarding very far from my parents. Fortunately, I have very attentive coaches and great friends. Baseball here is like a big family. To wear the colors of Team France during the next World Baseball Classic qualifier with Eric Gagné as manager, to play in MLB, to join a minor league team, all that seems so far ... but it still makes me smile to think about it. If I could earn a scholarship at an American college or university after I finish high school, that would be awesome. When I stop playing, I would like it to be my personal decision and not because someone told me no.
Have you given thought to playing softball, or is it important to you to stick with baseball?
I am playing on the French softball team at the same time, and I enjoy that, too. We have a lot of fun. But all the same, I prefer the little ball.
You're actually the second female baseball player to cause a lot of attention in the United States recently. Have you heard of Mo'ne Davis?
I heard about Mo'ne Davis' performances through the news, and obviously I loved her story. I was really impressed, having been on the mound for so long. During that time, a lot of my friends told me "Look, you're not alone!" and that idea was comforting. I can't imagine one day getting that much media attention. I simply hope that a day will come that we no longer look at girls like extra-terrestrials.
Who is your favorite player? Favorite shortstop, past and present?
My favorite player is Derek Jeter. Well, it was. I'm having trouble with this answer since he retired. But if he has a little time now, I would love if he comes to France one day, to the Toulouse academy, to give us some advice. (Please, Captain!)
Who would you like to style your game after?
I'm not looking to imitate anyone. Each plays according to his style and his ability. I think the most important thing, is to be one's self. What matters to me is to be confident on the diamond.
Do you follow MLB? How?
I follow a lot of the news on social networks and the site of MLB. When I was younger, I could pass hours on the Internet watching and breaking down videos on hitting and game techniques. I also watch TV when games are being retransmitted. It's a real treat but it's difficult with the time difference, especially when there is only one channel that broadcasts in France.
How do you feel about the designated hitter in the AL?
I have been a pitcher and I would never let someone hit in my place. I think that answers the question.
How do you feel about players who like to have fun on the field, like Yasiel Puig, against how many people think baseball should "traditionally" be played?
I've had the chance to meet and play with or against players from a lot of different places, to be trained by a lot of different coaches, and to go experience baseball in Japan or Cuba. I sincerely think there isn't one right way to play baseball. Some make it a little more of a spectacle, add a little spice. Each culture appropriates the sport in its manner.
For now, we are sharing the influences of Americans, Canadians (a lot of Quebecois come to play in France), the Japanese (under the influence of Yoshio Yoshida -- manager of the French national team from 1989-1995) and Latin Americans. It's not simple but I'm convinced that if baseball continues to grow in France, we would be capable of developing our proper style of game, like we have, for example, with rugby.