Gagne enjoying being pitching coach for France
Former NL Cy Young Award winner in new role for World Baseball Classic
JUPITER, Fla. -- The French team journeyed to the World Baseball Classic qualifiers without the kind of professional talent littered throughout the other teams' rosters. Manager Jim Stoeckel readily admits he has some pitchers he wouldn't even think about putting in a game, much less against loaded lineups like Israel and Spain.
Yet France might have the most potent arm in the whole bracket. He sits on the bench, stands alongside the inexperienced French pitchers as they warm up before games and wanders out to the mound to offer whatever advice he can.
His name is Eric Gagne, the 2003 National League Cy Young Award winner and a once-dominant closer. But here, with Team France, he's just the pitching coach -- not that he's complaining.
"I don't feel like a coach. It's weird. It's fun, though," Gagne said. "That's why I wanted to do it. The kids listen. They're really listening to what I say, which is kind of weird. My own kids don't listen. It's fun. It's a great experience."
While he didn't meet the eligibility requirements to pitch for France, Gagne, a French-Canadian, couldn't keep himself from getting on the mound. France played an exhibition with local Palm Beach State College on Wednesday, and Gagne went to the mound in the ninth inning, a familiar spot for the pitcher who saved 152 games from 2002-04.
Gagne said he loaded the bases. Stoeckel just said Gagne was "clearly not good," throwing maybe in the mid-80s as he wore turf shoes on grass and felt hindered by his cranky back.
Then, Stoeckel said, Gagne "got a little mad." He buzzed a fastball by one of the college hitters and made a left-handed hitter look foolish by dropping a changeup off the table. He got out of the inning, stranding all three runners.
"You saw the flashes. You saw the flashes again," Stoeckel said. "He told me, 'I haven't picked up a ball in two years.' I said, 'Eric, why didn't you tell me that?' He said, 'I wanted to pitch.' But I think, honestly, he wanted to go on the mound -- it was like a new beginning for him."
Gagne, who laughed that he was "crazy sore" a day after that short outing, has embraced his responsibilities off the field as well. He held a 10-minute meeting with the young pitching staff before Thursday's 8-0 loss to Spain -- Stoeckel praised Gagne's ability to speak French. He bought the entire team brand new baseball shoes. "Brought 'em in and said pick your size," as Stoeckel described it.
"I'm not trying to change anything. I'm just trying to give them confidence on the mound," Gagne said. "Basically, enjoy the moment and go out there and have fun and make your pitches, and hopefully it's good enough."
Of course, Gagne said, it would have been "amazing" to pitch in a game for France, and he'd probably rather be doing that. But he's enjoying his current role just the same, and it's easy for everyone around him to see.
"He loves being here," Stoeckel said. "He just loves it."