PEORIA, Ariz. — After a season in which he was a first-time All-Star and played a key role in helping the Seattle Mariners end their two-decade playoff drought, Ty France extended his memorable year by taking his wife, Maggie, to Europe.
It was his first time there, and the couple went big. They started with London and Rome. Next up were Zagreb and Dubrovnik in Croatia, where Maggie’s family is from. Then they finished with a few days in Paris.
“When we checked into the hotel, they saw my last name,” France said. “And they just started speaking to me in French. And I’m looking at the guy like, ‘I have no idea what you’re saying.’ And he could tell that I had this blank look on my face.”
From there, it went like this:
“Do you not speak French?” the hotel desk clerk said.
“No, sir. Sorry,” France said.
“Shame on you,” scolded the clerk.
France laughed as he recounted the story. One day, the first baseman who inspired South of France nights at Seattle’s T-Mobile Park said, he might learn French. For now, he has enough on his plate trying to revive the art of hitting to all fields — a style he was taught by one of hitting’s great practitioners, Tony Gwynn — and helping the Mariners build on last season, when they made the postseason for the first time since 2001.
To say that France, 28, has traveled a long way is an understatement. He was chosen by San Diego in the 34th round (pick No. 1,017) of the 2015 draft, an impossible feat now that the draft has been capped at 20 rounds. But France, who went to high school in West Covina, Calif., and college at San Diego State, made the Padres look smart by thriving at every level of the minors. He was batting .399 in 76 games at Class AAA El Paso when the Padres summoned him to the majors in 2019.
The Mariners, who had been stuck in an endless rut, acquired France at the trade deadline of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. He was part of a seven-player deal that sent catcher Austin Nola to the Padres, and France has been a key contributor for Seattle ever since. His contact-heavy approach is almost an anachronism in today’s game.
“He’s a really good hitter,” Seattle Manager Scott Servais said. “And I think you have to be that way in our ballpark. You don’t get any cheapies, so to speak.”
France does not have the tape-measure power of Mariners outfielder Julio Rodríguez. He doesn’t rack up home runs in bunches like third baseman Eugenio Suárez. And he doesn’t jump out in highlight reels like his newest teammate, Teoscar Hernández.
But France, who bats right-handed, is a complete hitter who sprays the ball to all fields. That alone makes him an ideal fit in Seattle’s home stadium, where fly balls go to die.
“We’ve had some players come through here, and it didn’t work for them based on their profile and how they hit the ball,” Servais said of his team’s home stadium, which from 2020 to 2022 ranked as the least hitter friendly park in the majors. “It works for Ty. Ty doesn’t try to overdo it. If you try to overdo it when it’s not working for you, that’s when you get in trouble.”
In 140 games last season, France batted .274 with 20 homers, 83 R.B.I., 65 runs scored and a .338 on-base percentage. He started hot, hitting .337 in April, then put together a 13-game hitting streak in the second half of May.
Things became more complicated in the second half. He strained his left elbow in late June during a collision at first base. The injury lingered, which he confirmed this spring, and opponents quickly spotted his limitations: He hit .233 with a .291 on-base percentage in the second half.
“I was trying to push through it,” he said. “We were in a spot where I really wanted to be able to be out there and help the team. So I was playing through some stuff. And then I think, because of that, I started to manipulate my swing.”
His focus this spring is on eliminating the bad habits he developed, with hopes of “trying to get that feel of my old swing back, the first-half swing.”
He added, “When I’m healthy, I feel like I’m one of the best hitters in the game.”
France had a good teacher. His approach was honed while playing for Gwynn at San Diego State. Though Gwynn’s cancer of the salivary gland progressively worsened, and he died in June 2014, after France’s sophomore season, the lessons learned from one of the game’s best hitters are still apparent in France’s approach.
“I took a lot of pride in hitting the ball all over the field,” France said. “He was very big on that, the type of hitter he was.”
The lefty-swinging Gwynn became famous for driving hits to the opposite field through the “5.5 hole,” as he referred to it — that space between third base and shortstop.
“And so he raved about us hitting the ball through the opposite hole,” France said. “That was definitely worked on in batting practice in our squads, and so that’s where I really learned how to be able to master it.”
Growing up in Southern California, France entered college with sky-high expectations of what Gwynn could teach him, and was surprised how much boiled down to not complicating things.
“His hitting tips were so simple,” France said. “As an 18-year-old kid, you show up and you’re expecting a book on how to be the best hitter alive like he was. And he always said it was all about getting in position and taking your best swing.”
At the time, France said, not everything sank in. It wasn’t until he was a little older and able to fully process the coaching that it made sense.
“He knew how hard the game was,” France said. “And how to make it easier.”
One of Gwynn’s go-to teaching tools was the batting tee. He believed that it helped with fundamentals — especially in keeping weight on the back leg before driving forward to hit the ball — and that it could help batters hit to the opposite field. Today, France still uses the tee, leaning on those drills, especially when he is slumping.
“And I’m very fortunate to have YouTube,” he said. “I’ll watch Tony Gwynn videos before I go to sleep if I’m struggling, just to watch how his swing was and try and get to that.”
A thinking man’s approach continually impresses his teammates.
“That guy knows himself as a hitter as good as anybody I’ve ever seen,” catcher Tom Murphy said.
“We can talk about how hard guys hit it and how far they hit it, but when you try to beat another team, it’s the guys who are the tough outs, the tough at-bats, that really wear you down,” Servais said. “And his bat-to-ball skills are elite.”
Impressive for anyone, let alone a player drafted in the 34th round. Had the draft been 20 rounds when he was eligible, as it is now, France acknowledged that he would probably not have gotten a chance.
Instead, he is a part of a renaissance of baseball in Seattle. He may not speak French, but that has not gotten in the way of the popular South of France nights the Mariners have held in each of the past two seasons. On those nights, fans purchasing tickets in designated sections near first base — south of where Ty France plays — receive a themed T-shirt and a baguette. Many wear berets. French flags wave throughout the ballpark.
“Obviously, any time you have a night named after yourself, you’re probably doing something right, you know?” Murphy said. “But he needs a mustache this year, I think. A little French mustache.”