Found in translation: American players are learning Spanish to help bond with Latino teammates

A story by Jim Caple for ESPN.

Baltimore Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph was in high school, he believed he had a chance to play baseball professionally. So in addition to the many things all aspiring ballplayers do on and off the field, he added something else. He took Spanish classes. He did so because if he did make the majors, “It would be good to know Spanish,” he says. “And, being a catcher, I would want to communicate with the Latin pitchers.”

After four years of Spanish in high school, plus two years in college, as well as mission work in Honduras and then eight professional seasons playing with a variety of Latino teammates, including the past two in the majors with Baltimore, Joseph says he knows the language well enough to get around in a Spanish-speaking country. He occasionally has a little difficulty understanding someone who speaks a particular dialect of Spanish — just as he says others might have comprehending someone with the Southern drawl common in his native Tennessee — but his efforts have paid off.

Joseph also knows what it feels like to be on the other end of the language divide, having played winter ball for several seasons in Venezuela.

“That experience made me appreciate the difficulty of having to come over [to the U.S.] and not know the language,” Joseph says. “I appreciated it when some of my Spanish-speaking teammates spoke English to me over there in Venezuela. So I try to speak Spanish to them here.”

Nearly 30 percent of the players on major league rosters on opening day of this season were Latin American. By the time they reach the majors, the majority have learned English, especially those who get immersed in the language and the culture while in the minors. But it’s a struggle, especially early in their careers, because few American and Canadian players of non-Latin descent speak Spanish fluently, or even close to fluently. Mariners first base coach Chris Woodwardsays that can lead to a divide.

Woodward has been in clubhouses where “the Latin guys were over there with their music on and our guys [the American guys] were over there with theirmusic on,” he says. “And they would get mad at each other for talking too loud and this and that instead of saying, ‘Let’s be better at this.'”

Somebody has to be the one to bridge that divide, Woodward says. As a player, he would occasionally tell Cesar Izturis, a native of Venezuela and his former teammate with theToronto Blue Jays, “Today, we’re only speaking Spanish.”

“They’re the ones in the foreign country, not you,” Woodward says. “You’re the one who should be welcoming them. They shouldn’t have to go out of their way. But some American guys, the immature ones, look at it and say, ‘He’s in our country, he needs to learn our language.’ Well, you’re going to play winter ball at some point and you’re going to have to go to Venezuela or the Dominican and then you’ll be on the other side of the coin. How will you respond?

“It’s a two-way street.”

Former catcher Dave Valle, who played for four teams during his 13-year MLB career, learned Spanish while playing winter ball for five seasons in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Colombia and Mexico. Not only did he learn the language, his winter ball experience inspired him to start his microfinance foundation, Esperanza International, to help impoverished families in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

“The benefits were me having a world view of what my teammates came from,” he says. “It gave me a better understanding of the Latin culture, and as a teammate it helped me as a leader to be that bridge between the American guys and Latino guys because I could speak a little bit of Spanish and help them.

“Seeing some of the Dominican players and where they grew up, it gives you a much greater understanding of how difficult it is to be dropped off in America without being able to speak English and having to figure it out.”

The 2008 baseball film “Sugar” superbly shows those difficulties through the lens of fictional Dominican pitcher named Miguel “Sugar” Santos. Santos, who speaks little-to-no English, gets signed to a minor league contract and is sent to a Class A team in Iowa. Several scenes show Santos having difficulty understanding what is being said to him. In another scene, Santos speaks Spanish to an American but the film offers no translation and no subtitles. It provides a powerful lesson for American audiences about what it can be like living in a land where you don’t know the language.

Seattle Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano, a native of the Dominican Republic, says that the greatest difficulty for Latin players who come to play in the U.S. is not communicating with other players, it’s trying to do things away from the ballpark. “As a player, you always find someone here [in the clubhouse] who can help you out,” he says. “But when you’re by yourself, it’s really hard if you don’t know the language.”

Not that the language barrier can’t be challenging in the clubhouse as well. “It’s also really hard when everyone is talking to you and you’re hearing them laugh but you don’t know what they’re saying,” he says.

That’s why it helps to have teammates who make the effort to learn your language.

Baseball teams are offering English-language classes for their young Latino players to help them better assimilate, and earlier this season the MLB Players Association asked teams to make Spanish-language interpreters part of their public relations staff. But perhaps teams should also offer voluntary Spanish lessons for non-Latino players. Joseph and Valle fully support that idea.

“A lot of people believe that it’s [the Latin players’] responsibility to learn our language,” Joseph says. “I understand that. But I think the main priority is: Do you want to have a deeper connection with your teammates? And if so, it just helps to communicate in their language.”

Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia played in the Dominican Republic, where teammates helped him learn Spanish. He speaks Spanish with his Latin players, who will sometimes respond in English. He, too, thinks voluntary Spanish-language courses would be good for everyone.

“It’s a great cultural opportunity, even in the minor leagues, for a player who’s from the United States to try to understand the culture of another country,” he says, “whether it’s the food or the language. And vice versa.”

Cano, who lived in New Jersey for three years growing up before moving back to the Dominican Republic, says that the responsibility is on Latin players to learn English because “we’re coming to their country.” He also wonders how many English-speaking players would make the effort to really learn Spanish.

Still, Cano says, if players (and reporters) did make the effort to learn Spanish “that would be good, not only as a teammate but as a person, to learn another language. Say, you go on a vacation in Cuba or Venezuela. You would understand. You wouldn’t have to find someone to translate for you.”

Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones learned enough Spanish “to get by” while growing up in San Diego, where he knew many people of Mexican descent, and also while playing in the minors with Latino players. He says learning your teammates’ language helps in the clubhouse — and beyond.

“It’s just about communication, making them feel connected,” he says. “If you communicate, you succeed. If you don’t, you don’t.”

According to a study released in June, the United States is now the world’s second-largest Spanish-speaking country after Mexico, with 41 million native Spanish speakers and 11.6 million who are bilingual. So it’s likely that the number of Spanish-speaking American ballplayers will continue to rise as well. But Spanish won’t be the only language spoken in MLB, given that baseball has far more international players than football or basketball. Regardless of whether players speak English, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese or Korean, it helps the team when they each try to bridge the communication gap.

As Woodward says, “If you don’t try to create a bond [with language], you’re just going to continue to have that divide — and the team will never be what it can be.”

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