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Latinos Lacking A Voice
By BOB KLAPISCH
June 6, 2002
ATLANTA -Walk into the Mets clubhouse at any time -pregame or post, day or night -and you can hear multiple conversations in Spanish. Whether it's Armando Benitez's rapid-fire Dominican slang or Edgardo Alfonzo's grammatically polished Venezuelan dialect, the Mets are a living, breathing example of the growing Latin influence in the major leagues.
In fact, eight of their 25 players are Hispanic, which is why some Spanish-speaking Mets are puzzled why the club hasn't hired a translator and/or liaison, especially since Japanese pitcher Satoru Komiyama -and Tsuyoshi Shinjo before him -is provided that luxury.
Roberto Alomar has been a Met for only two months, but he's not shy about asking the club for help.
"Guys like [Rey] Ordonez, [Armando] Benitez, Timo [Perez], they could use it," said the Puerto Rican-born second baseman. "I'm lucky, because I had parents who spoke English, but some of the guys, they only speak a little, and for them, there's no one they can go to for help."
Indeed, ever since Omar Minaya, the Dominican-born international scouting director, was named the Expos' GM in March, the Mets have been without a Spanish-speaking executive.
Considering how little offense they're generating at Turner Field -where the Braves stretched their first-place lead to 31Ú2 games after a 6-4 victory Wednesday night -what the Mets really need is someone who speaks baseball's universal language, hitting.
Still, Alomar's point is: If hitting is a state of mind, why not ensure confidence in the clubhouse, where Ordonez and Perez and Benitez are uncomfortable being interviewed in English.
One member of the organization admitted it's a constant battle to lure some of the Latinos out of the players' lounge after games, simply because they're embarrassed at their lack of English.
For instance, despite hitting a game-winning, 10th-inning homer against the Marlins last Friday, Ordonez declined to grant WFAN radio a one-on-one interview the next day. The reason? The shortstop would've had to answer questions in English.
Until Ordonez conducts more interviews in English, the general public will never know he's actually a funny, charismatic man -or as one Met elder said, "a real character, a guy with a bit of an edge."
Instead, Ordonez's personality manifests only in his defensive brilliance, and Alomar considers that unfair. If there was a full-time, Spanish-speaking liaison, Ordonez could blossom and, even more significantly, Benitez could plead his case before a public that saw him collapse last September.
Benitez agrees a language assistant would be "a good idea for everyone," even though he disagrees that he's helpless in English.
"When I want to talk, I talk and I understand," Benitez said. "When I have nothing to say, I don't speak English. To me, Timo needs the help, not me."
Still, there's often a wide gap between interviewers' questions and Benitez's responses in English. That's why Alfonzo believes it's the Mets' obligation to help him.
"It's all part of being one team," the third baseman said. "I think it's a great idea for the Spanish players, because sometimes the things you need to say and hear, it should be in your language. Same thing for the Japanese guys."
Of course, none of this is to suggest the Mets are racially or ethnically divided. Quite the opposite, says Alomar, who's played for the Padres, Blue Jays, Orioles, and Indians and, of all these teams, considers the Mets among the most-tightly knit.
"Believe me, there is no problem in here, none," Alomar said. "Look around, you see the Latinos talking to the white guys, white guys talking to the black guys. We're all friends."
But Alomar wonders if the Mets understand how difficult a major media market such as New York can be for a non-English speaker. Even Alomar himself misses the help he had in Cleveland, where Ray Negron served as the Indians' liaison.
This the same Negron who once helped Doc Gooden maintain his sobriety in his Yankee playing days and is now retained by the Rangers -specifically to mentor Juan Gonzalez. But during the off-season, after being acquired by the Mets, Alomar pleaded with GM Steve Phillips to hire Negron.
The Mets deferred, insisting there was no room in the organization for another Spanish-speaking executive, especially with Minaya on staff. But Minaya has never been replaced, and the Mets' only Spanish-speaking coach, Juan Lopez, is occasionally forced to sit in the clubhouse during games because major league rules prohibit more than five coaches on the bench.
It takes a pregame arrangement with the opposing manager for Lopez to be permitted in the dugout.
Even so, Alomar says, "You don't want to have to tell a coach your problems. You need someone who is close to you personally, someone you trust as a friend, and someone who speaks your language."
A career .306 hitter, Alomar isn't blaming his .265 average entirely on Negron's absence. He still says, "Learning a new league is very, very hard." But it shouldn't take much for the Mets to understand that if Alomar thinks a Spanish-speaking assistant would make him a better hitter, they shouldn't even blink before hiring one.
Put it this way: when Jason Giambi wanted his personal fitness guru, Bob Alejo, put on the Yankees' payroll -as a way of skirting MLB's employees-only clubhouse-access rule -guess what the Yankees did? Made him a "batting practice pitcher" the very next day.