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The San Francisco Chronicle

Baseball As A Second Language / Skippers Need Way To Talk To Latino Players

Jorge L. Ortiz

July 7, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The San Francisco Chronicle. All rights reserved.

As he gathers his infielders on the mound during a game, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has to decide more than whether to replace his pitcher or how to play the bunt. He also has to choose which language to use in addressing his players.

The Spanish-speaking La Russa is clearly more likely to rely on English when he huddles with catcher Eli Marrero, first baseman Tino Martinez, second baseman Fernando Vina, shortstop Edgar Renteria and third baseman Placido Polanco. But the fact he has a choice highlights an interesting phenomenon in Major League Baseball. Not only has the number of players who speak Spanish grown in recent years, but so has the number of managers who are versed in the language.

"If you want to do your job right," La Russa said, "one of the things you would be smart to do is pick up some kind of understanding of the Spanish language."

Twenty years ago La Russa and the Dodgers' Tommy Lasorda, who was schooled by managing winter ball in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, were the only ones who could make that claim.

Now no less than six skippers can communicate well in Spanish. Besides La Russa, the Mariners' Lou Piniella and the Giants' Dusty Baker speak the language, while the A's Art Howe understands a good amount.

In addition, three of the six in-season managerial vacancies this year have been filled by Spanish-speakers -- Luis Pujols in Detroit, Tony Pena in Kansas City and Carlos Tosca in Toronto. Piniella believes that trend is no coincidence.

"That's because so many of these rosters are part Latin American players," said Piniella, who like La Russa grew up speaking Spanish in Tampa. "It started with Felipe Alou and it proliferated.

"You know a fourth or a third of your roster are Spanish- speaking kids from the different Latin American countries, so it helps to communicate, and at the same time I think they feel more comfortable. I think you get to know them a little better that way - - they feel more at ease and open up a little more."

When the Royals hired Pena to succeed Tony Muser, they cited the Dominican native's rapport with Latin players as one of his most significant qualifications.

According to Major League Baseball, 23 percent of players on Opening Day rosters were born in Latin American countries, including the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico. In the minors that figure swells to more than 40 percent.

Depending on their aptitude and the number of years they spend in the minors, some Latin players reach the majors with a functional command of English while many can barely speak it at all. For every Pedro Martinez, who became fluent in English before making it to the big leagues, there are any number of players like Miguel Tejada, who struggled with the language for a couple of years after being called up by the A's in 1997.

As opposed to Tejada, some Hispanic players never become adept at English.

Cuban-born right-hander Rolando Arrojo of the Red Sox, who has been in the majors since 1998, acknowledges his English is still poor.

"If it's slow I can understand, but fast I can't," he said, adding that he often loses track of what's being said in meetings involving pitchers and coaches. "I understand some things, and the other important stuff I ask the Latin guys."

Going through an interpreter -- almost always a veteran Hispanic player or coach -- has been the usual means of communication between Anglo managers and young Latin players with poor English skills.

That was the case initially with Tejada and Howe, who relied on Rafael Bournigal and later Gil Heredia to make sure his shortstop understood what he was saying. His extensive experience in the Caribbean had taught Howe that some Hispanic players will pretend to understand English to avoid embarrassment.

Howe spent eight winters in Puerto Rico -- four playing and four managing -- before taking over the Houston Astros in 1989. He had another managerial stint in the Dominican in 1994, then became the A's skipper in 1996.

More than the language, he picked up clues about the players' temperament and culture.

"That's been a huge advantage for me over a lot of people who are in this game," Howe said, "because I got to know what makes Latin players tick and how to treat them."

Expos skipper Frank Robinson learned similar lessons during 10 years of managing in the winter leagues, nine of them in Puerto Rico.

For one, he found out players may try to get away with more liberties in their native land, especially if they hail from a country with a looser definition of work ethic than is common stateside.

Robinson told the story of a player who repeatedly used an uncle's illness or death as an excuse for his absences.

"One day I just asked him, 'How many uncles do you have?' " Robinson related.

" 'Just one.' So I say, 'This guy's had a lot of lives, because I know he's passed away at least four times.' "

Robinson regrets not making the effort to learn Spanish during his winters in the Caribbean. That ability would come in handy now that he manages a superstar, Dominican outfielder Vladimir Guerrero, who had to drop out of school after fifth grade and doesn't speak English.

Because of his experience, Robinson has a keen appreciation of the language and cultural barriers Latin players encounter upon coming to the United States. Robinson, who worked for the commissioner's office before taking over the Expos this season, wishes teams would do more to ease the youngsters' transition into American life.

He praised the efforts by clubs such as the Dodgers, Blue Jays, Pirates, Mets and his own Expos, who were influenced by Alou's presence as their manager for 10 years. But he'd like to see more.

"It should be every organization, period," Robinson said. "What I've seen is more organizations get involved where they have more interpreters, they have people in minor-league cities where youngsters go and get them set up with condos and rental cars, where to go for food, checking accounts, phones, that type of thing.

"But I think every organization should have a program to help out these kids, because for one, you're going to have a better ballplayer, and number two, you're going to have a better person."

White Sox third baseman Jose Valentin, who hails from Puerto Rico, recalls signing a pro contract with the Padres in December 1986 and being sent to Spokane, Wash., the next spring. He felt like a fish pulled out of the Caribbean Sea and plunked down in the middle of the woods.

"Those were difficult years because I was just a 17-year-old kid having to make adult decisions -- manage my money, do everything on my own -- and not speaking English made it even harder," he said.

Former Dodgers standout Ramon Martinez had endured similar difficulties with the language, so he advised younger brother Pedro to finish school in the Dominican after signing with the Dodgers.

Once he got the basics down, Pedro Martinez worked on improving his dialogue, watching TV and listening to music to familiarize himself with different accents. He also looked up and spelled words he didn't know to increase his vocabulary.

By the time he stuck with the Dodgers in 1993 at age 21, Martinez was comfortable enough that he and Lasorda spoke to each other in English, not Spanish. Today, Martinez is an engaging interview subject in either language.

Still, the Red Sox's ace sees the value of having a manager who speaks Spanish.

"I think it's a great benefit," Martinez said, "especially because oftentimes the young players are timid, and because they can't understand or communicate, they have a harder time dealing with situations than an experienced player does."

A common language eases even casual contact. The Mariners like to joke about Piniella's Spanish expressions, and they point out he sounds as if he were a native Cuban, even though he hasn't spent a day on the island.

Rookie right-hander Rafael Soriano, a shy 22-year-old from the Dominican Republic, finds comfort in not having to depend on his broken English to communicate with his manager.

"It gives you greater confidence when they can speak your language," Soriano said. "If you have a problem you can go up to them and it's easier to talk to them."

Like the Mariners, the Royals have a number of top Latin prospects, so they turned to Pena as the man to guide them in the majors and gave him a three-year contract.

Along with Pujols and Tosca -- who came in on an interim basis through the end of the season -- they have nearly matched the number of previous Hispanic managers in the bigs. That group consisted of only Mike Gonzalez, Preston Gomez, Cookie Rojas, Tony Perez -- all four born in Cuba -- and Alou. La Russa believes his own third-base coach, Puerto Rican native Jose Oquendo, will soon join those ranks.

"I think the (managerial) doors have just begun to open for Latin Americans," Pena said. "Everybody knows English is our second language and we'll have some rough spots with it, but speaking Spanish has helped me in that I can communicate with both groups."

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