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THE NEW YORK TIMES
Adjusting To Majors Has A New Meaning
By GLORIA RODRÍGUEZ
July 21, 2003
When Pedro Martínez speaks English, he has a noticeable accent and sometimes still mixes up words. But when he speaks in his native Spanish, Martinez is poetic, melodically inserting catchy metaphors and clever similes in his stories.
The ease of speaking in his first language is one reason Martínez became upset when he read an article by The Associated Press last month quoting Sammy Sosa verbatim in English after Sosa was caught using a corked bat.
Martínez said he thought a remark like "You got to stood up and be there for it" was used to mock Sosa, so he became an unofficial spokesman for encouraging the news media to provide interpreters during charged moments, when a foreign-born player might have difficulty expressing himself.
"Sammy, in a hurried moment, couldn't express what he wanted to express," Martínez said recently in Spanish. "Sammy, what he wanted to say, he said it in the English he knew to satisfy the press with his answer."
Sosa, who temporarily boycotted the news media after the corked-bat incident, declined to discuss the issue, saying he did not want to remember that time.
Many major league players can relate to Sosa's discomfort when speaking in English with the American news media, especially after games when throngs of reporters gather at their locker while they struggle to speak in a language they have yet to master.
The foreign presence in baseball has continued to grow. On opening day this year, 23.3 percent of the players in the majors were born outside the United States, according to Major League Baseball. A majority of foreign-born players come from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Mexico.
Walk into any major league clubhouse and it is common to hear merengue, salsa and other Spanish beats on the stereo. Members of the Asian news media regularly cover some teams, including the Yankees, who have Hideki Matsui of Japan, and the Cubs, who have Hee Seop Choi of South Korea.
Inside the Yankees' clubhouse is what some players call the hot corner, where the lockers of Antonio Osuna, Alfonso Soriano, Mariano Rivera, Raul Mondesi and other Latino players are located. Osuna said they gave the area the name because of its Latin flavor. The Yankees have eight foreign-born players on their 25-man roster, including seven from Latin American countries; they also have three players from Puerto Rico, a United States commonwealth.
Cubs Manager Dusty Baker, who speaks Spanish fluently, said some foreign-born players hide from the news media because they fear they will look bad if they do not understand something in English or mispronounce words.
"Talking to the media, it's hard on the Latin guys because I know the hardest thing for me to do is a Spanish interview," Baker said.
Choi had an interpreter last year, his first in the majors. But he got rid of the interpreter this season to force himself to learn more English.
Like Choi, many Asian players are provided with interpreters during their first year in the majors, but Latino players are not. This is because all major league teams now have instructors who teach Latin players the language and the basics of American culture, beginning in the minor leagues, said Sal Artiaga, who runs baseball's Latin American language and cultural assimilation program.
Martínez, who is from Manoguayabo, Dominican Republic, knows how abrupt the transition can be for a young player who comes to the United States for the first time. "It's like if you lived in Mexico all of your life, then all of a sudden when you're 18, 19 years old, they tell you, 'You're coming to the United States,' " he said. "You don't know English, you don't know about the food, you don't know about the culture. It's a drastic change."
Martínez learned English in high school and he also took courses at the Los Angeles Dodgers' Campo Las Palmas, a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic.
But when Sosa came from the Dominican Republic to play for the Texas Rangers in 1989, formal English classes did not exist, the Cubs spokeswoman Sharon Pannozzo said.
"It was difficult," Sosa said in Spanish. "I didn't understand English well, and it's difficult when you don't study it and you learn it from your friends. It's not the same."
When a young player becomes successful and reporters seek him out before and after games, knowing English becomes essential. Martínez said he was comfortable speaking to the news media in English because of his education, but he noted that the players' ease with English varies widely.
Although it helps players immensely if they can speak English, Baker said, they should not be forced to learn the language.
"They come here to play ball," he said. "You need to cut them some slack. It's not mandatory."
Cubs third baseman Ramon Martinez, who is not related to Pedro Martínez, was born in Philadelphia but went to school in Puerto Rico. He speaks English well, but he still prefers to speak Spanish. Still, he is adamant about one thing: "The number of Latinos are growing, but we're here in their country. We need to learn their language."
Matsui, who arrived in New York early this year, often asks his interpreter, Roger Kahlon, the meaning of English words. Kahlon tries to leave Matsui alone when he talks with coaches or other players, so he can learn English. But when it comes to speaking with reporters, Kahlon said he translates because the questions are specific.
Because foreign-born players are not often interviewed by American reporters who speak their language fluently, there is often the risk that what they say will be misinterpreted.
After The Associated Press transmitted its article about Sosa, Martínez endorsed a memo from the players association that urged foreign-born players to speak with reporters from the news agency only in their native languages. But The A.P. soon apologized, and the players association withdrew its suggestion.
Terry Taylor, the sports editor of The Associated Press, said that use of the Sosa quotes was a matter of poor editing. She said that the quote from Sosa - "You got to stood up and be there for it" - should have been paraphrased or omitted. (Sosa apparently intended to say that a player needs to stand up and take responsibility for his actions.)
Taylor said that the presence of an interpreter would not have improved the situation, but that more careful editing would have. Sosa was "perfectly clear in what he was saying," Taylor said.
"The first quotes out of the box were clear as a bell," she said.