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Chicago Tribune

Latinos Find Way Around Language Gap; Other Slights Feed Simmering Anger Among Players

By Elliott Almond and Lupe Gervas, San Jose Mercury News

August 3, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved. 

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- It all began with a corked bat, a baseball star and one grammatically incorrect sentence.

Now baseball finds itself confronting issues of language, ethnicity and the growing influence of Latinos on the national pastime. All because the Cubs' Sammy Sosa tried to defuse a scandal in June by telling reporters: "But when you make a mistake like that, you got to stood up and be there for it."

The fractured syntax did more than embarrass one of baseball's biggest stars. After The Associated Press quoted Sosa verbatim, it raised questions about portrayals of Latinos at a time when they fill 25 percent of major league rosters, and in a broader context, when they have become America's largest minority.

"We may be Latin, but we're not dumb," influential Red Sox star Pedro Martinez told the Boston Herald, "We see everything that happens."

For a few weeks, the players union urged those who speak English as a second language to do interviews with the AP in their native tongues. The union rescinded the advisory after Associated Press apologized to Sosa, a Dominican. Still, some players remain wary of reporters in general.

"Many times words can be misleading," said Oakland first baseman Erubiel Durazo, of Mexico. "If they want to harm you, they can."

Although America's ballfields rarely have been the setting for social discourse, sports often have been the engine for change. Jackie Robinson and Tiger Woods became symbols for minorities by stepping into white-dominated sports.

That hasn't, however, made it easier to speak out. Former A's pitching star Dave Stewart, an African-American frustrated by the lack of front-office opportunities, said minorities must tread carefully or risk being characterized as malcontents.

Most foreign-born Latinos would do nothing to jeopardize their positions after leaving poverty in their homelands to play in the major leagues. Not even the prestige of having 22 Latino All-Stars this season can ease that concern.

Major leaguers are reluctant to make a fuss over the Sosa quote, said Rafael Rigueiro, a San Jose Giants reliever who was befriended by the Latino regulars on the parent club in spring training.

"They'd rather quietly fit in," he said. "But for some, deep-down inside, they are bothered by it."

Latinos have been frustrated by a variety of perceived slights, say those who have followed their ascent:

  • Translators. Last season the Yankees wouldn't let Orlando Hernandez of Cuba use one because team officials believed the pitcher should speak English after four years in the U.S. Yet no one said anything about a Japanese player who had been in America longer and continued to use a translator.
  • Disparities in signing bonuses: The Rangers signed Sosa in 1986 for $3,500, the same amount the Brooklyn Dodgers paid Jackie Robinson 40 years earlier, according to the book, "Away Games, The Life and Times of a Latin Ballplayer."
  • Lack of leadership. Omar Minaya of Montreal is baseball's first and only Latino general manager. There are three managers, Felipe Alou of the Giants, Tony Pena of Kansas City and Carlos Tosca of Toronto. This spring, Arte Moreno became baseball's first Latino majority owner when he bought the Anaheim Angels.

Now comes the discussion surrounding the Sosa quote, which troubles Samuel Regalado, author of "Viva Baseball," a history of Latino players. In some ways, the Cal State Stanislaus history professor said, it evokes an era of cultural segregation.

About 185 foreign-born Latinos are in the majors this year and thousands more from the Caribbean as well as Central and South America play in the minors. In the past decade, most teams have created schools in places such as the Dominican Republic to teach the language of baseball and of America.

That doesn't necessarily lead to smooth transitions. A's shortstop Miguel Tejada, a Dominican, couldn't speak English when he arrived in the U.S. in the mid-1990s. He eventually learned by watching TV while playing with Oakland.

Few of the 700 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America speak Spanish. Dodgers shortstop Alex Cora, a Puerto Rican, actually appreciates it when reporters embarrass themselves by attempting to speak a language they haven't mastered.

"Because sometimes that's how we feel," he said.

Considering the implications, the sentiment is understandable. Stewart, who pitched eight seasons in Oakland has become a players' agent, recalled coaches judging Latinos' intelligence on how well they spoke English. Such perceptions remain, he said.

The late Roberto Clemente of the Pirates used to fight the perception by challenging reporters to speak Spanish.

"Some players simply rebelled by not giving interviews," said Regalado, the nephew of a former Cleveland Indians player. "They, in turn, were labeled `moody' or given no press at all. It was a vicious cycle."

A dozen Latinos from the Giants, A's, Dodgers and Rangers recently said learning English was the biggest obstacle in their budding careers. That isn't too different from most Latinos arriving in El Norte.

Giants outfielder Carlos Valderrama of Venezuela said of his first year in America: "Whenever I wanted to eat something I didn't know how to say it."

Willie Montanez, who played two seasons in San Francisco, experienced similar frustration from his first day in Florida in the early 1960s. He spoke little English as a 16-year-old from Puerto Rico, but was advised to answer yes to any question.

On the first morning, a coach asked if he had eaten yet, he recalled recently.

"Yes," Montanez dutifully replied.

The coach went to a coffee shop without him.

Determined to eat the next morning, Montanez changed his strategy. When the coach asked, "Do you want any breakfast?" Montanez answered, "No." He went a second day without breakfast.

Montanez, who is a semiretired scout in Puerto Rico, navigated his complicated new world with the help of Dominican teammates. His experience personifies virtually every Latin immigrant of his era. Montanez said restaurants would turn them away. To avoid confrontations they ordered from fast-food windows and hotel room service.

But the immigrant players say they respect the romanticized notion of the game's birthplace. They might cling to customs such as listening to merengue music or playing dominoes in the locker room, but they also want to blend in, the Dodgers' Cora explained.

"In the end you put on a uniform, people don't recognize you as Puerto Rican or Venezuelan," he said. "They recognize you as a Dodger, Giant or Cardinal. That's the way it is."

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