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Spanish-Speaking Players Get Lessons In American Life…Talking To Each Other

Spanish-Speaking Players Get Lessons In American Life

By Tom Weir and Blane Bachelor

April 13, 2004
Copyright ©2004
USA TODAY. All rights reserved.

Tony Pena (left, of the Dominican Republic) and Ozzie Guillen (Venezuela) have dealt with language barriers as both players and managers.

PHOTO: Ed Zurga, AP

To understand why every major league team teaches English to its players from Spanish-speaking nations, the man who pioneered that instruction tells the story of Davey Concepcion and Virgilio Mata.

Sal Artiaga, now Philadelphia's director of Latin American operations, was a player development executive for Cincinnati when the Reds signed Concepcion and Mata in the 1960s. Both were Venezuelan shortstops, and Artiaga remembers scouts saying universally that Mata had "twice the skills" of Concepcion.

But Concepcion went on to fuel the Big Red Machine that won two World Series, earning five Gold Gloves while being named to nine All-Star teams. Mata washed out, never reaching the Class AAA level.

Artiaga says the difference between them wasn't about fielding or hitting, but rather that Concepcion embraced American culture and learned English, adjustments Mata never made.

"Gosh damn, that kid could play," Artiaga says of Mata. "It's important to point out that he was not a bad kid. It's just that he had trouble with the adjustment, as many do. If they're overwhelmed, they're obviously going to have problems."

Reducing those problems simply has become good business for baseball. The 195 players from eight different Spanish-speaking nations on MLB's opening-day rosters or disabled lists account for 23.5% of the game's personnel. In the minor leagues, there are another 2,650 players under contract from Spanish-speaking nations.

To help them make the transition, Artiaga has written two manuals that Major League Baseball has made available to all teams. The former president of the minor leagues will publish a third this season, a 160-page volume written in English and Spanish that covers everything from two-seam fastballs to signing apartment leases.

"If you work for Dow Chemical and you're assigned to a foreign country, they're going to take time and introduce you to that new language and the customs, not only to you, but to your family, too," Artiaga says. "I think we have a moral obligation to do that for our players."

Latin influence

Of the 830 players (including disabled list) on major league rosters as of April 4, 195 (23%) were born in Spanish-speaking countries.

Country -- Number of players

Colombia 3

Cuba 9

Dominican Republic 79

Mexico 16

Nicaragua 1

Panama 6

*Puerto Rico 36

Venezuela 45

*Territory of the U.S.

Source: Major League Baseball

English classes required

Many teams started English instruction in the 1990s, but Artiaga says this season he has had more interest from teams than ever before. Under MLB's basic agreement with the players' union, all teams are required to provide English classes if asked to do so, but there really is no longer a need for a formal request.

"You'll get left behind if you don't do it," says Lou Melendez, MLB's vice president for international baseball operations. "I can tell you no one is not paying attention to that message."

Especially with the money involved.

Teams last year invested $76 million in the Dominican Republic alone says Rafael Perez, MLB's senior manager in that Caribbean nation. Most was for signing bonuses, says Perez, but teams also spent nearly a combined $15 million to run the developmental academies that typically house 45-50 players. Only Tampa Bay, St. Louis and Milwaukee do not have academies in the Dominican, says Perez.

Perez says the education of players selected for the Dominican academies typically ranges from sixth to ninth grade and that they have been taught English only if their families were able to afford the luxury of private school.

"Making it to the major leagues is tough enough for any American kid, but it's even tougher for a Dominican," says Perez, a Dominican who spent two years in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. "I wonder how many Americans would have played baseball if the major leagues had been set in the Dominican or any other country. Only when people go through the reverse situation do they truly understand."

MLB set up its Dominican office in 2000 and has established standards each club must follow for field conditions, housing and nutrition. Every academy provides English classes, but it's generally agreed the learning process really doesn't begin until the player comes to the USA.

"One of the philosophies we have is that we will keep our Latin kids at our spring training complex the first year so they can get their English lessons," says Philadelphia's Artiaga. "That goes back to the confidence you try and instill. First of all, you have to eliminate the fear factor. The sooner they can show they understand instruction and can communicate independently, the sooner they're prepared to advance. ... It falls on the individual to learn. You and I cannot help them once they cross that line."

Easing transition to USA

Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, a Venezuelan, says the level of instruction for Spanish-speaking players has improved significantly. But he also wonders whether greater accommodations could be made, especially given the assistance the recent influx of Asian players has received.

"I always make a joke that we bring a Japanese guy (as an interpreter) because (the Japanese players) don't speak the language," says Guillen, whose club's opening-day roster has nine Latino players and one from Japan. "Why don't we bring a Latin guy to help? ... I told Tony Bernazard (of the players' union), we bring guys here who can't speak the language and we don't care. Then they tell us to learn the language."

To create better understanding about their Latin American teammates, the White Sox have sent American-born players to their Dominican academy. Other team personnel, all the way from the front office to the clubhouse manager, also have made the trip.

"I think it's an eye-opener," says Grace Guerrero Zwit, the White Sox' director of minor league administration. "I think they have to be sympathetic to the fact that these kids do not have the educational opportunities we have here."

Zwit, who's bilingual, says she has seen the language barrier create misperceptions about Spanish-speaking players who are reluctant to attempt to speak English.

"They come off sometimes as being rude, but it's not that at all," Zwit says. "I think it's a defense mechanism. They're afraid to make mistakes and embarrass themselves."

But failing to overcome that fear can mean getting sent home.

"Quite frankly, this game is a cutthroat game," says Philadelphia Phillies reliever Roberto Hernandez, a 14-year veteran from Puerto Rico. "This is a game where the strongest and most talented will survive and advance. I've seen cases where some kids have not moved up the ladder — they can't communicate with their own team. It's sad."

Spanish-speaking players recognize the onus is on them to make the transition.

"No, baseball does not need us," says Manny Ramirez, Boston's six-time All-Star outfielder from the Dominican Republic. "No, we need baseball."

Pedro Martinez, Boston's three-time Cy Young award winner, agrees it's the player's responsibility to seriously pursue assimilating.

Asked if MLB needs to do more, Martinez says, "They are doing more. They're trying to actually educate us about how life is going to be in the United States because that's one of the most difficult adjustments we have to make."

Martinez says understanding cultural differences is as important as learning English for newly arrived players from Spanish-speaking nations.

"Sometimes you make a mistake just trying to be nice," Martinez says. "Like you whistle at a girl. Girls don't like to be whistled at here. In the Dominican, that's flirting with a girl. You might scream something, 'Hey, beauty' or whatever in Spanish. In the Dominican, that's OK. Here, some of the girls will take that as sexual harassment or whatever."

Staying motivated

That's one of the key lessons in the Ganadores Garantizados (Guaranteed Winners) language and cultural program Becky Schnakenberg provides for Anaheim, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Seattle, Houston, Texas and the Chicago Cubs and White Sox.

"The most obvious difference is that American men flirt with their eyes and Latin men flirt with their mouth," Schnakenberg says. "If a Latin guy likes you, he's going to hoot and holler."

Schnakenberg says when she tells new arrivals that's not acceptable behavior in the USA, "Their mouths drop open because they just have no clue about that."

In their first season in the USA, Schnakenberg says, new players follow a predictable cycle toward depression.

"It's universal," Schnakenberg says. "Typically speaking, it hits about the middle of June. Unless they're winning every game, they just get tired, they get less motivated, they talk about things they don't like here, they fantasize about going home. ... It's tortuous on them."

And while many fans might wonder how a young player can get the blues when he has a chance for a million-dollar contract in the majors, Schnakenberg points out that, "These kids work their butts off, they pay for their housing and they pay for their food, and if they're lucky they may have $100 left for two weeks, and they may be sending half of that home."

Commonly, Schnakenberg says, "I get kids who have first- and second-grade backgrounds. ... Every year I'll have at least one kid who doesn't read in his own language."

Even so, she says, "In general, most players are fluent in English by the end of their third season because of the immersion."

Schnakenberg says it costs a team only about $15,000 a year to provide English and cultural classes. As a sign of the changing attitude, Schnackenberg says, Kansas City has hired her to give Spanish lessons to its American-born staff.

"That philosophy of being a bilingual club, with more sensitivity, that's incredible," she says.

Schnakenberg got her first MLB client seven years ago, when Anaheim asked her to help with a player because she's fluent in Spanish and has a masters degree in counseling. She says she became a full-time Angels employee because she "stalked" the team's employee-assistance manager, essentially begging to become the liaison for Spanish-speaking players.

"I saw all these Latin guys, and they weren't doing anything for them," Schnakenberg says. "They didn't have anybody to help them with their psychological problems."

Schnakenberg says: "I would say that my business has exploded in the last year. I've picked up three or four teams in the last year alone. For whatever reason, there's a lot of emphasis on it right now. You get a guy in the big leagues who can't even talk to the pitching coach, you can't make that mistake too many more times."

Contributing: Mike Dodd

On the rise

The number of major league players born in Spanish-speaking countries continues to increase.




1969 1979 1989 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004
Players from Spanish-speaking countries











Players in the major leagues 640 960 1,040 1,040 841 839 854 849 827 830
Percent of players from Spanish-speaking countries











Numbers from 1959, '69, '79 and '89 were taken from 40-man spring training rosters, while information from 1999 to 2004 was taken from opening-day rosters.

Contributing: Mike Dodd

Talking To Each Other

By Tom Weir and Mike Dodd, USA TODAY

April 13, 2004
Copyright ©2004
USA TODAY. All rights reserved.

Still-simmering hurt feelings over media treatment of Sammy Sosa's corked-bat incident last season perhaps best demonstrate the problems players from Spanish-speaking nations have with reporters.

"I saw some of the programs on TV where they pretty much made fun of Sammy," says Boston's Pedro Martinez who, like Sosa, is Dominican .

"I felt offended by having people laugh at the way Sammy speaks English," says Martinez. "At least he's trying. It's not like (members of the media) are trying to become bilingual and talk to us and make it easier for us. We're trying to make it easier for you. And you're laughing at him, because he's saying it the wrong way? That I took personal — the fact that they were laughing at Sammy for the way he spoke."

Source of the biggest complaints was an Associated Press quote that had Sosa, a Cubs outfielder, saying, "You got to stood up and be there for it."

Says Baltimore's Cuban-born first baseman, Rafael Palmeiro, "It's not fair for a reporter to quote a player that has maybe a little problem with English. They should try to clean it up a little bit and not make this player look bad."

Adds Palmeiro, "There are two ways to fix that. The team has to have someone there to make sure the interview is done properly and correctly, with an interpreter, or the reporter needs to be prepared to do an interview in Spanish or have an interpreter help."

Dan McGrath, the Chicago Tribune's associate managing editor for sports, says, "Having been in the spotlight for as long as he has, (Sosa) really works at being understood. We don't have any hard and fast rules with regard to cleaning him up. We try to quote him as accurately as we can, as we would anybody, but if he misses on an idiom or a colloquialism, we try not to embarrass him."

Among full-time baseball beat writers at English-language newspapers, few are fluent in Spanish. Ecuador-born Jaime Jarrin, who received the Hall of Fame's Ford Frick award for his Spanish broadcasts of the World Series and Dodgers games, says there are "definitely" fewer than 10 baseball writers fluent in Spanish and perhaps fewer than five. None of USA TODAY's baseball writers are fluent in Spanish.

"It would appear to make sense for media properties to hire bilingual beat writers or encourage their baseball writers to learn Spanish," says Jose de Jesus Ortiz, a bilingual Mexican-American who covers baseball for the Houston Chronicle. "With that said, the leadership of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists has done an embarrassing job in helping sports editors find and groom Latino writers. ... Latino sportswriters have made strides without NAHJ, but you can't complain about the lack of Latino writers when the most powerful Latino journalism group doesn't prepare qualified candidates."

Among Ortiz's complaints is that NAHJ dropped the sports category from its annual awards.

Juan D. Gonzalez, the NAHJ president and a news columnist for the New York Daily News, says the organization has worked at increasing internships for Latino sportswriters, but that's just one of many challenges NAHJ faces.

"There aren't enough Latino business reporters, there aren't enough Latino entertainment reporters," he says. "It's not surprising to me that sports has lagged behind even the other poorly represented areas of the newsroom. ... Sports sections generally aren't the most progressive sections of a newspaper."

MLB has had translators available at recent All-Star and postseason games, and sometimes a Spanish-speaking coach or teammate can help with an interview, but most of the time Spanish-speaking players are left to fend for themselves.

Among the American-born players who sympathize is San Francisco Giants pitcher Jason Schmidt. He says if he were approached for an interview by a television crew from Latin America, "I don't know what I'd do. ... Heck, you go to (French-speaking) Montreal, it's tough. I can't wait to get out."

Sosa says he has worked hard at learning English, and would prefer to move on and drop the issue.

"When I first came here, I didn't know any English," says Sosa. "I really had a hard time (trying) to communicate with people. But I didn't have a choice. I had to learn it. ... Even sometimes I'd say something that I didn't understand what I was saying, but at least I tried. ... Finally, I just started reading a lot of books, watching a lot of TV and then I learned to speak from that. ... I can understand everything now."

But Sosa adds that reporters and others often don't appreciate the language challenges Spanish-speaking players face in the USA. "Sometimes people don't understand that," he says. "What makes me mad sometimes is ... they try to make us look like stupid guys or something because we don't know (English). That's the only thing that bothers me."

But Sosa feels accepted here. "I love America because America is the place that gave me the opportunity," he says. "I'm proud to be here, and I'm more proud to be a hero in a country that is not mine."

Contributing: Blane Bachelor

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