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Spanish-Speaking Players Speak Out... Talking to Each Other

Spanish-Speaking Players Speak Out
What MLB players from Spanish-speaking nations have to say about the challenges they have faced and what it means to be a Latin American athlete competing in the USA


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

... On Breaking In

Amaury Telemaco, Philadelphia Phillies pitcher; Dominican Republic

After being brought to the USA in 1992 by Arizona, "They sent me to Huntington, W.Va. Can you imagine that? A Dominican boy, 17 years old, in Huntington, W.Va., staying in Marshall University, in the dorms. We stayed there for the summer and had to eat out every day, find a way to do your laundry, no TVs, unless you have somebody to bring you one. It was an experience.

"That year I saved $84, and I brought $100 from home, so I lost money. Because I got called up to A-ball for 10 days, I got an extra paycheck for three or four days for $84. Otherwise, I would have gone home with no money to pay for a taxi. That's how tough it was. ... At the same time, the experience helped you to grow as a person, to grow and to push a little bit so that you can go to a different level and make it to the big leagues. This is your dream – this is what you hoped for."

J.C. Romero, Minnesota Twins pitcher; Puerto Rico

"Honestly, I think that coming out of high school in Puerto Rico, I wasn't mature enough and I wasn't prepared enough to just make that big of a jump and have so many responsibilities as a professional athlete. So I decided to go to college and (become) mature and independent, because in Latin countries, that's one thing, we always live at mama's house. In the States, you're independent at the age of 17. But in Puerto Rico, you're a mama's boy until you leave your house and get married. It was a big change. I really recommend every Latino out there go to college, even if it's junior college – just go and try, because you become a man a lot easier. ...

"When I came to the States and went to school, it wasn't easy for me. I failed classes. I was a minority there. I was in Alabama. I was the second Puerto Rican in school, so that was very tough for me. I was homesick and missed my parents a lot. I think that we don't feel sorry for each other, but we never forget where we came from. That's one thing that we have in common – that we never forget where we come from. That gives us the desire to help other guys who come to the States and face the same struggles that we faced in the past."

David Ortiz, Boston Red Sox designated hitter; Dominican Republic

"We always thought it was going to be a simple game, like it was back home. I don't think anybody thought that when you asked for a fly ball, you were going to have to say 'I got it' because you've got an American guy right next to you, asking for the ball, too. They just crashed. And the American guy was like, 'I asked you for the ball!' And the other (Latin) player asked me, 'What did he say?' "

... On Players Coming from Poverty

Roberto Hernandez, Philadelphia Phillies pitcher; Puerto Rico

"You've probably seen the stories of kids playing catch with cardboard boxes, playing in these run-down areas. They come up with nothing. But the thing is, once they leave there and come here, they're not just supporting their mom and dad, they're supporting their aunts and uncles, grandparents, nieces and nephews. I guarantee you right now – there's quite a few of them here that are from the Dominican – that every little bit of that meal money that they got, they're saving most of it to send home to help their families. That's what drives them, so that their family wouldn't live in poverty, wouldn't go another day without eating."

... On the Jokes Played on Newcomers

Omar Vizquel, Cleveland Indians shortstop; Venezuela

"Anybody could write a book about the stories with players and Spanish and English. ... I remember one time they sent a guy to an airport with a sign, where he was supposed to find Flight 444 or whatever. And they wrote on the sign, 'I'm lost. Please help me.' And everybody tried to help this guy, but he didn't know what to say because he didn't speak English. So it was a fun way to drop him off at the airport and say, 'Go ahead, man – survive!' "

Franklin Perez, Philadelphia Phillies pitcher; Dominican Republic

"I went to a restaurant, and there was this lady there (with large breasts). And they sent me over to her to ask if they were fake or real. I didn't know. I just went and asked. So I almost got hit."

... On the 'Hot-Tempered' Stereotype

Romero: "I'd say we have hot blood. We have a short temper. And we Latinos like to get things done in a hurry. If we've got it in our mind, we want to get it done. But that's one of the reasons why we're so successful in the game. A lot of us want to be in the big leagues and get the job done, so we work twice as hard. ... But as far as being arrogant, everybody has to be arrogant in this game to be successful. Because if you're nice to everybody, everybody is going to take you lightly. And you don't want (anyone) to be taking you lightly, especially when you are a pitcher."

Hernandez: "We are impulsive, we are hot-headed, we are stubborn at times. But that's just desire, the fire, to want to win, to want to be the best."

Sandy Alomar Sr., Colorado Rockies coach; Puerto Rico

"We come from a different culture, and we're going to act different, only because you can't take that away from people. We are going to be who we are. We were educated in our own way. It doesn't mean we're not respectful."

... On Being Misunderstood by the Media

Melvin Mora, Baltimore Orioles third baseman; Venezuela

"I used to have to be careful about some things. I see a lot of Latin people, they're afraid to talk to the media. When you ask a question, if they don't understand they say yes, and they don't know what you are asking for. It's happened to me before. We're shy – we don't want you to know I didn't understand that. So that's why we always say yes to everything."

Manny Ramirez, Boston Red Sox outfielder; Dominican Republic

"Perhaps the American press treats us a little differently, since sometimes we don't feel so comfortable speaking English. And sometimes if a reporter comes along and they want to talk with us, someone might say no. It's not because we're being hateful but because we don't feel comfortable enough speaking the language."

... On Latino Pride

Telemaco: "We love this game. We represent so many people every time we go up there. We represent a whole country. Every time I'm pitching, there are a lot of people on my island pulling for me. Every time Sammy Sosa hits a home run. Every time Vladimir (Guerrero) does something, Pedro (Martinez) does something, the whole island is buying a paper to see what every Dominican did the day before. And they have a ton of columns in the newspaper for all the Dominicans, all the stats, from the whole season.

"The people at work, people in the park, sitting down talking about what happened last night – 'Did you see the way he pitched? Did you see the way he hit?' Because they love the game the same way we do. So even though it's a way to make a living, it's also a way to represent the dignity of a lot of people back home."

Talking to Each Other

Contributions by Blane Bachelor

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."

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