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Language Barrier A Major Issue In Baseball… Latino Players Taste Maine Life; It's Not A Simple Adjustment For Sea Dogs Who Are Used To An Entirely Different Lifestyle

Language Barrier A Major Issue In Baseball


May 22, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Miami Herald. All rights reserved.

MIAMI - When Marc DelPiano was a struggling minor leaguer in the Cleveland Indians' system 15 years ago, teams spent little time - and even less money - trying to ease their foreign-born players' transition to the United States.

"As a rule, we kind of threw them to the wolves," said DelPiano, in his second year as the Marlins' director of player development. "The Latin guys were kind of thrown out on the field. That was it. There were no classes. Nobody learned anything other than baseball lingo. And swear words."

And baseball could get away with that because, in 1990, only about one of every eight major leaguers came from outside the United States or Canada. This season, however, nearly 30 percent of the players on opening day rosters were foreign-born - and nearly half the 6,117 minor-league players signed to professional contracts were born outside the United States, according to Major League Baseball.

As a result, most major-league clubhouses and every minor-league spring training camp has become a Tower of Babel, with players and coaches trying to communicate in up to four languages.

The Marlins are no exception with three Puerto Ricans, three Dominicans, two Venezuelans and a Korean on their 25-man roster. But the language barrier sometimes creates comic relief rather than concrete problems for the World Series champions. When Korean reporters asked Marlins manager Jack McKeon about Hee Seop Choi's defense, McKeon - probably not being politically correct - replied: "His pants? There's nothing wrong with his pants."

Choi, who does not have a paid interpreter, speaks freely with the print media and said his English is improving. He is already fluent, however, in the language of the sport.

"I understand the baseball," says Choi, who has spent parts of six years in the United States. "In baseball, there's a lot of English."

Not all the Marlins' minor leaguers share that comfort, however. And with players from 13 countries in camp during spring training, communication can be a problem - as can the adjustment to life in the United States. Teenagers are confronted for the first time with challenges such as renting an apartment or opening a bank account, all in a language they don't understand.

"When I go to the Dominican and I have a language barrier, I try to think of myself as 18, 19, 20, 21 years old thrown into that situation," DelPiano said. "I don't understand the customs and the culture."

So the Marlins, like every club, offer intensive courses in language and cultural assimilation. It begins in their baseball academies in the Dominican and Venezuela and continues at their minor-league complex in Jupiter, where players learn reading and writing, as well as the relay throw, through extended spring training in June.

The collective bargaining agreement requires clubs provide the classes to anyone who asks for them. Everyone does.

Which is not to say the Marlins, who began offering classes before the franchise played its first big-league game, had to be convinced.

"I think they're very important because a lot of times with the Latin player, when they become comfortable with the language and the culture and customs of America, that bleeds into their performance on the field," DelPiano said. "You're protecting your investments. You've got good Latin talent here. What's the best way to get the most out of that investment? It's part of being a well-rounded person, player.

"You've got to make these guys ... feel they can adapt to all kinds of situations."


It's 6:30 on a Friday night and eight Marlins minor leaguers are gathered around three small tables in a room off the lobby of Jupiter's Fairfield Inn. They've just spent six hours working on pickoff moves, bunt plays and how to defend against the hit and run, but now they're studying something that might have a far greater impact on their baseball success than anything they learned on the field.

They're studying English.

"If the players learn, then they can communicate with the coaching staff," said Lynette Nadal, a professor at West Palm Beach's Northwood University who has been teaching language skills to professional baseball players for 14 years. "They can listen to instructions, improve whatever skills they need to improve when they're practicing. And that leads to a better baseball player."

The classes have become so popular infielder Ryan Schade, who was born in Lewisburg, Pa., has become a regular in an effort to learn a little Spanish, but also to understand the problems his teammates are facing.

"At first, it was difficult for every Latin guy here," Venezuelan-born pitcher Victor Prieto said. "We couldn't talk to anyone. Our teammates, they were nice guys. But we couldn't talk to them. This year, it's better."

Nadal has worked with just about every player born in a Spanish-speaking country who has ever worn a Marlins uniform - Luis Castillo and Miguel Batista were two of her best students, she says - teaching as many as three classes a week during spring training, extended spring training and the summer Gulf Coast League.

She also works extensively with the St. Louis Cardinals, who share the Jupiter complex with the Marlins, and the Cleveland Indians, whose minor leaguers train in Winter Haven. But she has worked, at one time or another, for just about every big-league organization that has trained in Florida since 1990, pioneering the idea of language instruction as an important part of a ballplayer's development.

"When I started doing this, there were only two or three teams teaching English ... to the Latin players," said Nadal, who was working for two of them at the time. "I take the players to the grocery store. I take the players to a restaurant. I take them to the post office. We go to the bank.

"So there's a lot of hands-on experience ... and application to real-life scenarios."

The Marlins' Mike Lowell, who was born in Puerto Rico to Cuban parents, said learning those kind of skills are far more important than knowing how to call for a pop fly.

"In A ball, we'd go to McDonald's and the Latins all said the same thing when they ordered," Lowell said. "They didn't know whether they were ordering chicken or a hamburger."

Panamanian-born pitcher Bruce Chen said before taking Nadal's class he and his teammates in the Atlanta Braves system ate little more than pizza.

"We had one guy who could order pizza on the phone," said Chen, who is now fluent in English and is working toward a civil engineering degree at Georgia Tech, where he has made the dean's list. "The last thing you want to do is to be asking questions. It makes you seem like you don't know anything. But we were too embarrassed to acknowledge that."

Nadal, who grew up a diehard Cincinnati Reds fan, was looking for a way to put her doctoral thesis on intensive English as a Second Language instruction to use when she was introduced to former Marlins manager John Boles, then in player development with the Montreal Expos.

The Expos, who were training in West Palm Beach, had dozens of Dominican players in their spring camp and Boles asked Nadal to devise a program to help ease their transition to the United States. The Atlanta Braves, who were also training in West Palm Beach, also approached her.

Said Chuck LaMar, then with the Braves and now the general manager of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays: "We felt like it was extremely unfair to ask players to come over and make all the adjustments that they have to make, the language barrier being one of the biggest. It's something that each organization should do and I think we had success with our young players from Latin America because of it. It's standard procedure now."


In a recent class with Cardinals players, students read from a college-level text in English, then summarize the story aloud in Spanish. But more than half the 90-minute class is spent simply talking in English about the challenges the players face each day. One young pitcher confesses that his dream of a big-league career seems further away than ever.

"As long as you have a uniform on, you still have a chance," Nadal tells him.

Most of her students will fail to make it, of course. And that has nothing to do with their language skills. But many who do graduate to the big leagues come back to class each spring to deliver a message to the minor leaguers: stay in school.

Batista is one. He couldn't hold a conversation in English when he joined Nadal's first class with the Expos 14 years ago, sometimes attending two sessions a day. He studied with her while with the Marlins and is now preparing to write a crime novel - in English.

"I was eager to learn. I used to take her classes even when I wasn't supposed to," says Batista, who is pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays. "She teaches things that you are going to encounter in life... . things that they want to learn. When you tell a guy you have to go take an English class to learn how to say this, how to say that, it's difficult. When you tell a guy, go ahead because she's going to teach you how to talk to a girl, everybody wants to go. Or go ahead, we're going to teach you how to go to a restaurant and order.

"When you know you're going to use something, you're going to go out of your way to get it."

Latino Players Taste Maine Life ; It's Not A Simple Adjustment For Sea Dogs Who Are Used To An Entirely Different Lifestyle.

KEVIN THOMAS Staff Writer Staff researcher Julie McCue contributed to this report.

June 27, 2004
Copyright © 2004 ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights reserved.

Portland Press Herald

The woman behind the counter explained why she could not serve any more beans and rice.

"The ballplayers came in and bought all of it," she said.

The Portland Sea Dogs left June 17 for a 10-day trip and many of the Latino players took a taste of home with them, featuring a takeout order from La Bodega Latina, a market only one block from Hadlock Field.

"Rice, beans, chicken, just like at home," said Sea Dogs infielder Raul Nieves, 25, a Puerto Rican playing his second season in Portland.

There is little else similar to home for the Latino players in Portland. They come from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. One is a Cuban-American from Miami. Others are Mexican- Americans from California.

"It is total culture shock when you come here," said another infielder, Jesus Medrano, 25, a Mexican-American. He first arrived in Portland in 2002 and after a year away, returned this season.

Portland is a city of few Latino residents. According to the 2000 census, 1.5 percent of the Portland population considers itself Hispanic or Latino. The percentage gets more diluted when factoring in surrounding towns and the state (1 percent in Cumberland County, 0.7 percent in Maine).

Medrano said Portland is not too different from the other cities he has played in - including Geneva, Ill., Melbourne, Fla., and Raleigh, N.C. - except for two factors: lighthouses and the weather.

"It is so cold," Medrano said.

The weather is a constant source of conversation when the Latino players talk about Portland. They typically grow up in warm, tropical climates, where they can play year-round.

The baseball season here begins in April, with temperatures ranging from the high 30s to 50 degrees.

"But it's not as bad as last year," said Nieves, who remembers 2003, when the first four home games were postponed because of snow.

Kenny Perez, 22, a Cuban-American, is playing his first season north of Georgia. When he wore shorts before a pregame workout earlier this month, it was 55 degrees.

"I called home (to Miami) and they could not believe I was wearing shorts," Perez said. "This is winter back home.

"I can only imagine that your winters are pretty tough."

As the weather brightens, Perez is seeing more of Portland.

"We're realizing it's a nice town," he said. "Nice people. Great fans. It's a small town, and everyone seems to knows each other."

But how much of Portland, let alone Maine, do the players see? They play a five-month, 142-game season. Half of the games are out of state. And in five months, the players get just nine days off. When they play home games, which are usually at night, they are at Hadlock Field by early afternoon, with the games ending late.

"By the time we finish here, it's 10. We're dead," Perez said. "We get up the next morning and go back to the field. This (Hadlock) is home for us. Our apartment isn't home because we're not there half the time."

Perez, like Medrano and pitcher Abe Alvarez, 21, another Mexican- American, assimilated to Portland easily - with the help of warm clothing - because they grew up in the United States. Nieves also is comfortable here. He came to the United States in 1996 to play college baseball, first in Texas, then in Alabama.

"Knowing the language is key," said Nieves, who initially strained to understand English spoken with Southern accents.

"Until you learn the language, it is hard."

Nieves often serves as an interpreter for those who speak little or no English.

Catcher Edgar Martinez is from Venezuela. He knows a little English but, when a reporter asks him a question, he immediately calls for Nieves. It is a typical response from those uncomfortable with the language - including Manny Ramirez of the Boston Red Sox. They do not want to speak on the record in English.

Martinez said he misses the routines of home.

"I miss just hanging out with friends. Here, you don't see your friends," Martinez said, with Nieves interpreting.

Martinez spends about $30 a week on long-distance calls, as does pitcher Juan Perez (no relation to Kenny). Perez, 23, a Dominican, may increase those phone calls as the season wears on. His wife is back home, due to deliver their first child in September, soon after the season ends.

Juan Perez was the only player from the Dominican Republic - a country rich in baseball, with superstars like Sammy Sosa and Pedro Martinez - until infielder Jimmy Alvarez, 26, joined the team last week.

When the players have free time, they usually visit the Maine Mall, or the Old Port. When they want to listen to music, they do not turn on the radio. American music does not cut it.

"Latin rap" is Nieves' preference. "There is nothing like that on the radio. I just listen to my CDs."

Getting music of their culture is one thing. Finding food from home is another.

"There are only so many subs and pizzas you can eat," Medrano said. He said the local Mexican restaurants are OK, but they are more American than Mexican.

Medrano, who lives with Martinez and Juan Perez, accompanies his roommates to La Bodega Latina, and Nieves will often join them Kenny Perez said he frequents Granny's Burritos on Fore Street, and Abe Alvarez said he is still searching for a place to eat.

La Bodega Latina, at Congress and Weymouth streets, has been around since 1997, and is owned by Juan and Rosa Gonzalez, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic. The market began its takeout service only a few months ago, and a restaurant is being planned.

When the Sea Dogs have a home game at night, the players stop by around 12:30 p.m., then take their meals to Hadlock Field, filling the clubhouse with the aroma of beans, rice and chicken.

"I used to miss the food when I was (in Portland last year)," Nieves said. "Now we have this."

A little beans and rice go a long way to help Latino players deal with living so far from home. The players collectively say they like Portland, at least what they are able to experience, given their tight schedules.

They are especially glad to say goodbye to the early-season chill. Why, they are even getting tropical thoughts.

"We're waiting to get out to the beach," Kenny Perez said.

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