Baseball: Latinos often hurt by language barrier

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Jun 13 14:21:10 UTC 2005


Latinos often hurt by language barrier
Fair or not, teams usually provide translators only for Japanese players

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Oakland, Calif.  When Keiichi Yabu and Brad Fischer argued about string
cheese while sitting in the clubhouse before a game, they had a former
anthropology professor, Andy Painter, with them to translate every word.
Youre always eating cheese. Is cheese good for you? Yabu said in Japanese,
smiling as Painter quickly put the pitchers words in English for Oaklands
first-base coach. Its better than sushi! Fischer barked back.

Engaging in such casual conversation is an important step for foreign
players who come to the majors, but its a lopsided luxury while Japanese
players have interpreters to help them with everything from getting a
drivers license to communicating with teammates and coaches, most Latin
Americans are left to fend for themselves. Fair or not, there are just a
handful of Japanese players in the big leagues, all of whom get
translating support if needed, while hundreds of players from
Spanish-speaking countries must rely on each another to figure things out.

You look at some of these kids. Theyre 18, 19 years old, theyre scared to
death, Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. Theyre away from home probably
for the first time. Theyre in a foreign country. Just because we like
hamburgers doesnt mean they do. Its very unfair. I think we have a
responsibility to help them. The quicker they can communicate, they do
better off the field, which I think directly translates to them succeeding
on the field.

Latin Americans numerous

Of 829 major-league players on opening-day rosters and disabled lists,
23.5 percent were born in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico,
Venezuela or Cuba, according to the commissioners office. Nearly 40
percent of minor-league players are from those five places. The New York
Yankees provide a full-time interpreter for Japanese outfielder Hideki
Matsui, and when Kaz Matsui signed with the New York Mets before last
season, he not only insisted on having an interpreter for himself, but one
for his wife as well.

The Yankees also hired a translator for Cubans Orlando Hernandez and Jose
Contreras when they were with the team. But most organizations cant spend
as freely as the New York teams. Last years AL MVP, Angels right fielder
Vladimir Guerrero, depends on the clubs Spanish radio color analyst, Jose
Mota, to help him through interviews. Japanese players get more
translation help for several reasons. One is that their language is
completely foreign to most people in the major leagues. The other is the
clout theyve earned along their very different route to the majors.

The Seattle Mariners paid $13 million to the Orix Blue Wave for the rights
to Ichiro Suzuki, the first Japanese position player to play every day in
the majors after being a seven-time batting champion in his native
country. When a team makes such a financial commitment to one player,
hiring an interpreter just becomes another aspect of the investment. Years
later, he still uses an interpreter for most interviews.

We go to great lengths!

Short of providing translators, many of the teams are trying to make their
Spanish-speaking players transitions smoother by sponsoring academies in
the Dominican Republic and elsewhere that offer English training and
guidance about cultural differences. Some teams also organize activities
and teaching sessions at spring training that deal with everything from
how to use a bank to the appropriate tipping standards at a restaurant.

I think Major League Baseball as well as individual clubs have the last
few years made more efforts to make the baseball experience more than just
playing the game, Giants assistant general manager Ned Colletti said. Its
giving many players, who English is not their native language, the chance
to not only learn the language but learn the customs.

We go to great lengths to teach our Latin kids.

Still, Bostons David Ortiz and others in the majors have said Hispanic
players sometimes either misunderstand certain memos, such as the leagues
steroid policy, or miss messages altogether. Some players say they
accidentally have thrown away paperwork left in their lockers because they
were unable to read it. Were kind of used to it, said Ortiz, a native of
the Dominican Republic and one of baseballs most outspoken players on
language issues. There are lots of Latinos and only a few from Japan.

Francona can relate to the frustrations of his standout player, whose
timely hitting last October helped the Red Sox win their first World
Series title in 86 years. I understand what hes saying. If thats the case,
it shouldnt be the case, Francona said. Thats a little bit scary. We have
an obligation to follow through on a lot of things.

Nothing new to Alou

Giants manager Felipe Alou had no help when he came to the United States
in 1956 from the Dominican Republic as a minor leaguer. He not only was
one of the first Latino players, but also a black man living in the South.
He once almost missed a road trip because he didnt know the team was
leaving town. He boarded the team bus with the clothes he was wearing and
nothing else. Alou would get stumped by certain words: I was taking
English classes in school, but its not the same.

By his third year, he had reached the big leagues with the Giants and had
learned English. Still, he became furious when reporters didnt correct the
grammar in quotes from him and his Latino teammates. Alou believes the
media deliberately mocked the players limited English and accents quoting
Hispanics phonetically with phrases like I heet de ball despite the
players efforts to communicate in a new language. After time went by, we
found out what a lack of respect it was, what an insulting way to put down
our countries and our language, Alou said. The only reason the interview
was taking place was because we knew a little English.

Language barrier and drugs

Colombian-born Luis Torres, 56, began covering baseball in the United
States in 1980. He wound up translating for Hispanic players, carefully
compiling a list along the way of baseball words for each Spanish-speaking
country. A player from Mexico might say something differently than a
player from Puerto Rico. Torres, now employed by the Giants
media-relations department, believes his vocabulary list of nearly 2,000
words is the most extensive in the country.

Even translating was hard, he said. So I put together a dictionary of the

Decades later, are teams doing enough to prepare players for the language

Not according to Oakland reliever Ricardo Rincon, who speaks little
English and rarely does interviews. Because he worked only a few innings
in the minors in three separate stints before coming to the majors, he
missed opportunities to become more comfortable with English.

He thinks some young Latin American players are so eager to rise through
the system that they might unknowingly take supplements that are approved
in their countries, but banned by baseball, simply because they cant read
the rules.

A review of birth places earlier this season by the Associated Press
showed that players from Spanish-speaking countries were getting tripped
up by baseballs new steroids policy at a disproportionate rate.

About half of the first 50 players suspended for positive tests at both
the major- and minor-league levels were born in Latin America. Three of
the five players suspended under the big league policy so far were born
outside the United States: Minnesota reliever Juan Rincon (Venezuela),
Tampa Bay outfielder Alex Sanchez (Cuba) and Texas pitcher Agustin Montero
(Dominican Republic).

They need to use their heads, Rincon said in Spanish. Baseball can do more
to help make sure every Latino doesnt take these things after the season.

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