Foreign minor-league baseball players being taught American culture and English.
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Tue Aug 22 13:20:53 UTC 2006
They Crack Lineups and Language Barrier
Foreign baseball players in the minor leagues are being taught American
culture and English.
By Jonathan Abrams
Times Staff Writer
August 21, 2006
TEMPE, Ariz. Summer came packed with baseball tutelage and English
lessons for Tempe Angels such as Alexander Torres. While chasing his
dreams on the field, Torres, an 18-year-old pitcher from Venezuela, also
picked up English-language skills and learned about U.S. culture. His
team, the rookie league affiliate of the Angels, offered predominantly
Spanish-speaking players lessons on everything from pronouncing the
alphabet to ordering meals. "I still don't speak English or understand it
well," Torres said recently, in Spanish. "But I'm picking up things little
Torres is among the hundreds of Latino players to enter professional
baseball in the United States from other countries each year. In many
cases, the players bring little more than raw talent, some baseball
equipment, pictures of their loved ones and limited English skills, if
any. But the baseball community in recent decades has moved to help young
players from around the world fit in better as they learn a new language
and culture. The awkward moments brought by the mix of ethnicities in the
game, and even racism, are far less common these days, baseball officials
and players said.
In a biography of Hall of Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente published this
year, author David Maraniss recounted the experiences of some
Spanish-speaking players from the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. Clemente,
of Puerto Rico, found sportswriters at times quoting him phonetically,
emphasizing his accented English "I get heet " Although such scrutiny of
English skills has mostly faded in baseball, it occasionally reappears. In
Sports Illustrated this year, columnist Rick Reilly praised Chicago White
Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen, calling him "the best skipper in the game."
However, Guillen, who is from Venezuela, also was repeatedly quoted
phonetically, Reilly's way of chiding him. In the column, Guillen called
Reilly a racist for bringing up the manager's accented English.
Nearly 30% of the 750 major league players were born outside the U.S., and
thousands more hopefuls are playing in the minor leagues. Teams earmarked
more than $75 million for baseball academies and signing bonuses in the
Dominican Republic this year, said Lou Melendez, Major League Baseball's
vice president for international baseball operations. "Teams are seeing a
burgeoning population of Latino players, and when they come here, they are
assuming more than a role of a baseball player," Melendez said. "They
have to order in restaurants and move around in a country that is
completely different from theirs."
Many baseball officials and players agreed that MLB is doing a fair job of
helping players find their way. "There used to be an old-school theory of
once you are in the United States, you've got to survive on your own,"
said Sal Artiaga, a consultant for MLB's Latin development. "Now there's a
hand given by major league teams that helps players a lot." Although MLB
has no formal policy on helping players get more comfortable with their
surroundings, teams generally agree to provide English classes if they are
requested, officials said. At times, though, players and scouts said
talented players are rushed quickly through the minor leagues without
gaining much in the way of language or cultural skills.
"Some will try to learn English, but they never really get the chance,"
said Ralph Avila, who presided over the Dodgers' Latin America program for
more than 20 years. "The best-case scenario is that they learn the game's
terminology." Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez, from Venezuela, said he
learned a lot of English from a former girlfriend. "If you want to learn
English fast, you have to dedicate yourself to it," Rodriguez said.
"You've got to learn, listen to other people, the conversations other
people have." Of course, teams are still dealing with young players who,
in many cases, are just thrilled to play baseball in the U.S. and remain
far less concerned about how to order a cheeseburger. Angels pitcher Ervin
Santana participated in the Tempe classes five years ago as a teenager.
"Most of the Latin guys were joking around and didn't pay much attention,
not taking it too seriously," said Santana, who is from the Dominican
Republic. "I didn't, because I wanted to learn. I wanted to be able to
talk to guys on the street, in the park." The Tempe Angels, whose season
ends at the end of this month, are representative of how diverse baseball
has become. Nearly half of the players on the team's roster were born
outside the U.S. They practice and play games in a virtual baseball
incubator. There are no fans or stands, but plenty of bus rides and
morning workouts. Games are played in relative quiet with the exception of
frequent airplane noise from the nearby Phoenix airport.
Dugout chatter comes in Spanish "vamonos" (let's go) as much as it does
in English "good eye." At the Angels' baseball complex, English classes
are held in an office that, with its long oval table flanked with black
chairs, could double for a corporate meeting room. Becky Schnakenberg, who
teaches the classes, said the Angels organization asked her to help with a
player about nine years ago because of her language skills and counseling
degree. She now works with nearly the entire league, which consists of
nine teams around Phoenix. "It's a struggle to blend so many types of
cultures together," Schnakenberg said. "But when they learn English, they
communicate better with their teammates and coaches, and are usually
happier and less homesick."
This year's first lesson dealt with the alphabet; cards bearing baseball
terms that correlated with letters B for bat, G for glove, etc. Others
lessons dealt with maintaining bank accounts. The players also visited a
restaurant and practiced placing orders in English. The classes cover
basic skills, running only a couple of hours each week. "It's just like
starting over from the first grade," Vladimir Veras, 20, a pitcher from
the Dominican Republic, said in Spanish. "You just have to pick up and
start all over again." Although nine of Tempe's foreign players were
teammates on the Angels' minor league team in the Dominican Republic, they
struggle at times.
"The players who pick up the message are far more successful," said
Artiaga, who has written manuals aimed at helping players adjust, "because
they are comfortable in their surroundings and able to relax." Several
players and coaches said that linguistic problems rarely come up on the
diamond. Tempe Angels Manager Ever Magallanes and pitching coach Dan
Ricabal are bilingual, and players bond through the unspoken language of
the game, they said. Still, pitcher Torres expects more long nights on the
phone talking with his girlfriend, Maria, watching cartoons in an effort
to learn English, and picking up whatever expressions he can as he goes
about each day. "In Venezuela, we would study English in class and then go
home and not talk it," Torres said in Spanish. "Here, it's a constant.
Everywhere I go, everyone is speaking English."
Times staff writer Mike DiGiovanna contributed to this report.
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