This piece of baseball news may have slipped by you in the avalanche of TwinsFest media coverage last week. But for players from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico or anywhere else where Spanish is primarily spoken, it means the world.
Beginning this season, Major League Baseball will require clubs to hire translators to facilitate interviews with Latino players. The Twins, with so many more Latinos in their clubhouse these days, say they’re sifting through resumes and hope to hire someone by Feb. 21, when pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Fort Myers. MLB is subsidizing the program, founded through a joint effort with the Players Association.
For those of us with long memories of Latinos struggling to express themselves in interviews, it’s something that MLB should have done a long time ago.
Veteran Yankees outfielder Carlos Beltran, originally from Puerto Rico, spearheaded this. It’s tough enough for young players to establish themselves in the majors without worrying about mangling a second language in front of English-speaking reporters, armed with television cameras and digital recorders.
Beltran remembered his discomfort while breaking in with the Royals in the late 1990s. “When I got to the big leagues, I knew little of English and it would have been great to have someone next to me helping me,” Beltran told MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez. “I couldn’t really say much other than, ‘I feel good,’ and, ‘I had a good game,’ and, ‘I am happy I helped the team.’ Just simple and short stuff, so I didn’t do a lot of interviews. But at points, I felt I wanted to express myself a little bit more but I couldn’t, and I didn’t want to look bad with broken English, either.”
While Japanese and Korean players travel with translators, often paid for by their agents, most teams let Latinos fend for themselves. That’s what the Twins do, sometimes to their detriment. There was no translator to help Venezuelan reliever Juan Rincon in 2004, when he gave up a game-breaking home run to Ruben Sierra of the Yankees in the American League Division Series and said, infamously, “No one wants to be in my pants right now.”
Here’s how these things usually work. Say a group of reporters needs to interview a star of the game, the starting pitcher, or someone involved in a critical play who isn’t comfortable with English. If the player agrees to talk (not a guarantee), a reporter or media relations official tries to flag down a teammate or coach to translate.
The quality of the translation can vary from excellent to preposterous, particularly if the translator summarizes or spins on a player’s remarks. Back when I worked in New York, Yankees first base coach Jose Cardenal’s attempts to translate for the notoriously cantankerous Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez were borderline comical. A protective Cardenal often reduced a 45-second El Duque rant into a couple of benign sentences.
Former Twin Chris Colabello, who speaks Italian (his father played professionally in Italy) and Dominican-accented Spanish, translated wonderfully for Latino teammates during stints here in 2013 and ’14. He has a future at the United Nations, or in a Telemundo novela. But last season, the Twins left Eduardo Escobar, Danny Santana, Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario and the other Latinos on their own. And that’s not good for anyone.
Twins general manager Terry Ryan insisted the club would have tracked down someone to translate if a player asked. But players don’t ask. They’re encouraged to try and speak English, no matter how poorly. The Twins provide mandatory English instruction at their academies and at their Fort Myers complex, and some in the organization fear some players wouldn’t learn English if they relied too much on translators.
Jose de Jesus Ortiz of the Houston Chronicle, my former colleague at the Newark Star-Ledger and a past president of the Baseball Writers Association of America, never forgot what Mets star Edgardo Alfonzo, whose English wasn’t the greatest, told him in Spanish in 2000. “He said whenever he did something great, while he was still on the field, he started to worry about the postgame interview,” said Ortiz, who now covers the Astros. “A lot of guys worry about how they’re going to come off.”
So, Ortiz said, most resort to simple phrases and clichés if they agree to talk at all. Who wants that? Not the players. Not the media. And certainly not fans eager to learn more about these guys. There are great stories out there waiting to be told, and many players willing to share them.
Media companies can do their part by hiring more Spanish-speaking reporters. I regret not studying Spanish more diligently in high school (that sound you hear is my high school Spanish teacher yelling from New York, “NOW he gets it,”) or in my first job in Miami, where I had Cuban friends to practice with. Bilingual reporters like Ortiz and James Wagner of the Washington Post hold a significant advantage, and their readers benefit. Still, Ortiz believes Latino players should learn English for their own good.
The language barrier concerned the Twins enough to hire two Spanish-speaking coaches, Eddie Guardado and Rudy Hernandez, for Paul Molitor’s staff, but not to hire a translator. Bobby Cuellar, Ron Gardenhire’s bullpen coach his last two seasons, also spoke Spanish.
Before that, things were shaky. “When we got Escobar (in 2012), I don’t know if he realized he was going to Rochester,” Ryan said. Four years later, Escobar — originally signed by the White Sox out of Venezuela — still struggles with English.
Now, at least, he and others will have some help.
“It’s going to be a relief for many, many players,” Ryan said. “In the minor leagues, we stress the importance (of learning English) going back to the day they sign. Some take to it better than others. Some get it in a couple of years. Some don’t. This is an important piece that obviously the commissioner’s office and the association feel is important, and I can see that. So we’re going to move forward on that path and see if we can help the cause.”