Different Language, No Problem: MLB’s Ongoing Efforts to Break the Language Barrier

Goddard__BB_By: Kyle Goddard

Major League Baseball has become a home for many different players from many different races. There have been many issues in the past where players from different countries have had trouble communicating with their teammates, coaches, and media because they can’t speak English. New York Yankees pitcher, Michael Pineda, is from the Dominican Republic and he figured out firsthand just how hard it is when you can’t speak for yourself. Pineda was accused of using pine tar in a game and the media bombarded him with questions about the accusation and he was overwhelmed. He had to use a translator and there were some communication problems that resulted with the translator not saying exactly what Pineda actually said. He stated “I like to talk to the media, but talk to me slow. I like talking to the American guys because I am not good with English, and I think learning English is very important in baseball.”

Many players from different countries had to take multiple English classes or learn English from their teammates to help them better communicate and sometimes it can be tough for them to learn an entire language as quickly as others want them to. It has become less of an issue today than it has been in the past because not only are players from different countries learning English, but players from the United States have begun to learn the languages of their foreign teammates. This act by players shows just how important it is to them to be able to get along with their teammates no matter what language they speak. Around 60 percent of Major League players are white American, around 28 percent are Hispanic, around 10 percent are African American, and around 2 percent are Asian. This shows there is a wide diversity of athletes in the MLB, so it is very probable that there are going to be many players who have a tough time speaking English.

Collective Memory plays a big role in how we treat people based on the language barrier. Collective memory can be described as the memories of a certain group of people about certain past events or topics it is a concept that is a big part of the work of Markovitz. He stated “Collective memory can lead to difference in public opinion and also reactions.” It can be seen where it plays a huge role in racial issues within sports and in this case, where we talk about the language barrier in professional baseball. A common term that goes along with baseball is “America’s Pastime”, which can really be understood when we talk about race and the language barrier in professional baseball. Baseball was a very exclusionary sport when it was created. It has a very racist past when you look back in time; the only players that were allowed to play were white men. That being said, this is a game that was essentially created by white men, for white men and players of different races were condemned to play in separate leagues. I believe that the MLB has made tremendous improvements when it comes to breaking the language barrier and I believe the players and coaches have made a huge contribution to this monumental change.

Latino Players

Many baseball players that have come to the United States to play the game they love have had troubles fitting in with their team because they couldn’t communicate effectively with their teammates and coaches. C.C. Sabathia, a pitcher for the New York Yankees, recalled a time when his fellow teammate, Robinson Cano, wasn’t interviewed nearly as much as he should have been because he couldn’t speak English very well. “ His English wasn’t bad but he still felt a little insecure about speaking in English so he wouldn’t go into full details and I think that’s why reporters would shy away from him” Sabathia stated. Cano wasn’t the only one. Players such as David Ortiz, Carlos Beltran, and Mariano Rivera all had their troubles when first coming into the MLB. Carlos Beltran talked about what it was like coming to the United States to play baseball and only being able to speak Spanish. Beltran said “when I came here as a rookie, I could only understand Spanish so I would sit back and mimic my teammates during drills because I couldn’t understand the coach’s instructions.”

Seattle Mariners first base coach, Chris Woodward, talked about how the language barrier can be a problem for many teams in the clubhouse and on the field. “I’ve coached teams where the Latin American guys were on one side of the clubhouse and the American guys were on the other, playing their music, and the guys would get mad at each other for talking too loud across the room. It really can create a divide within a team and I would just tell the guys that we have to be better at this” Woodward stated. This example is a perfect way of showing how collective memory plays a big part in racial issues in baseball. Woodward’s explanation of the player’s behavior in the clubhouse almost mirrors the way players acted when athletes broke the color barrier for the first time.  He also talked about how younger, immature players would feel that because the foreigners are coming to this country, they should have to learn to speak English. Woodward claimed, “It’s a two-way street. When these young guys have to play winter ball, they have to go down to countries like Cuba, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic. Let’s see how they feel when the shoe is on the other foot.”

Asian Players

Players that come from Latin American countries aren’t the only ones who have these problems. Since Latino players are more prevalent in professional baseball, it is less likely for Asian players to have any teammates who can speak their language. New York Yankees pitchers, Masahiro Tanaka and Hideki Kuroda, had similar problems. They both came from Japan to play baseball in the MLB and neither of them could speak English. They both had their own translator, which was stated in their contracts, who went everywhere they went to help them understand what was going on. Both Kuroda and Tanaka stated that they could not manage without their translators help. “I would definitely need him” Tanaka exclaimed when he was asked about his translator. Ichiro Suzuki was another MLB player who came to the United States and could not speak English. Suzuki, who came to the United States in 2001 to play professional baseball, still can’t speak fluent English and has a translator at every press conference that he is involved in. Suzuki stated “it’s difficult for us to express what we’re thinking in our own language let alone trying to speak in another language, that’s what’s difficult, translating that over to a different language.”

Spanish isn’t the only language that baseball players have learned over the years to communicate with their teammates. Boston Red Sox teammates, Curt Schilling and Jason Varitek, made it a priority to learn Japanese when they heard that Japanese star, Daisuke Matsusaka, was coming to play for Boston. Schilling wanted Matsusaka to have someone on the staff that he could talk to and learn from while Varitek, the catcher, thought it was imperative that he would be able to communicate with Matsusaka while he was on the mound for Boston.

Major League Baseball, as a whole, has tried to help with this situation. They offer free language services to players that request it and many times they hire translators to make the transition smoother when the player is still learning to speak English. Players like Yasiel Puig have made the most of the free language services offered by the MLB, claiming that he would go to English class every day after practice. The MLB is in the process of hiring translators for every team to help the young athletes who haven’t learned English yet and who have recently come to the United States to play baseball. The Detroit Tigers, who have many Hispanic baseball players on their roster, have hired Aileen Villarreal, a bilingual media contact, who helps the team with day-to-day situations, for example.

The MLB, as an enterprise, has made a tremendous effort to help with the language barrier problems but I think the most important thing to know is that American players have made the biggest impact on this problem. Many players have begun to learn the language of their teammates who are not from here. Players such as C.J. Wilson, Brennan Boesch, Jeremy Guthrie, and A.J. Griffin have all stated that they wanted to learn the language of their teammates to improve, not only themselves, but the team. This gesture just shows how being a team on and off the field is what is most important to these guys. There are many great examples of American players who have taken it upon themselves to learn the language of their teammates in order to establish a connection on and off the field. Being able to understand your teammates on the field plays a big role in improving team chemistry but being able to help teammates off the field is just as important.

Miguel Montero, a catcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks recalls a time before a game when he went to talk to a fellow Hispanic player on the other team and he saw an American player standing there. Nate McClouth, an outfielder for the Pirates, introduced himself in perfect Spanish. Montero claimed he was taken by surprise, “He said he was from the Dominican and I believed him at first. He even had a Dominican accent, I was blown away.” McClouth had learned Spanish as a way to bridge the gap with his teammates and he said that so many good things have come from him learning Spanish. “I was in Lynchburg, VA playing minor league ball when one of my teammates had to go to the hospital because his baby was sick, so I went with him and served as an interpreter. It went really well and its things like that that make me glad I learned Spanish” said McClouth. This really goes against the idea of baseball’s collective memory because in the past, American players didn’t think it was important to learn a different language. This shows that the tides are changing with players like McClouth, who believes that learning Spanish was a very important task in his career.

One of the most interesting stories that I have heard on this issue is the story of Caleb Joseph, catcher for the Baltimore Orioles. Joseph knew at a young age that he had a good chance of becoming a professional baseball player so he began taking Spanish classes in high school and college. “I thought it would be a good idea to learn Spanish. As a catcher, I want to be able to communicate with the Latin pitchers that are on my team” said Joseph. After becoming a professional baseball player, Joseph went to Venezuela to play winter ball and he knew Spanish well enough to get around. “I understand how difficult it is to come to a different country and try to get by. I think it is important for guys here to learn the language of their foreign teammates because it can make a tremendous positive impact for the team” Joseph explained.

Robinson Cano, the second baseman for the Seattle Mariners, came to the United States from Cuba to play professional baseball. He has had his troubles with the language barrier throughout his career but he has always remained positive. Cano was asked about the language barrier and he stated “I think it is the responsibility of us foreign players to learn English because we are coming in to their country to play the game.” Many American players and coaches don’t think that is the case. Chris Woodward, one of Cano’s coaches in Seattle, believes that American players should be obligated to learn Spanish because it will do nothing but help the team grow together on and off the field. Veteran catcher, Dave Valle, believes that many positive outcomes can happen by learning the language of your foreign teammates. Valle started a foundation to help families that are in poverty in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. “I think that understanding the cultures of where my teammates come from allows me to sympathize with them and help others that aren’t fortunate enough to make large amounts of money playing professional baseball” Valle explained.

I believe Major League Baseball has made monumental improvements and had tremendous success when in regards to having problems with the language barrier. The MLB as an enterprise has impressed me with their efforts to make foreign baseball players comfortable while playing in the United States. Not only is the MLB helping, but players and coaches are making the biggest difference in the effort by being understanding and even learning the language of their foreign teammates. Every baseball player and coach mentioned above, who has learned a foreign language, claimed that doing so had a tremendous positive impact on the players and, more importantly, the team. Learning a foreign language while playing professional baseball can’t be a very easy task to accomplish but many players take the challenge in order to improve their team’s chemistry on and off the field. Many positive things have happened because of players willing to learn a different language. Whether it be improving the relationship with your teammates, helping your teammates improve their way of life off the field, or even helping your teammates when their family members need to go to the hospital, breaking the language barrier has been a goal of the MLB for a while and I believe that professional baseball is making tremendous success with their efforts.

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