Meeting in the Middle on the Language of Baseball

On April 13th of last year, in the bottom of the 10th inning against the Reds, Arismendy Alcántara hit a bases-loaded squeaker that was just good enough for a Cubs walk-off win.

It was his first hit of the season after starting 0-for-16 at the plate, and it was hard to tell whether there was more joy or relief in his expression afterwards. I remember the Cubs bench bolting out of the dugout to start wailing on him in celebration, and I also remember his postgame on-field interview. Whether it was the excitement of the moment or whether he just generally struggles with English, the 23-year old Dominican Republic native was unable to say much, and he had little response to the first three questions before the interview was cut short.

It was disappointing to see him deprived of that fun interview where he could play the modest hero after coming up short so many times to start the season. Many Latino players (especially the younger, foreign-born ones) face similar problems expressing themselves in the media. Just under one third of major-league players today are Latino, and it follows that a lot of these players mainly speak Spanish. Of course, some Latinos do not speak Spanish while plenty of non-Latino players speak Spanish, but the point is a big chunk of the game’s players speak Spanish, and many of those players are more comfortable with Spanish than with English.

A common cry (recently echoed by Mike Piazza) is that these players should learn English, since they are making a living on United States soil, where the majority of the population speaks English as a first language. Mariano Rivera, too, is a big advocate for Spanish-speaking Latino players learning English in order to put themselves in the best position to succeed. Rivera, however, goes further to say that reporters covering the game should, by the same token, learn Spanish. That’s a sensible perspective, in my book, and Major League Baseball recently took a big step towards ensuring that Spanish-speaking players are more comfortable in interviews by requiring that every team carry two full-time Spanish interpreters starting this season.

I’d go even further than Rivera, to say that everyone around the game of baseball—not just reporters—should really try to learn some Spanish, just as Spanish-speaking players should of course try to learn some English. The new interpreter rule is an important step in the right direction that should be applauded. It’s not enough, though, since it does not help the player (or his team) in game situations, which are possibly the most crucial communication points of all.

Some managers have already taken steps in the right direction by learning Spanish themselves. The Cubs’ very own Joe Maddon speaks Spanish, for example, and also has Spanish-speaking Latino coaches Dave Martinez and Henry Blanco around him. The last manager to take the Cubs to the playoffs before Maddon, Lou Piniella, also spoke Spanish. Moving away from the Cubs a little bit, Tony La Russa went so far as to say that “if you seriously aspire to be a manager in the big leagues… you must practice Spanish.”

It’s not just managers. Players (especially veterans) can also greatly help their teams in game situations by ensuring that they can speak both dominant languages. Miguel Montero is fluent in both English and Spanish, and it is hard to imagine that his ability to communicate with and relax his pitchers is not boosted by his ability to speak to them in their own language. Even Ichiro—a native in neither Spanish nor English—helped his team out by learning some Spanish just so he could talk trash more of his opponents. At the end of the day, isn’t that what baseball’s really all about?

Now, I’m sure some people will still firmly believe that Spanish-speaking players should just learn English, and that that is the end of the discussion. While everyone is entitled to their opinion, this response simply does not respect the reality of baseball. Even if a Latino prospect comes over to the US and immediately starts working hard to learn English, he will still need years of practice to speak it fluently. He and his team can greatly benefit from coaches, managers and teammates that can communicate in Spanish if the need arises.

Mike Maddux noted (in the same article in which La Russa was quoted on the subject) that Spanish “is a vital tool for any coach these days… My Latino pitchers speak English, but “vamos, tú puedes” [“c’mon, you can do it”] at a crucial juncture of the game inspires them more than anything I can tell them in English.” Having Spanish speakers around can also help ease clubhouse tension. When Chris Woodward was the Mariners first base coach, he had some particularly relevant words on the subject:

They’re the ones in the foreign country, not you. You’re the one who should be welcoming them. They shouldn’t have to go out of their way. But some American guys, the immature ones, look at it and say, “He’s in our country, he needs to learn our language.” Well, you’re going to play winter ball at some point and you’re going to have to go to Venezuela or the Dominican and then you’ll be on the other side of the coin. How will you respond?

It stands to reason that if people throughout all levels of an organization can communicate with each other, the team will benefit. The more common ground there is in an organization, language-wise, the greater the mutual benefit to both the team and the player.

By learning English, Latino players can certainly better communicate with the rest of their team and their fans. By learning Spanish, players can connect with more of their peers, coaches can better communicate with and encourage their players, and reporters can more naturally cover a wider slice of the game. Spanish-speaking players who do not speak English should probably learn to do so, but the rest of baseball should meet them halfway (or even just a third of the way) by learning at least some Spanish.

Lead photo courtesy Caylor Arnold—USA Today Sports.

Related Articles

7 comments on “Meeting in the Middle on the Language of Baseball”


If I were a baseball player going to play winter ball in Venezuela, I would learn Spanish. I would not expect the press in Venezuela to learn English in order to accommodate me.

If I were moving to another country to practice my trade there, I would learn that country’s language. I would not expect them to accommodate me.

By all means, though, let’s just disregard our own culture for the sake of the immigrants who come here to benefit from that culture. Which, by the way, I heartily encourage if done legally. I’m sure all the countries they come from would do the same for us.


I think there’s an assumption at play here that immigrant populations are not trying to learn English. It’s a process, and it takes time; language learning as an adult is tough. I would caution that it’s hard to judge any particular person and their English skills, not knowing how long they have been working on learning English, how long they have been in the country, etc.

Joaquín Selva

Hey Chris, thanks for reading the article and taking time to think about the subject.

Like Heidi and Rob have commented here, learning a new language can be stressful and can take a long time, no matter how seriously one takes it. Even when a player’s home academy agrees with you and teaches that player English before they come to the US, they would still feel more at home with Spanish-speakers around them in their organization. I would also like to say that I agree that Latino players should learn English, I just think the people around them learning Spanish too would be mutually beneficial.

I don’t think it’s so much about abandoning our culture as it is expanding it to welcome and embrace the immigrants who come here to contribute, something this country has prided itself on since the beginning. If you did move to Venezuela and you worked really hard to learn Spanish, wouldn’t it still be nice for those coworkers to try to meet you somewhere in the middle, even if you didn’t expect it of them?

Even if you don’t think that non-Latinos around baseball “should” learn Spanish, I hope you can still see how it can be a great advantage, both for a team and its players.


@ 17, I couldn’t have left all my friends and family and move to Venezuela, where I don’t speak the language. Been able to handle all that on my own, trying to learn a new language, learn about the culture with a lot of help from my employer.

Wow. If you are the type of person that you could have handled that on your own. I give you credit, there aren’t a lot of people like that.

Dan Rivera

It seems obvious to me that a top organization searching for specialized talent will be willing to invest $ to have people on staff that can teach and speak all necessary languages. Theo is well aware of this. His goal is to make any players transition to pro ball as smooth as possible. Baseball is hard enough, adding a self imposed language barrier would be moronic. Why on earth would you make it harder for your own players to succeed? Especially when you’ve spent a significant amount of money signing and bringing this player over.

Its this simple, do we want the Cubs to have better prospects then other clubs? If yes, then the Cubs must maintain a diverse organization. Thankfully this organization get it and fans will reap the benefits.

For the disregarding culture, thing. I dont know what to say to that. American culture is a mixture culture. It has been evolving from its very inception and it will continue whether we like it or not.


Thank you for this article. It has long been an issue I think was been under-explored. Look up Baseball Language Barrier and you get a long list of articles about teaching prospects English or personal stories of a players trying to learn english on the fly but little to no coverage of the reverse.

I have read about teams like the Padres offering Spanish lessons and players like Joey Votto having a personal tutor, but are there any teams putting a real effort into teaching their english speaking prospects Spanish across the entire organization? Or even requiring it?

While I agree with the above comment from Dan that interpreters are a no-brainer, I would think in baseball were any competitive edge is mined that having players (and coaches) who can communicate directly with each other (not just on the field but off it as well) would be a better and longer serving investment for an organization playing the long game.

Joaquín Selva

I’m glad you enjoyed it, thanks for reading! That’s a great question, and it would be interesting to look into if any teams are doing things like that. It wonder if the Padres offering Spanish lessons has anything to do with them being in San Diego, and if so I’d expect the Marlins to do something similar.

I completely agree with you, that teaching Spanish to players and coaches seems like a relatively easy and cheap way to improve an organization. I would not be surprised to see more teams start pushing Spanish lessons during the offseason, because like you said it’s all about finding that edge. Since this would only make for more comfortable players and better baseball all around, let’s hope teams start taking your advice.

Leave a comment

Use your Baseball Prospectus username