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.