How language, culture barriers present challenges for foreign players
Tom Szczerbowski / Getty Images Sport / Getty

TORONTO - On April 3, the Blue Jays beat the White Sox 14-5 in Toronto and Rick Renteria, once baseball’s only Latino manager and now one of three, took a lap around the locker room.

“Tomorrow is a new day,” Renteria shouted, going from player to player. “Tomorrow is a new day!”

The top third of Renteria’s lineup that night featured a Venezuelan hitting between two Cubans while his Mexican pitcher, Miguel González, threw to his Dominican catcher, Welington Castillo.

“Mañana es nuevo dia,” Renteria repeated in Spanish, stopping at José Abreu’s locker to crouch down in front of his disappointed first baseman. “OK? Mañana es nuevo dia!”

Across the diamond the next afternoon, Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins bounced between English and fluid Spanish as he greeted a group of his players.

Nearly 30 percent of major-league rosters are filled with Latin players in 2018, close to the highest rate in league history. This presents teams and players with a challenge when it comes to communication, but also an opportunity to learn and come closer.

Twenty years before Atkins was named GM of the Blue Jays, he was a 22-year-old starting pitcher for the Single-A Columbus Red Stixx in Georgia.

Just three of Atkins’ 36 teammates that season were born outside of the United States: two Dominicans in Willy Valera and Christian Mota, who never played above Single-A, and a 20-year-old Venezuelan named Marco Scutaro.

Scutaro and Atkins became fast friends. Atkins had grown up in Miami and played in Venezuela, making him an unexpected “Hola” in a clubhouse full of “Hey, y’all.”

In 1996, Scutaro walked more than 30 minutes to and from the ballpark in Columbus, where hundred-degree heat was to be expected in the heart of the baseball season. Atkins generously notes that Columbus, Ga. is “not the most international city,” but with Atkins’ help, Scutaro managed to find a quick edge of freedom where you’d least expect it.

The menu at a chain restaurant.

“He thought TGI Fridays was a department store,” Atkins said, thinking back to 1996. “He thought it was where you go to buy clothes. To go in there with him and have him see that he could point at the menu and I could help him navigate it, it was so liberating for him.”

It was an 'aha' moment for Atkins, seeing Scutaro and his other Latin teammates break down one of those first walls. With ordering a hamburguesa con queso y los papas fritas by pointing at the picture of a cheeseburger and french fries, a young Latin player briefly felt liberated and understood. It was small, but it was a start.

Food is the first language hurdle for so many Latin players, especially in the lower levels of the minor leagues. Teams have taken huge strides in minor-league nutrition recently, but ask most teenage Latin prospects about their earliest self-taught English lessons, and you’ll hear a lot of the same answers.

McDonald’s. Burger King. Taco Bell.

“I knew ‘hi,’ ‘how are you,’ and that’s it,” said Venezuelan Blue Jays prospect Kevin Vicuna, now 20, who began his U.S. pro career as an 18-year-old in 2016.

“The food was the first, because if we don’t eat, we can’t play.”

In fact, Vicuna eagerly asked to be interviewed without a translator so he could prove to his language teacher that he’s ready to graduate from the English classes the Blue Jays organize for players on the Single-A Lansing Lugnuts.

“My teammates help me to speak very well, and I want to say thank you to them for that,” Vicuna said. “I speak English when I have to speak it, but the rest, I just speak Spanish with my teammates because I feel more comfortable. But when we have to help somebody in English, I try to be good.”

Sitting atop a plastic equipment case nearby as Vicuna speaks is Sandy Alomar Sr., the 74-year-old veteran of 15 major-league seasons. Alomar signed with Milwaukee in 1960 and landed in the United States as a 16-year-old. He had some English from high school in Puerto Rico, but nearly 60 years ago, he didn’t have the benefit of team-employed tutors or iPhone translator apps.

“I always carried my music box, and I always carried a dictionary,” Alomar said.

“Every time I heard a word that I felt like I needed to learn about, I would go into the dictionary and I would learn it.”

Each morning now, well before baseball players are typically awake, Sandy Sr. sends out his daily group text. It’s always a motivational quote, sometimes from Sandy himself, sometimes from a book or a movie.

Atkins gets the daily text. Marcus Stroman gets it. Aaron Sanchez gets it. And every young Latin player who Alomar works with in the Blue Jays system gets it, because, after the first message in English, Alomar sends it again in Spanish so the young players can look at the words together.

Translators are a tremendous asset for players in the majors and minors, but understanding their coaches directly - either in their own language or through a learned language - and being able to communicate their own ideas in return can be a pivotal factor in their on-field development.

“You see how important it is, not only for them to understand, but to give their opinion back,” Atkins said. “That also brings in the cultural component. On a scale of Dominican, Venezuelan, Puerto Rican, in that order, it’s a very hierarchical culture and environment. So, you tell me what to do and I do it. A lot of one-way communication when it comes to learning, but having been around it my entire career, it was something I quickly recognized as an opportunity in the game. To expedite that for people would seemingly be helpful.”

For Cuban players, the language barrier can be even more difficult and sudden. Many Cubans don’t reach the United States until they are already in their 20s, and some go directly to the major leagues. In terms of language and communication, this puts them behind a young Dominican player, for example, who’s been working with a team language tutor since the age of 16.

When Kendrys Morales finally completed the 90-mile journey from Cuba to Florida on his 13th attempt in 2004, he only knew a handful of simple greetings in English, things he thought he needed “to be polite.”

“The most challenging thing is the communication because you’re trying to express yourself,” Morales said. “Us Latin guys, we’re very expressive and we want to show emotions. It’s really hard when you can’t do it. It’s something that is very challenging for us.”

Morales says that it’s getting better, though. From the 16-year-olds leaving their countries to the established players on major-league rosters, the distances between languages - and players - is shrinking.

While Morales spoke at his locker in Toronto, a trio of Latin Blue Jays players sat at a nearby table in the middle of the clubhouse playing cards before batting practice. Cubans Aledmys Diaz and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. were joined by Colombian Gio Urshela.

As they talked and laughed, Seung-hwan Oh, Toronto’s Korean relief pitcher, walked past their table with his own personal translator, Eugene Koo.

“Hey,” Oh said pointing to his teammates at the table and grinning. “Amigos!”

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How language, culture barriers present challenges for foreign players
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