Investment in English lessons creates better communication on MLB teams

Janie McCauley / The Associated Press
July 14, 2014 12:25 AM

In this March 8, 1962 file photo Felipe Alou, outfielder for the San Francisco Giants, poses in Casa Grande, Ariz. Alou and Orlando Cepeda were dark-skinned Latinos who knew little English when they arrived in the minor leagues as teenagers, among the first wave of Spanish-speaking players thrown into a new culture to play professional baseball. Both are encouraged to see so many young players from Latin America now arriving in the U.S. with better English skills, thanks in large part to all 30 major league organizations putting more emphasis into such training through academies in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. (AP Photo/File)

SAN FRANCISCO - During a friendly dugout chat before a game, Hector Sanchez joked about the hazards of catching for hard-throwing San Francisco starter Tim Lincecum because of the number of balls that must be stopped in the dirt.

"Another day at the office," he said, grinning.

Sanchez uses the typical English phrase naturally these days after hours of hard work in English classes while playing in the minor leagues. He puts his improved English skills right up there with his biggest strides on the field, which include catching Lincecum's June 25 no-hitter.

Hundreds of other young Latin American players around the country are also speaking with ease, thanks to greater resources devoted to teaching English skills and other day-to-day tasks in American life as part of the transition to baseball in the U.S. All 30 major league teams now have academies in the Dominican Republic, and a handful of organizations run similar operations in Venezuela as well.

"There's no doubt it's different today than it was a generation ago for these players, with the media coverage, the impact of social media, the coverage, the television, everything," San Diego Padres manager Bud Black said. "These guys are exposed."

Sanchez's Giants say they have increased spending by 400 per cent over the past decade.

"It has increased steadily each year as we have added more components to the assimilation program," said Alan Lee, Giants Director of Arizona Baseball Operations.

The Giants estimate they have helped train 325 Latin players with English skills in the last 15 years, while also providing Spanish training for those seeking to learn. Roughly 200 players have taken Spanish courses in the past four years.

Black and several other managers and GMs say there are fewer issues in which the language barrier causes their jobs to be more challenging than even five years ago. For example, most managers now make their pitching changes without the aid of an interpreter.

Some still prefer an interpreter when sending a player down to the minors or explaining certain technical aspects of a swing, pitching motion or other instruction.

"If there's something in particular that I need a player to understand and I can't have any confusion, I go through an interpreter with the player and I instruct the interpreter to tell him exactly what I say the way I say it," said Rangers manager Ron Washington, who speaks only the most basic Spanish. "I don't want your interpretation, because the way I would express it is for effect. If you change that effect, you just changed my interpretation."

Sanchez made learning English as much a part of his job as studying his pitchers and their tendencies. He had to be able to speak with the pitchers, so he took classes on the computer via Skype before and after games.

"It's not just for the position," Sanchez said. "You're in another country, a different country and this is like a challenge for you, so you have to take the challenge to survive."

While Sanchez is proving a reliable option as Buster Posey's backup in the Bay Area, the future of the franchise — Latino minor leaguers — sits in classrooms at the team's training complex in Scottsdale, Arizona, taking evening English classes as their empty practice fields are watered outside in the desert heat. The men walk past World Series logos on the walls as they arrive, a reminder of the team's championships in 2010 and '12.

The lessons include English basics, including training in how to write checks, use a bank account or mail a letter. There's even training on how to conduct a simple telephone call.

"We didn't have that. We had to learn from scratch," said 76-year-old Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda, a Puerto Rican among the first group of Latinos playing baseball in the U.S. "(Talking) with the players, that's what I did (to learn)."

Carol Gabb is the lead English instructor for the Giants' minor leaguers. She regularly fist-bumps players throughout a session to celebrate and encourage their progress. During one class this spring, everybody sang "Happy Birthday" to work on the simple meanings behind the tune.

Players, much like school children, laugh, talk out of turn, stretch, kick off their flip flops, curl their toes when reading, make faces, or even smile sheepishly when they answer correctly and are given praise.

A few years back, this was Sanchez. And he also carved out time in his busy baseball life to take one-on-one classes. He started the sessions during his first professional season, rookie ball in 2009, but took it to another level in 2012.

"I get the opportunity to take English classes and I take advantage, and tried to learn every day," Sanchez said, his grammar still not perfect but close. "That's all about it, getting better, learning. That's how you survive in life."

Longtime Giants equipment manager Mike Murphy has nicknamed the affable catcher after actor George Clooney, and Sanchez immediately plays along by pulling off his black Giants cap and rubbing his hair — which, while far darker, is almost a spitting image of Clooney's precisely groomed 'do.

On another day this spring near the dugout, reliever Santiago Casilla used a mix of English and Spanish to ask Giants athletic trainer Dave Groeschner for medicine to help alleviate a pregame headache.

"I understand everything but it's a little bit difficult to speak it clearly. It doesn't scare me, but I understand more studying while I listen," he said.

While Seattle second baseman Robinson Cano is at ease speaking fluent English, the Dominican star regularly can be seen razzing teammates while speaking Spanish a mile a minute. Cano briefly attended high school in New Jersey.

"I went to school here, so I learned English," said Cano, who received a $240 million, 10-year contract to join the Mariners last off-season after nine years with the New York Yankees. "But it's hard speaking your second language."

___

AP Photographer Matt York in Scottsdale, Arizona, contributed to this report.


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