- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2016

NEW YORK — Jose Lobaton remembers the general details. He was playing in Single-A for the San Diego Padres’ organization in 2004. He went to the mound to talk with a pitcher about pitch selection late in the game. Lobaton returned to the plate, crouched into his catching position and called a pitch. It was the wrong one. The result of his miscommunication was a tying home run.

His pitching coach at the time informed him that if he didn’t learn English, the club would start fining him.

“In the minor leagues, 10 bucks was like a lot for us,” Lobaton said.
Last offseason, Major League Baseball mandated, in conjunction with the players association, that each team have a full-time, year-round Spanish-language interpreter available this season. The person would have to be fluent in English and Spanish and be available for both pregame and postgame interviews.

The Washington Nationals hired Octavio Martinez in that role, adding to his duties as bullpen catcher. Though Lobaton and fellow catcher and Venezuela native Wilson Ramos both speak English well, they have viewed Martinez’s hiring as a benefit. Each can conduct an interview in English, should they choose. They can also use Martinez to clarify a question or fully translate questions and answers.

“I got another tool to do something better,” Lobaton said in English. “I think sometimes, you get guys that are talking to us — sometimes we can’t understand exactly what they’re saying. It’s good to know you’re going to be sure what you’re going to say after that question because sometimes, you get like, ‘Wow, what did he say? Should I say this? Or that?’ To know that now I’m going to be able to understand the question and now to have my answer be the answer I really want to, that’s big. I’m really happy for that.”

In the past, teams would use a coach or teammate for interviews with a Latino player who did not speak English — or, at least, did not speak it at a level they found comfortable for a full interview in their non-native tongue. After several years of Spanish-speaking players, notably the New York Yankees’ Carlos Beltran, pushing for the change, the new program eliminates the randomness in how interviews are handled across the league. It also provides a safety net.

In the Nationals’ clubhouse, Lobaton and Ramos both initially joked that they did not need the services of an interpreter. Each had worked on their English for years. Lobaton’s work began with more intent after the threat of a fine. “The next day I was trying; I was reading books,” he said. After Ramos signed with the Minnesota Twins in 2004, he heard over and over that if he wanted to make it to the major leagues, he had to learn English. Considering the position played by each, strong communication was all the more important.

Lobaton would find one word and latch onto it throughout a day, pronouncing it in his head over and over. He took the limited classes provided by the Padres.

He asked a lot of questions, taking the traditional path of basics first when trying to pick up a new language. Beyond everything else, Lobaton had to figure out how to communicate with his pitchers. He had a book of mainly baseball phrases translated from Spanish to English. Lobaton needed to be able to tell a pitcher how his curveball release point was off, then recommend how to fix it. Rosetta Stone does not focus on such topics.

“Then 2005 was the biggest year for me because I was playing more,” Lobaton said. “I was playing daily. That was important for me to learn in that moment because I got to talk to a lot to the pitchers, and I got interviews and all this stuff and really got nobody to help us. I was still shy sometimes, [but] you know what? Let’s do it. That was the year I feel I was able to speak a little bit. Year by year, I was able to learn a little more. I’m still learning. Still asking people, ‘How you say this? How you say that? How you use this?’”

Last June, Ramos realized one of his fears. During a radio appearance on 106.7 The Fan, he was asked if Nationals pitcher Tanner Roark had intentionally hit Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto with a pitch. Ramos answered “yeah” during multiple yes or no questions about the incident, prompting a narrative that the Nationals had planned to hit Votto, but he had just misunderstood the question.

In Ramos‘ mind, he was being asked about the Nationals pitchers giving up hits to Votto, saying with his final answer, “Yeah, but you know most of the time, when the pitcher gets hit, that’s because they missed the location. It’s hard. Not anybody is perfect in this game.”

“I didn’t understand the question properly; somehow I interpreted it one way and my answer came out that way and it was completely not what I wanted to say and they took it as purposeful when it wasn’t,” Ramos said through Martinez on Thursday. “From that experience, I realized how important and useful it is to have someone on staff.”

Comfort is key. When Lobaton, 31, or Ramos, 28, are at their locker having a one-on-one conversation, they often speak English to English-speaking reporters. When multiple television cameras encircle them, nerves can kick in. Ramos said he has become more accustomed to talking back to the cameras. It’s still a work in progress for Lobaton.

“I feel like, TV for me, I’m a pretty guy, but I don’t like TV,” Lobaton said.

Last week, Lobaton went through a situation where having an interpreter worked out the way he hoped. He thought a question meant one thing, but wasn’t sure. When he heard the question in Spanish, he was able to give the answer he intended. His personal interpretation was “kinda” right, he said. The interviewer had quickly changed subjects on him, making Lobaton unsure.

“I forget [Martinez] was next to me,” Lobaton said. “Then I was like, ‘Oh, he’s here! What’d he say?’ Then he translate and I was like, ‘Thank you.’”

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