- Associated Press - Sunday, July 16, 2017

BLUEFIELD, W.Va. (AP) - Jose Nova took the challenge.

The Spanish-speaking pitcher from the Dominican Republic surveyed a group of 20 cards on a table at Bowen Field, and volunteered to be the first to speak the English word for each body part depicted on the cards.

He got 19 out of 20, pronouncing the words in a rapid-fire cadence. He couldn’t have smiled more if he’d just won a playoff game.

His Latin American teammates on the Bluefield Blue Jays, gathered for yet another lesson in learning English, exchanged fist bumps with their 22-year-old teammate.

The competitive instincts of baseball players carry over into the classroom. They practically shouted the English words as instructor Sarah Reid introduced them to the cards and spoke their new vocabulary additions.

“They’re very competitive,” Reid said after class. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Being athletes, the young men instantly took a liking to the kinetic movement of a game of “Simon Says,” a way of changing up the classroom routine.

As they rose from their chairs, McGregory Contreras called out with a grin, “Play BALL!”

Their vocabulary was being reinforced as they reacted when told to touch their knee, their nose, their heel, and their ear. Amusement mixed in when some players were caught responding to a command without the key phrase “Simon says.”

This is Reid’s third season working with the Spanish-speaking players on the Bluefield roster. She originally got the job when she was teaching at nearby Graham High School. She and her husband moved to Pulaski County, Virginia, “about a year ago,” she said, but she continues to drive to Bowen Field almost daily from mid-June through August to teach the players whom she calls “my guys.”

“They’re such a generous and good team,” she said.

She said, in full teacher mode, “Every learner is different. We work at finding their (introductory) level, and then enrich their knowledge.”

Elio Eduardo De Dios Silva, a 21-year-old Venezuelan, is in his first couple of months in the United States, after playing two seasons in the Dominican Summer League (DSL). Reid said, “To see him go through every picture, and nail it … everybody in the room knows, that’s exciting.”

She added that the players put their lessons to use after they leave their temporary “classroom.”

“They hold each other accountable, after class, to use it,” she said with satisfaction.

Bluefield Blue Jays manager Dennis Holmberg said that many, if not all, Major League Baseball franchises now offer English classes in the minors for non-English speakers, but he’s proud of the history of Toronto’s effort.

“Rewinding the clock, 20, 25 years ago, they started the lessons for the Latin kids. I think (Toronto) might have been one of the first organizations that did that,” he said. He said that all of Toronto’s lower-level minor-league affiliates, “(from) probably A-ball, down,” offer the lessons.

“I think the organization does a terrific job.”

He said the goal is “to provide them with lessons in speaking, presenting themselves - and also, ordering off the menu … not only speaking, but trying to read. Airport traveling, things of that nature. Being able to engage in some conversation, if a sports writer would like to talk to them, without having to get a translator, (or) to do an interview on camera.”

“It gives them confidence.”

It also gives them, perhaps, a boost in their effort to move up the minor-league chain and reach the majors.

Holmberg said, “I don’t know if it’s true, but with the exception of some very, very, very talented Latin players, if they can’t speak English by the time they’re in double-A, they might not play in the big leagues … .”

“They have to be able to communicate,” he said. “That goes not only when they’re off the field, but when we’re on the field doing fundamentals: Being able to comprehend, and to digest, and to understand what’s being said without having to be translated by a coach. It helps them a long, long way, not only off the field, but on the field.”

He said that instructors like Reid “do a great job, spending their time and energy to make these kids better speakers (of) the English language.”

He said that English speakers also benefit by learning a second language. Holmberg, now in his 60s, said, “If I would have known now, what I didn’t know back in high school, I would’ve taken German, I would’ve taken Spanish.”

At the end of Monday’s lesson, Nova said that learning English is “very important. The communication, with the people, my friends, the coach - everybody here speaks English.”

Kelyn Jose, a fellow pitcher from the Dominican, said the ability to understand the language is essential “when we talk to the fans, when they want us to sign a ball.”

Jesus Severino, in his second season in Bluefield, is in the more advanced group of English learners.

“Here, you use it a lot,” he said. “When we go to eat, when we go to the city … It’s very important when we have to communicate, to talk, with the coach.”

The players offered different goals for their English comprehension. Yorman Rodriguez, a 19-year-old catcher from Venezuela, said he’s working hard on “pronunciation.” Severino said he wants to learn “to write” in his new language. Contreras, from The Bahamas, answered simply, “Girlfriend.”

Jesus Navarro, also from the Dominican Republic, said, “It’s important - for life.”


Information from: Bluefield Daily Telegraph, https://www.bdtonline.com

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