- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 30, 2019

The national pastime has been a truly international game in recent years, with a wave of Latin Americans coming to the U.S. to play baseball — many scrambling to pick up English along the way. Now their American-born teammates and coaches are returning the favor by learning Spanish.

Miami Marlins CEO Derek Jeter made news last year with the announcement his club would require its minor league coaches and players to start learning Spanish. Not every team goes that far, but at least half the league’s 30 clubs now offer some level of Spanish lessons for English speakers, says MLB Vice President Paul Mifsud.

“The Marlins’ industry leadership on this is extremely helpful,” Mifsud told the Associated Press. “We’d like all 30 teams doing their best to get players the level of education they want on these issues, and I think we’re heading that direction.”

Marlins manager Don Mattingly, who like Jeter spent his entire playing career with the New York Yankees, told The Washington Times recently that if learning Spanish helps communication on and off the field, he’s all for it.

“I’d heard Derek (Jeter) say once that it never seemed fair that the Spanish kids gotta learn English but the English guys don’t have to learn Spanish,” Mattingly said. “I think it just made it fair.”

At the major league level, a confluence of cultures and languages is a standard feature of the clubhouse — but it can also be a hindrance to coaching, Mattingly said.

“Even if they kind of understand it, (a word) may not mean the same thing to them,” he said. “We always have interpreters back and forth. But it’s a lot better off when you know (the language).”

So, like a growing number of other American coaches and players, Mattingly puts the onus on himself to pick up more Spanish. He uses the language-learning app Duolingo. Others download Rosetta Stone. That’s how Michael A. Taylor became known around the Washington Nationals clubhouse for his Spanish proficiency.

When the Nationals outfielder was in the minor leagues, Taylor would spend hours-long bus rides using the software program to learn Spanish. Spurred on by “not being able to talk to half my team,” Taylor learned the language in four months.

“I definitely think it helps, especially the younger guys as they kind of learn English,” Taylor said. “It’s just nice to be able to speak to them in Spanish a little bit and kind of make them feel comfortable, even just joking around with them, even if it’s not something serious.”

Still, in a league with 750 players on active rosters and several thousand more in the minors, Taylor is more the exception than the standard. That’s why the Marlins include year-round language lessons as part of the mandatory player development program for all rookie ballplayers. It’s not unlike a high school class — two or three times a week, 30 to 45 minutes at a time in a classroom setting with full-time teachers, interaction with classmates and even homework.

Luis Dorante Jr, the Marlins’ translator this season, helped coordinate Spanish lessons in Jupiter, Florida, last year while serving as a player development intern.

“Globalization is taking over, shrinking the distance of the world,” said Mr. Dorante, who was born and raised in Venezuela and came to the U.S. at 16. “This is a sport where we always want the best of the best on the field and that’s how we’re gonna get it.”

Baseball became popular in Central and South America early in the 20th century, but thanks to major league teams establishing training academies as part of a more global approach to scouting, more of the best Latin players have come to MLB in recent decades — the two biggest exporters being the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

According to Baseball Reference, 56 Dominicans and 20 Venezuelans played in the MLB in 1990. By 2017, that had grown to 159 Dominicans and 113 Venezuelans in the bigs (Ohio, with a population of 11.7 million, comparable to the Dominican Republic’s 11 million, had 27 that year).

The language barrier was creating problems. MLB set a new rule in 2016 requiring each team to have a translator so the sport’s Latin stars could speak more easily with the media. The translators often fill multiple roles: Mr. Dorante also works in player relations and as a Spanish media liaison. Washington’s translator, Octavio Martinez, is the team’s bullpen catcher.

The Washington Nationals’ Juan Soto, 20, and Victor Robles, 22, are generally seen as the team’s most exciting and promising young players. Both hail from the Dominican Republic. But when it comes to learning English, they are at very different steps on the journey.

Robles, who hasn’t spent as much time at the major league level, needs a translator to speak with most American journalists. But Soto told USA Today he prided himself on learning English while coming up through the system. Martinez stands by during Soto’s interviews, but the outfielder hardly ever needs his help.

Taylor isn’t the only National who can speak to Soto and Robles in Spanish. Adam Eaton said he’s learned a few phrases and spare words in Spanish in order to better connect with his teammates.

“If (a teammate is) talking about a famous pianist in Spain, I would never, ever be able to, but in baseball, I can kind of follow along,” Eaton said. “Like I said, as long as I can pick up two to three, four words out of 10, I usually can keep up.”

Eaton tried Rosetta Stone for a few weeks several years ago, but let it fall by the wayside. Now, he says, he wished he learned Spanish in the minors while he had more spare time.

“It can only further your career and better your career if you take full advantage of it,” Eaton said. “Not everybody has the resources to learn and do it with this much help and as much … experience, so to speak, of learning it. I would take full advantage of it.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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