April 22, 2016
Raisel Iglesias now has a better way to share his gregarious personality with his Cincinnati Reds teammates. Aroldis Chapman may exchange fishing stories with Andrew Miller, the reliever he’s supposed to replace as the New York Yankees closer. Henderson Alvarez can more clearly express to the news media how soon he might be ready to join the Oakland Athletics’ rotation.
These are but a few examples of the benefits Latin American players have garnered from the newly imposed requirement that every Major League Baseball team have a Spanish-language translator.
With nearly 24% of the players on this year’s Opening Day rosters and disabled lists hailing from countries where Spanish is the dominant language, the implementation of the translator program has drawn overwhelmingly favorable reviews – and questions of why it took so long.
“What we’ve heard is a lot of positive feedback,’’ said Omar Minaya, a senior advisor to players association head Tony Clark. “A lot of the veteran players have said, ‘Boy, I wish I had that when I was coming up.’’’
Los Angeles Angels infielder Yunel Escobar is among those who feel that way. Now playing for his fifth club in 10 seasons, the Cuba native clashed with manager Bobby Cox after breaking into the majors with the Atlanta Braves in 2007, and he has never developed much of a rapport with the news media.
Although he could at times lean on a bilingual teammate or coach to help him deal with the language barrier, Escobar said it was frustrating not to be able to communicate directly with those around him. He believes having a translator readily available would have made a difference.
“We would have understood each other a lot better,’’ said Escobar, who was suspended three games in 2012 after displaying a homophobic slur on his eye black. “Some players early in their careers have to keep quiet, can’t express how they feel. I think if there had been (translators) from the time I came up in 2007, we could have avoided a lot of problems.’’
The push to require teams to provide Spanish-language translators, through a program agreed to by MLB and the players association, was spearheaded by New York Yankees outfielder Carlos Beltran, a highly respected veteran with the stature to take his case to the union and get results.
Beltran was still learning English when he came up with the Kansas City Royals in 1998 at age 21, and he found himself branded an introvert because of his reluctance to talk, which he attributed to his difficulty with the language.
Like many other Latin players, Beltran noticed over the years that players from Asian countries arrived in the majors with a personal translator, sometimes even a second one for their wives. It didn’t seem like equitable treatment, and Beltran finally decided to take action after watching Dominican teammate Michael Pineda struggle to explain himself to the media after being ejected for using pine tar two years ago.
“A lot of times when you don’t speak the language well, you do an interview after a game and you want to say so many things but you’re limited in how much you can express in English. That may give off the wrong impression,’’ Beltran said.
“In my first year here (in New York, in 2014), there were three Japanese players on the team with three interpreters, and there were a lot of Latin players who did not speak English well, yet we didn’t have anybody who could relay to them information about things that were being talked about in the clubhouse.’’
The translators’ role goes well beyond helping players communicate with the media. Depending on the player’s command of English, they may convey instructions from the coaching or training staff, relate what is being said during a meeting, provide information about legal documents, help out in medical appointments and serve as a link with other players.
Miller and the Cuban-born Chapman, for example, had lockers close to each other during spring training, and translator Marlon Abreu – who moved from the Yankees’ IT department into his new duties – facilitated their exchanges.
“When you’re on a team, you want to get to know your teammates, but that’s hard to do if you don’t speak the same language,’’ said Abreu, a Dominican native who translated Chapman’s comments about the domestic-abuse case that earned him a 30-game suspension. “The game is a big part of what they do, but there are also other elements from the daily existence that help develop camaraderie and a better relationship within the team.’’
Teams have been assigned $65,000 each to pay the cost of translators, who must accompany the club on the road and also attend other events covered by the media. The need for their services varies depending on the number of Latin players and their English proficiency.
Cuban players, who were rarely exposed to English in the island and often spend little or no time in the minors, typically require help with the language.
“Having every team hire translators is a wonderful idea,’’ said the ebullient Iglesias, who has seen Cuban teammates Chapman and Brayan Pena move on to other clubs. “A translator helps you have more confidence within the organization.’’
The Reds, who previously relied on assistant trainer Tomas Vera to translate, have hired former minor-leaguer Julio Morillo as their interpreter. The Arizona Diamondbacks (Ariel Prieto) and Toronto Blue Jays (Josue Peley) also have turned to ex-players – Peley even throws batting practice – while teams like the San Francisco Giants (Erwin Higueros) and Texas Rangers (Eleno Ornelas) have handed the duties to a Spanish-language broadcaster.
But most of the new translators have been added as members of the public relations staff, and they also perform tasks such as producing Spanish-language social-media content and game notes.
Given that they’re employed by the teams, questions have arisen about whether translators would sanitize critical or insensitive comments from players to the media.
Leonor Colon, the director of player operations for the union who supervises compliance – not all teams embraced the idea of hiring translators – said they’re supposed to serve as bridges, not filters, but will encourage players to be mindful of their answers.
“The role of this person is to say exactly what the player said,’’ Colon said. “Sometimes it’s going to work in his benefit, sometimes it’s not. What we’re hoping for is this person will build a professional relationship with the player, so before the interview takes place, he or she can prep him.’’
While teams have stepped up their efforts to teach English to Latin prospects in the last several years, such instruction does not replicate the experience of facing several cameras and microphones, with reporters asking questions in a language a player may not command. Even for those who developed some English-language skills while coming up through the minors, it can be an intimidating ordeal.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia can relate, having played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, and this was long before the age of Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and all the other social media outlets available today.
Scioscia, who can communicate simple concepts in Spanish, endorses the idea of players getting help from translators.
“I think it makes sense because of how much the media has grown in the last 15 years,’’ Scioscia said. “It’s always been in New York, Los Angeles, maybe Chicago, but in a lot of cities now with social media, the players are under such a microscope. I know if I were playing or managing in Latin America today and had to speak Spanish, I would want a translator, just because the nuances of everything you say can be misunderstood or taken out of context.’’