VIERA, Fla. — In 2006, catcher Jose Lobaton was in his fourth minor league season. At 21, the native of Venezuela had all the budding skills for a successful professional baseball career in the United States except one: He was struggling with English. At that point, however, it didn’t bother him.
“If I can hit, who cares if I don’t speak English?” Lobaton, who is in his first spring training with the Washington Nationals, recalls thinking to himself.
Then came a game that changed his mind.
Playing for the Lake Elsinore Storm, a San Diego Padres minor league affiliate, Lobaton and the pitcher were told by their manager that he wanted to avoid throwing breaking balls inside on an opposing player. Lobaton heard the opposite, called for an inside pitch and the batter blasted it over the fence for a home run.
The pitching coach was furious. He told Lobaton he needed to learn English and that he would be fined if he misunderstood instructions again. Lobaton was angry at the pitcher for not correcting him and upset with himself for the language issue.
“That was the last time I ever had trouble with a pitcher,” Lobaton said recently in Spanish, seated at his locker at the Nationals’ clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium.
Lobaton’s story isn’t unique, but his struggles, and those of other Latin American players, can be easily forgotten when watching a baseball game. Last year, nearly 24 percent of players on opening day major league rosters and more than 45 percent of the expansive minor leagues were born in Latin America, according to Major League Baseball figures.
The majority of them are signed by major league clubs lacking all but rudimentary English — a gap that can hinder their careers.
“You need to speak English well not just to communicate with your teammates, but now you need to do radio and TV and express how you feel,” said Dennis Martinez, who knew only a few words of English when he arrived from Nicaragua at 19 before becoming a four-time all-star pitcher and 1983 World Series champion with the Baltimore Orioles. “It’s not easy. And unfortunately, English classes here aren’t enough. The education where we’re from sadly isn’t the same as here. Kids sign at 16 or 17 and it takes them two or three years just to get adjusted before they can finally develop as a player and a prospect.”
Teams are mandated by league rules to provide and pay for language classes for non-native speakers if the players ask for them. The Nationals provide instruction at their baseball academy in the Dominican Republic and mandatory programs throughout their minor league system, mostly by providing language software.
But for many Latino ballplayers, the transition to life in the United States can’t be negotiated simply with language classes on a computer. It takes dedication and time.
“It’s hard,” Lobaton said. “We see a little English in classes growing up, but it’s not the advanced English of here. They throw you right into the action and you freeze up. You don’t know what even to say. It even happens to me now.”
Lobaton, 29, grew up in Acarigua, a city in northwestern Venezuela. He is the youngest of four children. His father was a taxi driver and his mother stayed at home to tend to the family. In 2002, at the age of 17, Lobaton signed with the Padres for $70,000, money that immediately helped his family.
“We were going through a rough time and this was a big help,” said Lobaton, who will back up Wilson Ramos this year.
When Lobaton arrived in the United States the following year to play for the Padres’ rookie team in Idaho Falls, Idaho, he spoke practically no English. He grew up playing shortstop but was moved to catcher with the Padres. That season, the switch hitter did well and posted a .272 batting average over 56 games. But a bad habit of ignoring his defense began developing.
“I didn’t realize then how important defense was,” he said. “For me, everything was about hitting. My defense, for the first four years of my career, was pretty bad. To adapt to that position, it took some time. I didn’t think I could adapt. Blocking balls was just too hard. Moving, being smart calling the game, signs, that was a lot.”
The Padres provided English classes twice a week and Lobaton said he took them seriously, but they weren’t enough. He needed to develop confidence in using the language, not just what words to use.
In those early professional years, Lobaton would keep conversations short when he visited pitchers on the mound. All he would say was, “You okay? Okay, good,” and quickly return to the plate. He felt he was lacking as a catcher and teammate by not communicating more. He wanted to ask more specifics and talk pitching strategy.
“I realized I need to talk to the pitchers more,” he said.
Lobaton said he learned more English by pestering those around him for help with words than by studying. He still occasionally uses the language software on plane rides or at night in his hotel room during the season. He sometimes reads books in English given to him by his wife.
He may not finish many of them because it can become tedious constantly looking up words he doesn’t know. “But I like reading,” said Lobaton, who has an 8-month-old son. “That helps me relax and learn.”
It took Lobaton five years to be promoted to Class AA, which finally happened in 2008 when he was 23. He was called up from Class AAA and made his major league debut on July 5, 2009, but played only seven games over a month. He hit .176, was designated for assignment to make room for another player on the roster and was claimed off waivers by the Tampa Bay Rays. He worked his way back up from Class AA and hit .307 in the minors in 2011. He was back in the majors that season and appeared in 69 games for the Rays in 2012.
Last season was Lobaton’s best. He was more confident as a a player, appeared in 100 games, hit .249 with seven home runs. His hard work behind the plate, at the plate and with English broke through. He became a better game-caller and was well regarded by teammates.
In the offseason, the Rays traded for catcher Ryan Hanigan and re-signed Jose Molina, making Lobaton expendable. They traded him to Washington, where General Manager Mike Rizzo coveted his switch hitting and ability to frame pitches.
Today, Lobaton’s English is stellar and he recently made an impressive and impassioned plea for peace during civil unrest in Venezuela in his second tongue. But he said he still stumbles over some words.
He is friendly but keeps mostly to himself and the Venezuelan players because he is so new. He said he knows about half of the pitchers’ names now, but is leery of mispronouncing last names like “Stammen” or “Strasburg.” He is soaking up as much as he can about his new team, and is excited to play for a team that plays in the nation’s capital.
“This is an extraordinary opportunity,” he said. “I don’t know how often I’ll play during the season or if I’ll catch as much as I did last season with Tampa. But at this moment, I’m focusing on being ready and help the pitchers. I’ll work, work, work and let them know that I’m here for them.”