When Keiichi Yabu and Brad Fischer argued about string cheese while sitting in the clubhouse before a game, they had a former anthropology professor, Andy Painter, with them to interpret every word.

"You're always eating cheese. Is cheese good for you?" Yabu said in Japanese, smiling as Painter quickly put the pitcher's words in English for Oakland's first base coach.

"It's better than sushi!" Fischer barked back.

Engaging in such casual conversation is an important step for foreign players who come to the majors, but it's a lopsided luxury -- while Japanese players have interpreters to help them with everything from getting a driver's license to communicating with teammates and coaches, most Latin Americans are left to fend for themselves.

Fair or not, there are just a handful of Japanese players in the big leagues, all of whom get translating support if needed, while hundreds of players from Spanish-speaking countries must rely on each another to figure things out.

"You look at some of these kids, they're 18, 19 years old, they're scared to death," Red Sox Manager Terry Francona said. "They're away from home probably for the first time. They're in a foreign country. Just because we like hamburgers doesn't mean they do. It's very unfair. I think we have a responsibility to help them.

"The quicker they can communicate, they do better off the field, which I think directly translates to them succeeding on the field."

Of 829 major league players on Opening Day rosters and disabled lists, 23.5 percent were born in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela or Cuba, according to the commissioner's office. Nearly 40 percent of minor league players are from those five places.

The New York Yankees provide a full-time interpreter for Japanese outfielder Hideki Matsui, and when Kaz Matsui signed with the New York Mets before last season he not only insisted on having an interpreter for himself, but one for his wife as well.

The Yankees also hired an interpreter for Cubans Orlando Hernandez and Jose Contreras when they were with the team. But most organizations can't spend as freely as the New York teams. Last year's American League most valuable player, Angels right fielder Vladimir Guerrero, depends on the club's Spanish radio-color analyst, Jose Mota, to help him through interviews.

Japanese players get more language help for several reasons. One is that their language is completely foreign to most people in the major leagues. The other is the clout they've earned along their very different route to the majors.

The Seattle Mariners paid $13 million to the Orix Blue Wave for the rights to Ichiro Suzuki, the first Japanese position player to play every day in the majors after being a seven-time batting champion in his native country. When a team makes such a financial commitment to one player, hiring an interpreter just becomes another aspect of the investment. Years later, he still uses an interpreter for most interviews.

Short of providing interpreters, many of the teams are trying to make their Spanish-speaking players' transitions smoother by sponsoring academies in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere that offer English training and guidance about cultural differences.

Some teams also organize activities and teaching sessions at spring training that deal with everything from how to use a bank to the appropriate tipping standards at a restaurant.

"I think major league baseball as well as individual clubs have the last few years made more efforts to make the baseball experience more than just playing the game," said Giants Assistant General Manager Ned Colletti. "It's giving many players who English is not their native language the chance to not only learn the language but learn the customs. We go to great lengths to teach our Latin kids."

Still, Boston's David Ortiz and others in the majors have said Hispanic players sometimes either misunderstand certain memos, such as the league steroid policy, or miss messages altogether. Some players say they've accidentally thrown away paperwork left in their lockers because they were unable to read it.

"We're kind of used to it," said Ortiz, a native of the Dominican Republic and one of baseball's most outspoken players on language issues. "There are lots of Latinos and only a few from Japan."

Francona can relate to the frustrations of his star player, whose timely hitting last October helped the Red Sox win their first World Series title in 86 years.

"I understand what he's saying. If that's the case, it shouldn't be the case," Francona said. "That's a little bit scary. We have an obligation to follow through on a lot of things."

Giants Manager Felipe Alou had no help when he came to the United States in 1956 from the Dominican Republic as a minor leaguer. He was not only one of the first Latino players, but a black man living in the South.

He once almost missed a road trip because he didn't know the team was leaving town. He boarded the team bus with the clothes he was wearing and nothing else.

Alou would get stumped by certain words: "I was taking English classes in school, but it's not the same."

By his third year, he had reached the big leagues with the Giants, and had learned English. Still, he became furious when reporters didn't correct the grammar in quotes from him and his Latino teammates. Alou believes the media deliberately mocked the players' limited English and accents -- quoting Hispanics phonetically with phrases like "I heet de ball" -- despite the players' efforts to communicate in a new language.

Alou, his brothers Matty and Jesus, and Hall of Famers Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda even collected clippings of their unflattering quotes.

"After time went by, we found out what a lack of respect it was, what an insulting way to put down our countries and our language," Alou said. "The only reason the interview was taking place was because we knew a little English."

Colombian-born Luis Torres, 56, began covering baseball in the United States in 1980. He wound up interpreting for Hispanic players, carefully compiling a list along the way of baseball words for each Spanish-speaking country. A player from Mexico might say something differently than a player from Puerto Rico.

Torres, now employed by the Giants' media relations department, believes his vocabulary list of nearly 2,000 words is the most extensive in the country.

"Even translating was hard," he said. "So I put together a dictionary of the words."

Decades later, are teams doing enough to prepare players for the language barrier?

Not according to Oakland reliever Ricardo Rincon, who speaks little English and rarely does interviews. Because he played professionally in his native Mexico for seven seasons and worked only a few innings in the minors in three separate stints before coming to the majors, he missed opportunities to become more comfortable with English.

He thinks some young Latin American players are so eager to rise through the system that they might unknowingly take supplements that are approved in their countries but banned by baseball, simply because they can't read the rules.

A review of birth places earlier this season by the Associated Press showed that players from Spanish-speaking countries were getting tripped up by baseball's new steroid policy at a disproportionate rate.

About half of the first 50 players suspended for positive tests at both the major and minor league levels were born in Latin America. Three of the five players suspended under the big league policy so far were born outside the United States: Minnesota reliever Juan Rincon (Venezuela), Tampa Bay outfielder Alex Sanchez (Cuba) and Texas pitcher Agustin Montero (Dominican Republic).

"They need to use their heads," Rincon said in Spanish. "Baseball can do more to help make sure every Latino doesn't take these things after the season."

San Francisco's Edgardo Alfonzo, a Venezuelan who came up with the Mets, initially was so worried about doing interviews in English that he'd start planning what to say even while rounding the bases after a home run.

"Every time you're doing good, you're thinking, 'Now I've got to deal with the press and speak English,' " Alfonzo said. "You want to say something from your heart, and a translator says things with no feeling. Times when I had a great game, I was thinking what I was going to say to these people. You get nervous because you don't want to say something wrong."

Despite their language challenges, they have each other. Before the Giants hosted the Padres last month, Alfonzo and teammate Yorvit Torrealba stood behind the batting cage, socializing with San Diego's Ramon Hernandez and Miguel Ojeda. This is a common scene among Hispanic major leaguers.

Japanese players, meanwhile, are often alone in their clubhouses.

Padres reliever Akinori Otsuka believes he could get by without an interpreter, but he worries about his wife and two young children as they adjust to living in a new country. Antony Suzuki, who lived in Hawaii before moving to Japan to play baseball, is the family's interpreter.

"I don't want to worry about them," Otsuka said through Suzuki. "This way, I can concentrate on my pitching."

Francona is among the baseball officials who think the major leagues could do more to help players adjust.

"I think it's a very misunderstood subject," he said. "I think we as Americans who speak English, we thumb our noses at everybody. If they don't speak English, they're dumb. You know what, everybody tries to speak English."

Spanish speakers Sammy Sosa, right, Jose Vidro, top left, and Vladimir Guerrero share a laugh at the 2000 All-Star Game in Atlanta.Athletics pitcher Keiichi Yabu of Japan, right, and his interpreter, Andy Painter, listen to Manager Ken Macha.