On Tuesday, Major League Baseball and the players union sent a memo to all 30 teams informing them that, beginning this 2016 season, they must hire a full-time Spanish language interpreter for players. The players union, spurred by star outfielder and Puerto Rican native Carlos Beltran’s call-to-action nearly two years ago, pushed for Spanish language interpreters.
In the past, Spanish interpreters were makeshift. Many teams, including the Nationals, relied on teammates, coaches, bullpen catchers or anyone on the media relations or training staff that was fluent in both languages. But now, all teams must dedicate a position — full-time, must travel and fluent (written and oral) in both languages — for a Spanish language interpreter. The program and interpreters will be paid for by the penalties for international signing bonus pool overages.
Asian players — from Taiwan, South Korea or Japan, for example — generally always had an interpreter provided, often as part of their contracts. Nori Aoki’s offseason deal with the Mariners, according to CBS Sports, includes a provision for up to $50,000 for his interpreter. The three Japanese players on the Yankees in 2014 — Ichiro Suzuki, Hiroki Kuroda and Masahiro Tanaka — each had their own interpreter. Latin American players, most signed by teams as teenagers out of their native countries, learn English at baseball academies and the hard way, in the minor leagues.
Too often messages are lost in translation. How players are perceived and marketed often hinges on their public image. But the need goes beyond that. After a game — good or bad — players need to express themselves. They are accountable to their team and teammates for their play, and fans connect to players through their actions and words.
“We view this policy as a positive and necessary step in helping improve the work environment for players, clubs and media,” MLB players union spokesman Greg Bouris said. “Much of the credit for the creation of this policy must go to Carlos Beltran, as he was the first to push for the hiring of dedicated interpreters.”
While there have been many incidents of language barriers, Beltran witnessed some during the 2014 Yankees season that bugged him. Michael Pineda, a Dominican native and then in his second major league season, struggled to explain himself in English to reporters about being caught on cameras with pine tar — which is punishable by suspension — on his hand. The Yankees had been using a bullpen catcher to help interpret for players but Pineda wanted to use his English to keep practicing. But in a tough moment, it backfired.
Teammates, coaches and bullpen catchers can help but it is not their responsibility, they are not always available and it can be uncomfortable for them in tough situations. Beltran, who didn’t speak much English himself when he was drafted in 1995, suggested on several later occasions that MLB and the players union push for dedicated interpreters.
“It’s important,” Beltran later told the New York Times. “If this avoid miscommunication, avoid a lot of things that can into distractions, that’s what it’s all about. Everyone should have a fair chance to send the message they want to send.”
Even though a large chunk of the majors (about 27 percent on opening day) and the minor leagues (estimated at at least 40 percent) are Latin American, a fraction of English language baseball reporters speak Spanish. Personally, I was lucky to grow up with an American father who spoke English to us and a Nicaraguan mother who spoke Spanish.
Baseball’s new policy won’t just help players address the media and public but could also improve cultural understanding and relationships within a team. Last season, Nationals catcher Jose Lobaton, who is Venezuelan but learned English well in the minors after some struggles, had to serve as the Spanish interpreter for Yunel Escobar when the team wanted to move him to a new position, third base.
In my three and a half years covering the Nationals for the Washington Post, two Latin American players stand out the most as examples of players that had checkered pasts in dealing with the media: Rafael Soriano and Escobar. They were labeled as hard to approach and reclusive but I found that to be somewhat wrong. Both were funnier, more observant and open than their reputations. Soriano spoke enough basic English to conduct interviews but he wasn’t expansive. Escobar preferred speaking Spanish directly with reporters to avoid any misinterpretations, even declining interviews requests at times through an interpreter. In a way, their ability to connect with fans suffered.
During Soriano’s first spring training as a National, I asked him about his family and upbringing in Spanish for a story about him. His eyes widened, he leaned back in his chair at his locker, started talking and wouldn’t stop. Nearly 40 minutes later — after telling me in detail about not having a dad in his life, growing up poor and being raised by his mother — I had to cut short the interview because the clubhouse was closing for reporters before a game. Later in his tenure as a National, he opened up about being a lieutenant in the Dominican Air Force, using a hyperbaric chamber to stay healthy and even how he was part of an unofficial network of Dominican players who brought homemade food to their countrymen visiting their stadiums.
Escobar was similar. A few weeks into his first spring training as a National in 2015, I suggested an idea to Escobar. I had heard stories about Cuban players’ defections from their native country but never with enough detail and something always felt missing. I told Escobar I wanted to hear his story from beginning to end, every step of how he did it. He smiled and agreed. “I want to tell it right,” he said.
A few days later, in the dining room of his rented spring training home in Viera, Escobar and his cousin, who defected with him, told me their story over two hours. Later, I checked out parts of Escobar’s story with former agents, agents and team officials who had seen him soon after he defected. Even 10 years after he left his island for the U.S. on a boat without warning his family and lived with his smugglers in Miami for months until he could pay them off, I was floored by the events Escobar held deep inside.
“He’s not soft-spoken,” Nationals vice president of international operations Johnny DiPuglia, who is bilingual, said then about Escobar. DiPuglia, with the Red Sox when Escobar was a draft prospect, has known him since. “He doesn’t let a lot of people in. But when he lets you in, he’ll give you more detail about his life than normal. He doesn’t let anybody in. He looks like a guy who’s kind of holding something back.”
The majority of the Latin American-born players on the Nationals’ 40-man roster speak English well as a second language: Lobaton, Wilson Ramos, Felipe Rivero and Oliver Perez. Yusmeiro Petit used an interpreter in San Francisco. Pedro Severino, almost a prerequisite for catchers, has worked hard on his English. Abel De Los Santos and Wilmer Difo have more to go, and players in the minor league have weekly requirements for English language online classes. Ten of the Nationals’ top 20 prospects are from Latin America, so more Spanish speakers are on the way.