He looked to his left, to interpreter Octavio Martinez, to see if he could help come up with it. Then two reporters asked: “Range?”
“Range! Range!” Soto said, pointing in their direction, as baseball players do to recognize a job well done.
Soto, 20, grew up speaking Spanish in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. When he’s on the field, when he’s crushing home runs, when he’s posting numbers that few ever have at his age, it’s easy to forget how young he is.
But speaking from a small stage to about 50 people in the cramped news conference room at Nationals Park before Tuesday’s wild-card game, Soto was that kid again. It was the largest crowd he had ever done an all-English interview with. His eyes were wide, his eyebrows raised, his face twisted into a smile once he remembered “Range!” as he continued discussing defensive improvement in his second language.
It looked as if he was trying to solve a puzzle, each question a challenge, each answer an opportunity, and every passing moment revealing this about the Nationals’ present and future cornerstone: Juan Soto is a very fast learner. His English is just one very good example.
“There are players, very few of them, who are able to just pick anything up quickly,” said Johnny Dipuglia, the Nationals’ head of international operations, before this season. “Juan is one of them. It could be hitting or fielding or speaking English. His English has gotten so good in such a short period of time. It’s a special talent. That’s what makes him a star.”
It was that word — star — that began Soto’s English education in the first place. He had big baseball dreams in Santo Domingo. He wanted to be Robinson Canó. He wanted to be Manny Ramirez. He wanted to go the United States like those other great Dominicans to play baseball, and he was often seen with a bat in one hand and his glove on the other. So his mother, Belkis, sent him to take English courses when he was 12.
And Soto hated them. He begged his mom to let him stop the classes and the homework. He wanted to be outside with his friends. They weren’t sitting in a classroom learning a confusing language. She budged, letting him ease up on the English lessons, but his mother’s message was clear.
“I remember her telling me that if I wanted to be a star I had to know the language in the country I wanted to play in,” Soto said before cracking a grin. “She was right. Moms always are.”
When Soto got to the Nationals’ Dominican Academy in 2015, the expectations were clear: Here is a password to Rosetta Stone, the language-learning software. Do one hour a day, five days a week, and in a few years you’ll be able to have conversations in English. The 16-year-old Soto ripped through the entire program in one season. He stayed up late, staring at his computer screen, repeating phrases under his breath. Dipuglia said that no Latin American player has ever finished the course faster than Soto. No player has really come close.
Soto graduated from the Academy to the Gulf Coast League, then broke into the minors, then arrived in Hagerstown, Md., to play for the Class A Suns in 2017. That’s when he met Tres Barrera, a bilingual catcher who was born in Texas to Mexican parents. Soto told Barrera he only wanted the two of them to speak in English.
Barrera, now 25, remembers Soto shushing him so he could eavesdrop on American teammates. Then he would ask Barrera what they were saying. Soto also went to the same McDonald’s by the ballpark to practice ordering off the menu. He turned the world into his classroom. He later gave Nationals Manager Dave Martinez the same instructions — “No Spanish, only English” — after he debuted at 19.
“You have to be okay with failing and looking silly sometimes,” Barrera said. “Juan didn’t care. He’d get something wrong and just be determined to get it right the next time. But he never shied away from trying again just because it was hard. And it is hard. It was a slow process, but he was asking me every day for more words and baseball phrases and to talk to him as much as possible.”
Now, in his second season, Soto relies less and less on an interpreter. Octavio Martinez, the team’s interpreter and one of its bullpen catchers, will often stand by Soto during interviews in case Soto doesn’t understand a question. He always responds in English. He does one-on-one interviews on his own, usually with familiar reporters, and once joked, “If you’re okay with rephrasing your questions, I’m okay with doing my best to answer.”
This is what Dipuglia was talking about: Soto’s willingness to adjust. Soto slumped this season when teams were pounding him with off-speed pitches and inside fastballs. Then he tweaked his approach and finished with 34 home runs and a .282 batting average. He struck out on three pitches in Game 1 of the National League Division Series Thursday, against a relief pitcher he had never faced, after collecting just one of Washington’s two hits in the loss. Then, following the game, he vowed to study lefty Adam Kolarek and be more disciplined in their next matchup.
It is likely that Soto sees a lot of lefties against the Los Angeles Dodgers. They are starting Clayton Kershaw in Game 2 and Hyun-Jin Ryu in Game 3. They are bound to use Kolarek against Soto whenever possible. But it was Josh Hader, an all-star lefty for the Milwaukee Brewers, whom Soto conquered to get Washington to this point. The Nationals trailed by two runs in the eighth inning of the wild-card game. Soto then knocked a two-out single, scoring three runs, sending him to the middle of the diamond to scream at the center of 42,000 screaming fans.
His family joined him on the field after the Nationals had advanced. Belkis hugged her son, wrapping her arms around his waist, kissing his cheek as if he had just hopped off the school bus. Soto soon did an English interview on TBS’s national broadcast without any assistance.
He was the star, as Belkis knew he would be, and now millions could see and hear.
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