Adjusting to Majors Has a New Meaning
When Pedro Martínez speaks English, he has a noticeable accent
and sometimes still mixes up words. But when he speaks in his native Spanish,
Martinez is poetic, melodically inserting catchy metaphors and clever similes
in his stories.
The ease of speaking in his first language is one reason Martínez became upset when he read an article by The Associated Press last month quoting Sammy Sosa verbatim in English after Sosa was caught using a corked bat.
Martínez said he thought a remark like "You got to stood up and
be there for it" was used to mock Sosa, so he became an unofficial spokesman
for encouraging the news media to provide interpreters during charged moments,
when a foreign-born player might have difficulty expressing himself.
"Sammy, in a hurried moment, couldn't express what he wanted to express,"
Martínez said recently in Spanish. "Sammy, what he wanted to say,
he said it in the English he knew to satisfy the press with his answer."
Sosa, who temporarily boycotted the news media after the corked-bat
incident, declined to discuss the issue, saying he did not want to remember
Many major league players can relate to Sosa's discomfort when speaking
in English with the American news media, especially after games when throngs
of reporters gather at their locker while they struggle to speak in a language
they have yet to master.
The foreign presence in baseball has continued to grow. On opening day
this year, 23.3 percent of the players in the majors were born outside
the United States, according to Major League Baseball. A majority of foreign-born
players come from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Mexico.
Walk into any major league clubhouse and it is common to hear merengue,
salsa and other Spanish beats on the stereo. Members of the Asian news
media regularly cover some teams, including the Yankees, who have Hideki
Matsui of Japan, and the Cubs, who have Hee Seop Choi of South Korea.
Inside the Yankees' clubhouse is what some players call the hot corner,
where the lockers of Antonio Osuna, Alfonso Soriano, Mariano Rivera, Raul
Mondesi and other Latino players are located. Osuna said they gave the
area the name because of its Latin flavor. The Yankees have eight foreign-born
players on their 25-man roster, including seven from Latin American countries;
they also have three players from Puerto Rico, a United States commonwealth.
Cubs Manager Dusty Baker, who speaks Spanish fluently, said some foreign-born
players hide from the news media because they fear they will look bad if
they do not understand something in English or mispronounce words.
"Talking to the media, it's hard on the Latin guys because I know the
hardest thing for me to do is a Spanish interview," Baker said.
Choi had an interpreter last year, his first in the majors. But he got
rid of the interpreter this season to force himself to learn more English.
Like Choi, many Asian players are provided with interpreters during
their first year in the majors, but Latino players are not. This is because
all major league teams now have instructors who teach Latin players the
language and the basics of American culture, beginning in the minor leagues,
said Sal Artiaga, who runs baseball's Latin American language and cultural
Martínez, who is from Manoguayabo, Dominican Republic, knows
how abrupt the transition can be for a young player who comes to the United
States for the first time. "It's like if you lived in Mexico all of your
life, then all of a sudden when you're 18, 19 years old, they tell you,
'You're coming to the United States,' " he said. "You don't know English,
you don't know about the food, you don't know about the culture. It's a
Martínez learned English in high school and he also took courses
at the Los Angeles Dodgers' Campo Las Palmas, a baseball academy in the
But when Sosa came from the Dominican Republic to play for the Texas
Rangers in 1989, formal English classes did not exist, the Cubs spokeswoman
Sharon Pannozzo said.
"It was difficult," Sosa said in Spanish. "I didn't understand English
well, and it's difficult when you don't study it and you learn it from
your friends. It's not the same."
When a young player becomes successful and reporters seek him out before
and after games, knowing english becomes essential. Martínez said
he was comfortable speaking to the news media in English because of his
education, but he noted that the players' ease with English varies widely.
Although it helps players immensely if they can speak English, Baker
said, they should not be forced to learn the language.
"They come here to play ball," he said. "You need to cut them some slack. It's not mandatory."
Cubs third baseman Ramon Martinez, who is not related to Pedro Martínez, was born in Philadelphia but went to school in Puerto Rico. He speaks English well, but he still prefers to speak Spanish. Still, he is adamant about one thing: "The number of Latinos are growing, but we're here in their country. We need to learn their language."
Matsui, who arrived in New York early this year, often asks his interpreter,
Roger Kahlon, the meaning of English words. Kahlon tries to leave Matsui
alone when he talks with coaches or other players, so he can learn English.
But when it comes to speaking with reporters, Kahlon said he translates
because the questions are specific.
Because foreign-born players are not often interviewed by American reporters
who speak their language fluently, there is often the risk that what they
say will be misinterpreted.
After The Associated Press transmitted its article about Sosa, Martínez
endorsed a memo from the players ssociation that urged foreign-born players
to speak with reporters from the news agency only in their native languages.
But The A.P. soon apologized, and the players association withdrew its
Terry Taylor, the sports editor of The Associated Press, said that use
of the Sosa quotes was a matter of poor editing. She said that the quote
from Sosa - "You got to stood up and be there for it" - should have been
paraphrased or omitted. (Sosa apparently intended to say that a player
needs to stand up and take responsibility for his actions.)
Taylor said that the presence of an interpreter would not have improved
the situation, but that more careful editing would have. Sosa was "perfectly
clear in what he was saying," Taylor said.
"The first quotes out of the box were clear as a bell," she said.