Baseball Striving to Add Voices to Translate From Spanish
Baseball Striving to Add Voices to Translate From Spanish
When Jose Pirela, a 25-year-old Venezuelan utility player for the Yankees, sat on a dugout bench last Tuesday to speak with more than a dozen reporters about the concussion he sustained two days earlier while crashing into an outfield wall, he did not feel comfortable speaking in English to a sizable gathering.
So a Spanish-speaking reporter stepped in to translate a few questions and answers. Then a clubhouse attendant who speaks Spanish arrived and the interview continued.
“Were you scared?” Pirela was asked.
“Sí, un poquito,” Pirela said. “Pero traté de relajarme un poco y de mantenerme positivo de que las cosas iban a salir.”
“Yes, a little,” the clubhouse attendant said. “He tried to relax and stay positive that everything was going to be all right.”
Such an arrangement is not all that unusual for some major league baseball players from Spanish-speaking countries, who accounted for 22 percent of the opening day rosters last season.
While almost all Asian players have their own interpreters — the Yankees’ three Japanese players last year each had their own — players who speak Spanish typically must rely on teammates, coaches, clubhouse attendants, media relations officials or sometimes members of the news media to express themselves if they feel uncomfortable doing so in English. (Few reporters covering major league teams are bilingual.)
This has meant that even as baseball’s demographics continue to shift toward foreign-born players, highlighted by the wave of Cubans, including current stars like Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu and Yoenis Cespedes, their voices do not always weigh as heavily in the season-long narratives of their teams as their bats might suggest.
This may be about to change. Major League Baseball has been working with the players’ union on an initiative this season to encourage every team to have a Spanish-speaking interpreter to help players communicate with the largely English-speaking news media in their native language.
“We are looking for this support to be in all 30 clubhouses,” said Tony Clark, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, who added that the union was in the process of hiring interpreters. A baseball spokesman confirmed the plans for the program and, like Clark, was uncertain when the interpreters would begin to be deployed this season, and whether the clubs would be required to comply, or simply encouraged.
The two sides have been developing the plan since February.
“It’s important,” said Yankees outfielder Carlos Beltran, who early last season urged the union to push Major League Baseball for Spanish-language interpreters to be part of every team’s public relations staff. “If this can avoid miscommunication, avoid a lot of things that can turn into distractions, that’s what it’s all about. Everyone should have a fair chance to send the message they want to send.”
The Japanese-speaking Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka with catcher Brian McCann and an interpreter. KATHY WILLENS / ASSOCIATED PRESS
More Revealing Answers
If a player is able to speak in a language he is comfortable communicating in, the answers are likely to be more revealing, said Fernando Cuza, an agent who has represented David Ortiz, Miguel Cabrera, Pedro Martinez and Mariano Rivera. For young players still learning to speak English, “you’re going to get a lot of short answers,” Cuza said.
For the news media, players and coaches who can provide insights and colorful quotations are valuable resources — and ones who are mined regularly.
This issue rankled some members of the 2007 and 2008 Mets, who had so many Latin players that they were known as Los Mets. On separate occasions, the veterans Paul Lo Duca and Billy Wagner complained that reporters went to them too often to explain what was happening with the team, and not often enough to some of the team’s prominent players like Carlos Delgado, Jose Reyes and Beltran.
Pitcher C. C. Sabathia, who is beginning his seventh season with the Yankees, sensed that reporters did not interview Robinson Cano, the former Yankee, as often as his status as one of the team’s best players might suggest because he was not an expansive speaker in English.
“He speaks really good English,” Sabathia said. “But I still thought there were times he would be a little insecure about his English and not go into detail about an answer that he wanted to explain.”
Of course, the vividness of a player’s interview with reporters is only as good as the interpreter’s command of his craft.
Beltran, 36, is fluent in English, but when he arrived in the United States from Puerto Rico 20 years ago, he could understand only Spanish. As a minor leaguer for the Kansas City Royals, he made sure to stand at the end of the line for every drill so he could observe others and mimic them. The next season, Beltran befriended an American teammate who wanted to learn Spanish, and they helped each other learn a second language.
Esmil Rogers, 29, a Yankees pitcher from the Dominican Republic, told a similar story about when he was coming up with the Colorado Rockies. He had an American roommate for three seasons in the minor leagues, after which each could converse in two languages. But when Rogers came up as a rookie in 2009, he did not feel comfortable conducting interviews in English. Sometimes he asked for help from anyone around who could translate.
“If you come from a Latin country, it’s always good to learn the language — it will open the door for you,” Beltran said. “But at the same time, I also believe every team should have a Spanish-speaking P.R. guy that can help these guys, especially in a city like New York.”
Beltran continued: “After a game, when something blows up, all you guys want to talk to that player. At the end of the day, you guys want to know what happened, and at the same time he might not know how to express it.”
Beltran said having an interpreter would not only help a player make his point, but also allow the news media to grasp it. “There’s no misunderstanding, no guessing, no interpretation,” he said.
Last season, the Yankees’ three Japanese players — Masahiro Tanaka, Hiroki Kuroda and Ichiro Suzuki — had interpreters because it was written into their contracts, said Brian Cashman, the team’s general manager. Typically, such accommodations are made for players in whom teams have large financial investments: major-league-ready talent, which often comes from Japan, South Korea and Cuba.
Tanaka, asked through his interpreter, Shingo Horie, if he could manage without Horie, smiled and shook his head.
“I would definitely need one,” said Tanaka, the Yankees’ lone Japanese player this season.
Yoan Moncada, right, who signed with the Red Sox last month, with Eddie Romero, Boston’s director of international scouting, who has interpreted Moncada’s Spanish for reporters. STEVE NESIUS / REUTERS
Major League Baseball allows for language services, if requested, as well as for on-field assistance, but the program being developed with the union is an attempt to make interpreters more accessible. Because the details of the plan have not been worked out, it is uncertain whether every club will be obligated to have a dedicated interpreter, or if that is simply a goal.
The Detroit Tigers, a team with a large contingent of Hispanic players, have a bilingual day-to-day media contact, Aileen Villarreal, who is entering her second season as director of media relations.
The Yankees have not hired a Spanish-speaking interpreter since they had one for Orlando Hernandez and Alfonso Soriano more than a decade ago. Cashman said it had not been necessary because there were so many people around the clubhouse who were bilingual. Currently that includes the coaches Tony Pena and Joe Espada, the bullpen catcher Roman Rodriguez, clubhouse attendants and players like Alex Rodriguez, Dellin Betances, Rogers and Beltran.
Not all clubhouses are like that.
When the Dodgers signed Puig as a free agent after he left Cuba, they hired a Spanish-speaking high school counselor to accompany him in the minor leagues and in his first season in Los Angeles. He served as an interpreter as well as an adviser; the team was concerned about Puig’s maturity.
Now, Puig, one of baseball’s most popular players, is mostly on his own — except when it comes to interviews, for which the team uses a clubhouse attendant to translate for non-Spanish-speaking reporters.
The Mets have had to be creative when it comes to finding an interpreter for pitcher Bartolo Colon, who will be the opening day pitcher.
The team has at least one Spanish-speaking public relations staffer, but she does not always travel with the team. Sometimes the bullpen coach Ricky Bones is summoned. Other times, mostly on the road, a Mets public relations official has had to scramble to find an interpreter. After some games this spring, Colon has not been available to the non-Spanish-speaking news media.
After the Mets beat the Yankees in a recent exhibition game in which Rafael Montero, a 24-year-old Dominican, pitched four strong innings, Bones was stopped on his way out of the clubhouse to translate for a group of reporters and cameramen who wished to speak with Montero. He did so clutching a box lunch.
“It’s not that a player doesn’t want to talk” in English, Bones said. “But when there’s a group of cameras and all the questions, he wants to make sure he has the right answers. As long as it doesn’t interfere with my job, I can help.”