MLB clubs to have interpreters in new program
MINNEAPOLIS -- Eduardo Nunez was early in his career with the New York Yankees when fellow shortstop Derek Jeter turned to him in the clubhouse before a game against the Boston Red Sox."Who's pitching for them?" Jeter asked, testing the rookie fr...
MINNEAPOLIS - Eduardo Nunez was early in his career with the New York Yankees when fellow shortstop Derek Jeter turned to him in the clubhouse before a game against the Boston Red Sox.
“Who’s pitching for them?” Jeter asked, testing the rookie from the Dominican Republic.
“I think it’s Waffle,” Nunez replied cautiously.
Jeter gave a quizzical look and asked Nunez if he was sure.
“Yeah, Waffle,” Nunez said, doubling down. “You know, the knuckleball guy: Waffle!”
Good-natured laughter echoed through the Yankees clubhouse as Nunez’s teammates gradually realized he was referring to Tim Wakefield, the veteran knuckleball pitcher for the Red Sox.
Half a decade later and now with the Minnesota Twins, Nunez can laugh as he relates the story. His Spanish accent remains, but his grasp of English as a second language has improved to the point where he frequently translates for younger teammates.
Thanks to a pilot program subsidized by Major League Baseball, that shouldn’t be quite as necessary this season.
For the first time, all 30 teams will be required to hire an interpreter fluent in Spanish and English. The interpreter will be present in the clubhouse before and after games to facilitate interaction with the media, teammates and club employees.
During batting practice and games, the interpreter will be available on the field and in the dugout, which should improve the flow of communication immensely between managers and coaches and an ever-growing talent base from Latin America.
The new hire must be in place by Opening Day.
“I am proud of our Hispanic players,” Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. “They try. And we bring them through our system, and they’re required to go to English classes. It’s been an ongoing process. In the big leagues, there are certain players that I think really want the help, and we should provide that. It’s just the right thing to do.”
Ever since pitching sensation Hideo Nomo came over from Japan two decades ago, major league teams have supplied interpreters to their Asian players. It has reached the point where those go-betweens will accompany the pitching coach for mound visits and bullpen sessions with hurlers from Japan, Taiwan and Korea.
Byung Ho Park’s contract with the Twins includes an allotment of $50,000 to hire an interpreter of his choosing. That sort of clause has become standard in contracts with prominent Asian imports.
But until now, players from Spanish-speaking countries often had to fend for themselves. If they were fortunate enough to have a bilingual coach on the staff, as the Twins do with assistant hitting coach Rudy Hernandez and previously did with bullpen coach Bobby Cuellar (2013-14), the transition would be eased somewhat.
Yet, even with that safeguard, many Latino players have struggled to bridge the language gap with their potential fan base, costing them untold millions over the years in endorsements and other marketing opportunities.
“Sometimes we’re shy to speak with somebody because of the language,” said Nunez, 28. “We worry that we make too many mistakes to speak (publicly). Sometimes you ask me a question, and I feel a different way, but when I respond to the question, you might understand something different than what I want to say.”
More than a quarter of the Twins’ 40-man roster primarily speaks Spanish. That includes rising big-league stars such as Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario, and top pitching prospect Jose Berrios could join them soon.
Twins outfield coach Butch Davis, charged with converting Sano from third base to right field this spring, endorsed the idea of adding a Spanish-language interpreter to the full-time staff. Instead of asking Hernandez to leave his usual spot in the batting cages, Davis should be able to ask for help from a non-uniformed liaison.
“I think that’s a great idea,” Nunez said. “We have a lot of young guys just coming to the major leagues.”
When it was suggested to Nunez that this development is long overdue, he agreed.
“If we had this,” he said, “maybe we wouldn’t have made so many mistakes in the media.”
It also should take pressure off Latino players such as Nunez who are frequently asked to interpret. Sometimes they are pushed in front of television cameras when they’d rather dress quietly at their lockers after a tough game.
Other times they are pulled into closed-door meetings and made privy to conversations that should perhaps remain private. Ryan called player demotions “one of the most-sensitive issues” regarding the language gap.
“It’s not annoying,” Nunez said. “We don’t mind, but sometimes we don’t have the time. We have something to do. We’re busy. Maybe we need to go to the gym or meet our families, but (instead) we have to wait to translate for somebody. It costs me my time.”
Ryan, who calls his failure to learn Spanish “one of the biggest regrets I’ve ever had,” said conversations about this topic turned serious during the second half of last season. The players’ union and the commissioner’s office have been hearing requests from concerned media members for several years, and the issue finally led to concrete action this offseason.
“Here’s the thing,” Ryan said. “(Media members) want to talk to (Eduardo) Escobar after he hits a ball over the fence to win a game. You get him over there and he’s excited and somebody’s asking a question and he doesn’t quite get it. He might answer the wrong question. If you’ve got (an interpreter) next to him, that will help the cause.”
Just because a bilingual presence will be at players’ disposal once they reach the majors, the Twins have no intention of discontinuing regular English lessons at spring training and throughout the year at their academy in Fort Myers.
“The other thing all of us want to guard against is using this as a crutch for Hispanic players (not) to learn English,” Ryan said. “We don’t want that either. We can ultimately continue to try to teach English. This ought to be a good thing for everybody involved.”