Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero recalls the time before a game a few years ago when he went over to chat with Jose Bautista, then with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and noticed a blond player alongside him, so he introduced himself.
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Nate McLouth greeted Montero back in perfect Spanish, saying, “Mucho gusto” — pleased to meet you.
Startled, Montero asked him where he was from, to which McLouth responded again in Spanish, “Dominican. From Cibao.”
“‘From Cibao? Wow.’ I was stunned,” Montero said earlier this spring. “Then he starts laughing and says, ‘No, I’m American.’ I’m like, ‘Wow, I believed you.’ It blew me away.”
In a sport in which a quarter of all major leaguers — and more than 40% of the minor leaguers — hail from Latin American countries, McLouth stands as a rare player with no Hispanic roots who has learned Spanish fluently.
“Speaking Spanish has been a huge help,” McLouth, now an outfielder with the Washington Nationals, told USA TODAY Sports in an 11-minute interview conducted in Spanish. “It’s really important for the Latin players to speak English and also for the Americans to learn Spanish.”
McLouth is exceptional in his mastery of the language — he even has a Dominican accent — but he’s not alone.
Major leaguers such as C.J. Wilson of the Los Angeles Angels, A.J. Griffin of the Oakland Athletics and Brennan Boesch, who is trying to earn a spot with the Angels, speak well enough to have done interviews in Spanish.
Kansas City Royals starter Jeremy Guthrie learned the language on a Mormon mission to Spain. And Cincinnati Reds slugger Joey Votto has retained a Spanish tutor for three years, in part to better communicate with teammates.
“It’s a great tool for me to be a good clubhouse guy, to bridge the gap if possible,” said Boesch, who took Spanish in high school and picked up some from his bilingual mother. “It catches some guys off guard, and that’s fun. People don’t realize how hard it is to come from another culture.”
A frequent challenge for newcomers — especially in the low minors, where they abound — is ordering food at restaurants. But that’s hardly the only area American players have come to their teammates’ aid.
While playing ClassA ball in Lynchburg, Va., McLouth once served as the interpreter at a hospital for a teammate with a sick baby.
Wilson has been able to lend a hand in matters as diverse as shipping a car, finding housing and understanding the collective bargaining agreement. His language skills have proved useful in welcoming new teammates.
“That’s a big one, when a Latino player comes over and doesn’t know anybody or have anybody he can trust,” Wilson said. “If you can speak to him, you give him a little more connection to the team right away.”
‘He looks like a gringo’
While Wilson, Griffin and Boesch were regularly exposed to Spanish growing up in Southern California, McLouth didn’t know any until he took three years in high school in Whitehall, Mich.
After getting drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2000, McLouth found himself with three Dominican roommates at ClassA in Hickory, N.C.
“I ate a lot of rice that year,” McLouth said with a smile.
He also practiced and enhanced his language skills, which came in handy when McLouth played winter ball in the Dominican Republic in 2005. By then he was fully comfortable with his adopted tongue and would regularly surprise the locals.
The typical reaction?
“‘He doesn’t look Dominican,'” McLouth recalls. “‘He looks like a gringo.'”
McLouth is one of the few Anglo players who can blend seamlessly into the group conversations of Latinos speaking their native language that are so common in baseball clubhouses.
McLouth was the first Baltimore Orioles player Cuban-born outfielder Henry Urrutia met last July when he was called to the majors, and the veteran befriended him.
“He would spend hours talking with us in Spanish,” said Urrutia, who is working to improve his limited English. “I think many of the other American players would like to experience that too, but the language gets in the way.”
The benefits of learning Spanish can be reciprocal.
Boesch was a Detroit Tigers teammate of slugging outfielder Magglio Ordonez, a .309 career hitter whom he calls the greatest influence of his career.
Even though Ordonez had been in the majors since 1997, he could explain hitting concepts better in Spanish than in English.
“When he was around, I felt most comfortable as far as hitting,” Boesch said. “His mastery of hitting is unparalleled. Being able to communicate with him in Spanish was a big advantage.”
Change in tenor
David Ortiz, the reigning World Series MVP and one of the sport’s key ambassadors, perceives the use of Spanish is less stigmatized in today’s game.
“When I was coming up, in some clubhouses and places, a lot of people would get upset about that,” said Ortiz, who debuted in 1997 and began his minor league career in 1994. “And I don’t know if it’s like that anymore. I speak a lot of Spanish, and nobody says anything.
“Globally, the two most widely used languages are English and Spanish. If you can learn another language, I would do it.
“You know how good it would be if you’re an American and you could go to Venezuela, Spain, the Dominican, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and (communicate)?”
Ortiz began learning English at the behest of his father when he was a 15-year-old in the Dominican; now, his children are the ones correcting him.
When teammates do so, the tenor has changed.
“Now they’re having fun with something you may say. Before they were mocking you,” he said. “A lot of them now understand this is not your first language and they would like to speak as much Spanish as I speak English.”
Griffin took four years of Spanish in high school and two more at the University of San Diego, helpful skills when a rookie ball catcher spoke little English.
“I’m very proud I’m able to speak it. I look very American, so people don’t expect it,” said Griffin, who works at his language skills regularly.
“I think everybody should learn Spanish. That’s not a very American opinion, but if it helps people, why not?”
Source : https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/2014/03/25/bilingual-players-help-bridge-barrier-in-mlb/6856299/