GLENDALE, Arizona — Having just finished his spring training routine, top Dodgers pitching prospect Julio Urias was approached for an interview by an English-speaking reporter. Befuddled, the 19-year old lefty from Mexico looked around, searching for the right words in a foreign language.
After a scramble in the clubhouse, the Dodgers brought Jaime Jarrin, the team’s Hall of Fame Spanish broadcaster from Ecuador, to handle the designated translator duties.
“No doubt about it, it’s a bit awkward,” the usually outspoken Urias told The Associated Press. “You cannot express yourself with an American the same way you do with a Latino.”
These episodes are common in major league clubhouses, and especially in spring training, where young, Spanish-speaking players from Latin America who are still adapting to the United States usually struggle with English. With that in mind, for the first time Major League Baseball instructed its 30 teams this season to hire full-time Spanish interpreters for their Latin players.
For years, teams employed personal translators for their Japanese or Korean imports. But they rarely had translators on their staff for the dozens of players mainly from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Mexico and Puerto Rico, instead relying on veteran Latino players, coaches or someone like Jarrin to help out with interviews.
Reporting directly to the team’s public relations director or their general managers, the bilingual employee has to be available year-round for media interviews before and after games, including road trips, according to a memo sent by MLB and the players’ union to all teams before spring training. The initiative would be subsidized by the penalties teams pay when exceeding the international signing bonus limit. The amount available for each club to cover the new positions in 2016 will be $65,000.
This way, nothing gets lost in translation.
“It’s awesome, a welcome change,” Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez said. “I was blessed because I learned English quickly, but for others it’s not easy.”
In his ninth season in the majors, the 30-year-old slugger from Venezuela was one of the veterans who usually helped teammates with interviews. Now he will be relieved of those duties.
“I was the Rockies translator!” Gonzalez joked. “And I didn’t get paid anything!”
Minnesota Twins general manager Terry Ryan applauded the new initiative.
“That’s one of the biggest regrets I’ve ever had: I don’t speak Spanish. That’s not good,” Ryan said.
And how tough is it for a Latino player to deal with a different language?
Take, for example, Yordano Ventura, the 24-old righty who has pitched games for the Kansas City Royals in the past two World Series.
As a starting pitcher in the postseason, Ventura had to sit in front of the cameras for press conferences on live broadcasts. The Dominican had an array of translators at hand, all make-do by the day, including catching coach Pedro Grifol, infielder Christian Colon and Jeremy Guthrie, a pitcher born in Roseburg, Oregon, who learned the Spanish when he served for two years as Mormon missionary in Spain.
The new program forbids teams from employing coaches or trainers to fill the position.
Ventura also recalled his trepidation at the 2012 All-Star Futures Game in Kansas City, an experience very similar to what Urias had to deal with in the Dodgers clubhouse in 2016.
“There was no one around to help me until a reporter showed up,” he said. “I knew a few basic words, so it was very frustrating and complicated. You’re just trying to be able to respond well.”
In contrast, players from Japan and other Asian countries usually have personal translators as part of their contracts. When Ichiro Suzuki, Masahiro Tanaka and Hiroki Kuroda were part of the New York Yankees in the 2014 season, all three Japanese players had their own translators.
But Latin American players, who frequently are signed as teenagers from their native countries, only have baseball academies as their resource to learn English.
Jose Quintana, a starting pitcher with the Chicago White Sox, mentioned his predicament with the language barrier after he left Colombia at age 17. Navigating between classes while trying to jumpstart his career was a challenge.
“Arriving here was a struggle. I didn’t know how to order meals,” the 27-year-old lefty recalled about his minor league experience. “When I wanted less food, they gave me more. I ended ordering the same thing over and over to avoid giving too many instructions.”
“Having the translators is a great idea. In my case, at the beginning, we only had the lessons and it wasn’t enough,” he added. “It took me several years to get a grasp of English. Now I can submit for interviews in English by myself, sometimes I may need some help, but I keep trying to improve.”
When contacted by the AP to inquire about the hiring process, many clubs responded that they were still conducting interviews and expected to have someone in the role by opening day in April. Teams such as the Yankees, the White Sox and the Boston Red Sox had recently filled their positions.
Gonzalez thinks having a full-time translator should not become an excuse to not master English: “You cannot be a slacker now and rely on them forever.”
For Urias, giving interviews in English is a matter of gaining confidence in his own abilities.
“This is my fourth year here in the United States, and I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “Now I’m able to speak English with my teammates and I can understand everything they’re saying, but I still don’t have the courage to give interviews in English. I know what I need to answer, but I’m not ready to do so just yet.”