For Latin American players, need to learn English goes beyond the game
Christian Bethancourt remembers six years ago sitting at his locker in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., an 18-year-old Panamanian thrust into the United States for the first time.
He watched Gulf Coast League Braves teammates, among them current Atlanta stars Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward. He watched their mouths move and he heard the words, but they held no meaning.
"All the American players were speaking like another language and I was like ‘Why can I not understand? What are they talking about?’" said Bethancourt, one of baseball’s top catching prospect. "So I made a promise to myself, ‘You’ve got to learn the language.’"
Julio Teheran made that same vow to himself when he was first called up to Atlanta in 2011, when the Colombian pitcher had to rely upon bullpen coach Eddie Perez as a translator to get through interviews.
"That’s something I just put in my mind that I wanted to talk. I don’t want him to talk for me," said Teheran, who is now in his fourth season in the majors.
The space they once occupied is where Victor Reyes now finds himself.
The 19-year-old Venezuelan’s assimilation in this, his second year in the US, has gone smoothly on the field. He’s hitting .318 in 194 at-bats for Rome, Atlanta’s Class-A affiliate in the South Atlantic League, and as fellow outfielder Connor Oliver says of Reyes at the plate, "It’s something different. When he gets two strikes … its like he’s up there with no strikes. He’s calm. He sees the ball and puts a good swing on it. Singles for days. Singles after singles."
Reyes’ game isn’t a problem — but it’s the rest of his transition to life in American that has yet to come so easily.
Before a recent game against the Charleston River Dogs, Reyes approached a group of children huddled along the third-base line. He signed their baseballs, giving a broad smile as they spoke to him. He nodded in response and posed for a photo and when asked a direct question, he could only answer:
"No speak English."
But he’s learning. Like Bethancourt, Teheran and other minor leaguers imported from Latin America, Reyes is using Rosetta Stone to pick up the English language.
Ronnie Richardson held up his iPhone, showing the report the Braves director of minor-league pperations receives twice a week, charting the hours logged by every one of the organization’s Latin players learning English.
"It is a collective effort of many individuals in the organization that assist with ensuring that our players adhere to our program," Richardson said. "Our front office and field staff all play integral roles in helping the players transition to life in the United States."
As Latin Americans’ place in baseball continues to expand, comprising 36 percent of the 224 players appearing on Opening Day rosters who were born outside of the US, teams have had a growing need for language training.
Atlanta, in its fourth year using the program, is one of 12 MLB franchises to have a contract with Rosetta Stone, along with the Astros, Brewers, Dodgers, Mariners, Marlins, Nationals, Orioles, Phillies, Pirates, Rangers and Tigers, outfitting them with the software.
"It makes it so much easier to compete at a high level if they can understand what’s going on," Richardson said.
Charles Frydenborg, Rosetta Stone’s senior director, corporate sales for North America, recounts the story of current Nationals catcher Jose Lobaton, who was playing for Padres affiliate Lake Elsinore. During a conference on the mound, Lobaton, a Venezuelan, who at the time didn’t speak English, and the pitcher were instructed by the pitching coach to avoid throwing breaking balls inside to an opposing player — only Lobaton did the opposite and the batter hit a home run.
"Their lack of English skills isolate them," Frydenborg said. "The stories I’ve heard about homesickness, it’s debilitating to the players socially, but it can get in the way of what they’re trying to get done on the field."
In the Braves organization, lessons begin at the team’s Dominican Academy and progress with them as they go from the GCL — their first stop in the US — and beyond. It’s at the Lake Buena Vista complex when the players are, most of them for the first time, forced to deal with a new reality.
"That’s really where the assimilation takes another level because they’re having to interact with English-speaking players, wherein in the Academy, it’s mostly Spanish-speaking players," said Richardson.
Computers are provided at every level, though most players eventually participate by their iPhones or iPads. Each player is required to log at least three hours a week — though Richardson notes that most exceed it.
If the bi-weekly reports show an individual isn’t meeting the minimum time or not participating at all, the Braves lean on coaches at each affiliate to offer reminders.
"If we hadn’t seen any activity, a staff member will say ‘Hey, let’s go. Rosetta Stone. Let’s get on it,’" Richardson said. "We don’t have many issues. We have a great group of players. Our scouts do a great job of identifying these players and they adhere to the program because they know it’s important."
The education goes beyond learning in a digital setting, as coaches are encouraged to offer instructions in both English and Spanish. But at the same time, the Braves make a point of pushing players to quickly adapt.
"I know in the minor leagues, (vice president and assistant GM of player development) Bruce Manno, doesn’t cater to the Spanish kid," said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. "Sometimes you get the English schedule and the Spanish schedule. He makes them read everything in English … because if you do it the other way you’re defeating the purpose. ‘You’re telling us to speak English, but you want us to read the schedule in Spanish. You’re making it easier for us.’"
But it’s away from baseball where the players can struggle the most. While some organizations will pair up American and Latin players to room together, the Braves haven’t taken that route. Instead, they employ a fourth Spanish-speaking coach in the GCL, Danville (Advanced Rookie) and Rome, to ease the transition.
"You’re talking about 18-, 19-year-old men in another country," Richardson said. "So we provide the right staff to be able to help a little bit more in the lower levels."
A Cuban-born former shortstop in the Rays and Rockies organizations who is now on the Rome Braves coaching staff, Nestor Perez takes players to the grocery store after road trips. He goes with them to the Western Union to wire money back home or to the bank to cash checks.
In time, they may be able to do these things on their own, but until then, Perez is a lifeline to normalcy as they learn to adapt.
"When they first come, they only think it’s playing baseball; be a good player and that’s it" Perez said. "They start to realize it’s not like that."
The players also take it upon themselves to protect one another. When Reyes goes out to eat, he is accompanied by Colombian second baseman Ronald Luna, who has been using Rosetta Stone for three years — he has already completed the course and restarted "so I can learn more and more and more" — or another of the English-speaking Latin players.
"It’s hard. For me, the year that I came in, I came from Colombia," Luna said. "We have somebody … I like to have another person around that can speak English."
"You ever play another position?" a Triple-A Gwinnett teammate asked Bethancourt, who was positioned on the bench, waiting for batting practice to begin.
Bethancourt recounted — in English — the story of how he was nearly signed by Atlanta as a shortstop. "The next day they called and said I was going to be a catcher," he said.
He then hopped up and made his way toward the bat rack, singing in Spanish, before switching back to English to ask a fellow catcher about his the location of his missing shin guard straps.
Bethancourt began learning English two months after his arrival in the United States in ’08 and has since graduated from Rosetta Stone. In fact, he’s become so fluent that Gwinnett manager Brian Snitker often uses him to communicate with other Latin players who aren’t as far along.
It was a point of emphasis for Bethancourt, 22, both for his position and as a means to accelerate his rise through the minor-league ranks.
"For me, it’s important for me to learn English because I’ve got to talk to the pitchers, I’ve got to talk to the manager, pitching coach, my other teammates," he said. "I’ve got to have communication with them all the time."
He is a finished product, much like Teheran.
While Bethancourt was no longer using Perez as a crutch in his first full major-league season of 2013, Teheran was still short in his responses, answering reporters in short, choppy sentences. But by midseason, he was at ease.
"At the beginning you’re a little bit scared to talk," Teheran said. "But as soon as I get the confidence with the people, you just have a conversation with (them)."
It was a transformation that wasn’t lost on Gonzalez.
"It’s great, you see guys get more comfortable as their years in the big leagues go, speaking in front of the camera, speaking English," he said.
Born in Cuba before moving to the United States as a 2-year-old, Gonzalez puts the Braves in a unique situation as the only current MLB manager from Latin America. Fluent in Spanish and English, he leaves it up to the players with how they want to communicate with.
"I use whatever they are comfortable with," he said. "Usually if I bring in Teheran or (shortstop Andrelton) Simmons, (utility infielder Ramiro) Pena, (reliever Luis) Avilan, I’d speak Spanish to them. All of those guys you can speak English to and not have a problem. … It’s definitely noticeable how well our kids come through the minor leagues being able to speak English."
They’re now able to communicate with their teammates, coaches, fans and media, though it stretches beyond the game.
Only a small percentage of those Latin American players the Braves sign actually reach the majors. The opportunity to learn English is arming them for something more.
"It’s for our lives," Luna said. "It’s not for baseball."