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INTERNATIONAL PSYCOLOGY

Piazza Masters Communications Art With Dodgers' Foreign-Born Staff

September 21, 1997|BETH HARRIS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

No one told catcher Mike Piazza that along with a strong arm he needed many tongues to anchor baseball's most international pitching staff.

Despite having to make himself understood to a group that speaks Spanish, Japanese, Korean and sometimes halting English, Piazza says one kind of communication always comes across.

"I yell at them all the same. They yell at me all the same," he said.

The Dodgers' 14-man staff includes Hideo Nomo of Japan, Chan Ho Park of Korea, Ramon Martinez of the Dominican Republic and Antonio Osuna, Ismael Valdes and Dennis Reyes, all from Mexico.

Besides studying reports on opposing hitters, knowing his own pitchers' strengths and weaknesses and talking pre-game strategy with them, Piazza's challenge is getting different languages and cultures to mesh. At the same time, he's part psychologist to 13 personalities.

"Learning personalities is the strain more so than the language," pitching coach Dave Wallace said. "You have to know what guys you have to stroke now and then and what guys maybe you have to jump on and kick them in the butt."

Piazza gets by with the Spanish he learned in high school and while playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic and Mexico. The Latin pitchers all speak English. Nomo and Park are still perfecting their adopted language.

"When I talk to the Latin players in Spanish, they're more receptive that way and they believe I'm out there trying to get to know them personally," he said.

But Japanese and Korean are altogether different.

The language barrier created challenges early in the season between Piazza and Park, who sometimes failed to alert the catcher when he tossed a two-seam fastball. They hadn't developed a sign for that pitch.

"Mike sees a different action on a fastball and it kind of confuses him," Wallace said. "A couple other times, Chan Ho has gotten hurt on a change-up and there might have been disagreement on a pitch selection."

Piazza's hard-charging personality behind the plate initially intimidated Park, who was raised in a culture that emphasizes deference to elders. Park is 24 and Piazza is 29.

"Some days Mike gets a little testy," Wallace said. "Chan Ho felt like, 'Well, maybe I can't say anything to him.' "

Piazza tries to get his point across without insulting or hurting players whose cultures don't always appreciate his American directness.

"They know I'm a fiery guy and they know if something bothers me, I'll tell them," he said. "It might not always be the thing they want to hear, but they accept that."

Early on, Park says he would shake off Piazza's pitch selection. And Piazza didn't dispute it, even if he thought Park was wrong.

"I just say, 'OK, he maybe knows something I don't,' and just try to hope for the best," Piazza said.

"When he throws a bad pitch, I tell him that I knew what I was talking about. A young guy coming up has to learn the hard way."

Park learned his lesson.

"Now I just follow the catcher. Not thinking too much, just follow the catcher, just challenge batter," he said. "I understand more because we are talking about baseball, simple talk."

Baseball terms like pitchout, cover first, balk, throw over and jam are universal in any language. It's strategy that can be hard to translate. And in some games, the pitcher and catcher aren't in sync at all.

"Sometimes he tells me the location on my fastball is not good," Martinez said. "You need the help from your catcher when you don't have good location or don't have good stuff."

Piazza's backup, Tom Prince, once entered a game believing a certain set of signs were being used with Nomo.

"All of a sudden, he crossed me up one pitch. I call forkball and he throws a fastball up and in," Prince said. "I go out there and say, 'Hey, we're using this set of signs.' He says, 'No.' We cleared it up with the interpreter after the game."

Sometimes a pitcher just doesn't get what's being said, even as he nods in agreement.

In spring training, Park hung his head after giving up two home runs and Wallace told him to control his emotions. The next day, Park practiced his motion without the ball, believing that's what Wallace had told him.

"Not even close to what we were talking about," the coach said. "You shake your head and walk away."

Piazza has learned a lot about other cultures and languages from the Dodgers' mini-United Nations. He's also taught his international staff a few things.

The biggest lesson was attitude. Piazza didn't like that some of the foreign pitchers were apathetic at times.

"Perception is everything. If you come across as very laid back about wins or losses, then it's not going to rub off well on the other guys," he said. "You've got to leave your guts out on that mound for the team and that's the custom over here."

Piazza's top priority is winning, so he rarely worries that something he says to the staff may jeopardize his popularity.

"I'm not a politician," he said. "I'm trying to do my job and trying to get them to do their job . . . to the best of their ability without complaining."

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