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Japanese Players Have Advantage

Fair or not, interpreters help them more than Latin American players.

June 12, 2005|From Associated Press

OAKLAND, Calif. — When Keiichi Yabu and Brad Fischer argued about string cheese while sitting in the clubhouse before a game, they had a former anthropology professor, Andy Painter, with them to translate every word.

"You're always eating cheese. Is cheese good for you?" Yabu said in Japanese, smiling as Painter quickly put the pitcher's words in English for Oakland's first-base coach.

"It's better than sushi!" Fischer barked back.

Engaging in such casual conversations is an important step for foreign players who come to the majors, but it's a lopsided luxury -- while Japanese players have interpreters to help them with everything from getting a driver's license to communicating with teammates and coaches, most Latin Americans are left to fend for themselves.

Fair or not, there are just a handful of Japanese players in the big leagues, all of whom get translating support if needed, while hundreds of players from Spanish-speaking countries must rely on each another to figure things out.

"You look at some of these kids, they're 18, 19 years old, they're scared to death," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "They're away from home probably for the first time. They're in a foreign country. Just because we like hamburgers doesn't mean they do. It's very unfair. I think we have a responsibility to help them.

"The quicker they can communicate, they do better off the field, which I think directly translates to them succeeding on the field," Francona said.

Of 829 major league players on opening-day rosters and disabled lists, 23.5 percent were born in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico or Venezuela, according to the commissioner's office. Nearly 40 percent of minor league players are from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico or Venezuela.

The New York Yankees provide a full-time interpreter for Japanese outfielder Hideki Matsui, and when Kaz Matsui signed with the New York Mets before last season, he not only insisted on having an interpreter for himself, but one for his wife as well.

The Yankees also hired a translator for Orlando Hernandez and Jose Contreras when they were with the team. But most organizations can't spend as freely as the New York teams. Even last year's American League MVP, Angels' right fielder Vladimir Guerrero, depends on the club's Spanish radio color analyst, Jose Mota, to help him through interviews.

Japanese players get better translation help for several reasons. One is that their language is completely foreign to most people in U.S. baseball. The other is the clout they've earned along their very different route to the majors.

The Seattle Mariners paid $13 million to the Orix Blue Wave for the rights to Ichiro Suzuki, the first Japanese position player to play every day in the majors and a superstar and seven-time batting champion in his country. When a team makes such a financial commitment to one player, hiring an interpreter just becomes another aspect of the investment. Years later, he still uses an interpreter for most interviews.

Short of providing translators, many of the teams are trying to make their Spanish-speaking players' transitions smoother by sponsoring academies in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere that offer English training and guidance about cultural differences.

Some teams also organize activities and teaching sessions at spring training that deal with everything from how to use a bank to the appropriate tipping standards at a restaurant.

"I think Major League Baseball as well as individual clubs have the last few years made more efforts to make the baseball experience more than just playing the game," said Giant assistant general manager Ned Colletti. "It's giving many players who English is not their native language the chance to not only learn the language but learn the customs. We go to great lengths to teach our Latin kids."

Still, Boston's David Ortiz and others in the majors have said Hispanic players sometimes either misunderstand certain memos, such as the league steroid policy, or miss messages all together. Some players say they've accidentally thrown away paperwork left in their lockers because they were unable to read it.

"We're kind of used to it," said Ortiz, one of baseball's most outspoken players on language issues. "There are lots of Latinos and only a few from Japan."

Francona can relate to the frustrations of his star player, whose timely hitting last October helped the Red Sox win their first World Series title in 86 years.

"I understand what he's saying. If that's the case, it shouldn't be the case," Francona said. "That's a little bit scary. We have an obligation to follow through on a lot of things."

Giant Manager Felipe Alou had no help when he came to the United States in 1956 from the Dominican Republic as a minor leaguer. He was not only one of the first Latino players, but a black man living in the South.

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