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THE HOT CORNER: Baseball's burden of language

by Jim Allen (Aug 5, 2010)

Few in baseball can beat Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen when it comes to sparking controversy. On Sunday, Guillen called for Major League Baseball to do a better job in preparing Latinos to play in a society dominated by the English language.

Guillen pondered why it was that while Japanese and South Korean players get interpreters, Latino prospects do not.

That little attention-grabbing phrase assured the rest of his message would be heard. Even if the comparison between Latin and Asian players is a red herring, Guillen's assertion that more can be done to help players deal with English is spot on.

If a young man's failure to learn English hinders his ability to absorb baseball lessons, it hurts both player and team. The costs, however, are one-sided.

For a player, the difference between making it in the majors and returning home, is huge. For teams, the loss in unrealized potential production from players who are undercoached because of the language barrier is immeasurable, something easily overlooked in the accounting.

Because of that and because there is a flood of Latino ball players busting their butts to make it to the big leagues, teaching language and survival skills has not traditionally been a top priority of major league teams--although this is changing.

Contrary to what Guillen said, special language treatment for Asians extends only to those with big contracts. Unknown Asian amateurs on minor league deals have to sink or swim.

In March 2009, South Korean international pitcher Bong Jung Kuen told The Hot Corner about his experience rooming with right-hander Kazuhiro Takeoka in 2003 in Double-A ball.

"We were sitting there looking at each other," Bong said. "It was like, 'What are we going to do?' I didn't speak any Japanese, he didn't any speak Korean and neither of us spoke much English."

Guillen's original comments were made in response to the difficult situation facing White Sox prospect Dayan Viciedo, who defected from Cuba before signing a four-year, 10 million dollars contract.

"When a Japanese player is done playing major league baseball, they go back to their country and enjoy their life," Guillen was quoted as saying Tuesday on the Chicago Daily Herald's Web site.

"When the Cuban player comes to this country, I don't think they can go back to their country and see their families."

Eduardo Perez, the son of Cuban great Tony Perez, said that while teams now hand big contracts to Cuban defectors, they carry on as they did in the 1960s out of habit.

"A lot has changed. My dad signed for a 2 dollars visa to get out of Cuba, so there wasn't a lot invested in him," Perez said Tuesday on ESPN.

Perez, who played with the Hanshin Tigers in 2001, cited the case of Cincinnati's Aroldis Chapman, who signed for a reported 30.25 million dollars. Despite being culturally and socially isolated with his family still in Cuba, Perez said the lefty's lack of an interpreter shows the Reds have done little to protect their investment.

It would behoove teams to give all non-English speakers the linguistic help they need to succeed in baseball, because it's in their financial interest to do so.

Guillen, when given a chance to restate his comments on Monday, said his ultimate aim is for Latin players to have better careers and better lives: something that would be enhanced by buckling down and learning English as best they can.

After all, the ultimate burden is on the players, because that's where the ultimate costs lie, whether you're a Cuban with a 30 million dollars contract or an unknown young Venezuelan outfielder named Alex Ramirez getting his first taste of pro ball in the Dominican Republic.

"That's just the way it is. We've all been through it," the Yomiuri Giants cleanup hitter said Tuesday at Tokyo Dome. "It's a 50-50 thing. I became better, because I was forced to learn English.

"People like me, that tried, I took advantage. Some other people that were lazy, they didn't want to take a chance--'I didn't come here to learn English, I came here to play'--so they didn't learn and maybe they're probably complaining now they didn't teach them.

"That's their own problem."


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