How Alonso uses Spanish to connect with fellow Mets

March 1st, 2023

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- A month after the Mets drafted him, in his debut for what was then Class A Short-Season Brooklyn, experienced a bit of Minor League culture shock.

Starting pitcher Harol González, a 21-year-old Spanish-speaking prospect, was in a jam. As the infield gathered around for a mound visit, Spanish-speaking catcher Ali Sánchez and English-speaking pitching coach Bill Bryk began trying to communicate with González.

No one could follow the conversation.

In what would become a regular occurrence in his life as a big leaguer, Alonso did his best to translate -- relatively unsuccessfully that day, but far more adequately in the months and years to come. Over his career, Alonso, who homered in the Mets' 8-4 win over the Marlins on Wednesday, has endeavored to achieve a level of fluency in Spanish, seeing it not only as an on-field skill but as a way to bond with teammates. He uses it regularly on first base and in the clubhouse, in situations both serious and casual. As Alonso puts it, “I don’t know if I can talk my way out of an arrest, but I’m pretty decent.”

“I appreciate that he’s trying to find a way to interact with us,” said bilingual teammate Francisco Lindor.

Alonso’s education began in childhood, during visits with his grandfather and great-aunt who emigrated from Spain in the 1930s. As they grew elderly, those two began losing the English skills they had picked up after coming to America, which forced Alonso to use more of his primitive Spanish to communicate with them.

By the fourth grade, Alonso was learning formally at his Florida school, where students were not given the choice to learn French, Italian or Latin. Spanish, for its prominence in the general population, was a requirement.

But it was not until Alonso’s years in the Minor Leagues that he “really started to get pretty decent.” Immersed in a clubhouse with players from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and beyond, Alonso saw Spanish as a tool to learn about his teammates. Prospects from those countries typically take classes in English, but their American counterparts are not expected to reciprocate. As a result, cliques tend to form in the lower Minors.

“The majority of these guys don’t know Spanish,” Alonso said, gesturing from one end of the room to the other, “and the majority of these guys don’t know English. How do you make that work?”

Practice helps. Alonso hasn’t tried any language learning software in his free time, but his daily work environment features plenty of conversation partners -- more than one-third of those on the Mets’ spring roster are fluent in Spanish. He has used it to conduct interviews with Latino media outlets. On a recent vacation to Italy, Alonso tried communicating with both the Italian he learned in college as well as some Spanish, which is more widely understood than English in parts of that country.

“When someone is trying to learn another language, it starts selfishly -- like you want to learn the other language, you want to expand your vocabulary,” Lindor said. “But it turns into a form of trying to bond with your teammates, trying to understand them."

Other North American players have endeavored to learn Spanish over the years -- Cincinnati’s Joey Votto is one prominent example -- but such cases are relatively few and far between. Lindor could recall only one other Minor League teammate who took the time to do it with any level of thoroughness.

Alonso is the exception. Even when talking to truly bilingual teammates such as Lindor, he doesn’t shy away from Spanish, despite the fact that he still struggles with complex sentences and conjugation. He credits some of the friendships he’s made in pro ball to his ability to speak the language or even just to his willingness to try. Younger players see it and appreciate the effort.

“If you can help a few guys out here and there, I think it’s beneficial,” Alonso said. “Not only is it a language barrier, but it’s a huge cultural change where guys have to adjust to living in the United States. I think [speaking their language] helps a lot.”

These days, however, English and Spanish are no longer the only tongues one can hear in the clubhouse. The Mets have a new player in Kodai Senga, who isn’t fluent in either.

Challenge accepted, says Alonso: “Now, I’ve got to brush up on my Japanese."