Beltran's vision realized with translator program
It's been 18 years since New York Yankees outfielder Carlos Beltran was a rookie with the Kansas City Royals, but there are moments that remain imprinted in his mind like it was yesterday.
Beltran recalls the excitement of being called up in September 1998. He remembers the anxiety that came with meeting with the English-speaking media around his locker before and after games. The 38-year-old -- who grew up speaking the quick, clipped Spanish of his hometown of Manati, Puerto Rico -- is fully bilingual now, but that wasn't always the case.
"When I got to the big leagues, I knew little of English and it would have been great to have someone next to me helping me with English," Beltran said from his home in Puerto Rico. "I couldn't really say much other than, 'I feel good,' and, 'I had a good game,' and, 'I am happy I helped the team.' Just simple and short stuff, so I didn't do a lot of interviews. But at points, I felt I wanted to express myself a little bit more but I couldn't, and I didn't want to look bad with broken English, either."
Beltran thinks about those days as he watches players who only speak Spanish give brief and uncomfortable postgame interviews in English on live television after a game-winning play or hit. He winces when he watches a young Latin player struggle with the language in front of his locker while being peppered with questions from reporters in English after a miscue that cost the team a victory.
And, Beltran remembers the pressure. There were times where he would still be on the field, in the middle of a game, yet worried about how he would answer reporters' postgame questions.
At times, Beltran was so fearful that he didn't speak to them at all.
Beltran found his voice last year. In an effort to raise awareness about the need for translators for Spanish-speaking players, he spoke up to anyone that would listen -- first in Spanish and then in English. Beltran's words, combined with the efforts of Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association, have resulted in a major change in clubhouses across the big leagues.
On Tuesday, the Commissioner's Office and the Players Association sent a memo to clubs stating that the parties had agreed to jointly subsidize a Spanish-language translator program.
According to the program, teams are required to hire a full-time, year-round bilingual employee -- a person fluent in English and Spanish, with excellent written and oral communication skills in both languages -- who will report directly to a team's public relations director and/or general manager by Opening Day.
According to the memo, the employee must be available for all scheduled pregame and postgame interviews, and is expected to be with the team at all times, including Spring Training workouts and games, home and road games and during the postseason. Additionally, the employee is expected to attend any club-related event covered by local or national media where Major League players are present. The hire will be expected to help players with questions regarding the logistics of their employment as a professional baseball player, excluding contract interpretation questions.
"I've paid attention to this issue for a long time, and I remember asking [Yankees general manager] Brian Cashman about the Japanese translators last Spring Training and telling him how great it would be for Latinos to have the same thing and have somebody there to help the younger guys express themselves after games," Beltran said. "I took it to [MLBPA executive director] Tony Clark and addressed the situation with them. They basically felt was something that was positive for Latino players and younger guys in MLB right now, and we started working toward this goal."
There are already some translating measures in place. Teams that already employ a full-time media-relations employee who serves in a similar capacity must confirm that the employee is fully dedicated to the requirements and objectives of the program in order to qualify for the subsidy. Bilingual coaches or trainers do not qualify, according to the memo.
"A number of clubs already have such programs in place in various forms, and we are eager to continue the success of those efforts and to expand upon the resources available to players," MLB spokesperson Michael Teevan said.
The translators will be paid from the proceeds of the penalties paid by teams for exceeding the signing bonus pools for acquiring international amateur talent during the international signing periods.
"We felt this was something that helps the media and helps the players and it's a win for everybody," said former Expos and Mets general manager Omar Minaya, who now serves as a special advisor to Clark. "It's a player-friendly and media-friendly initiative. As someone that has been in the game so many years, this was needed, and something we wanted for a while as a group and we pushed. But the guy who started it all was Carlos Beltran."
There was an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the news of the new program among the Spanish-speaking members of the baseball community. Dodgers' Spanish broadcaster Jaime Jarrin, who occasionally served as Fernando Valenzuela's translator during the early 1980s, was overjoyed.
"This is just fantastic," said Jarrin, who is entering his 58th consecutive season calling the Dodgers' games in Spanish. "It's a big step in the right direction by MLB and the MLBPA, because there are a lot of Latinos that need to express their thoughts and can't do it because of the language barrier. It's just the right thing to do for baseball, for media and for the fans."
Angels broadcaster and former Major League player Jose Mota, who has acted as a translator for Spanish-speaking players in the clubhouse in Anaheim and on the road for years, said he was "extremely happy to see this much-needed accommodation come to fruition."
"The comfort level interacting with the media, team staff, fans, followers and organizational personnel will naturally increase for these players," said Mota, who was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. "The contributions to the game at its highest level from the Hispanic players throughout history are more than documented and truly, it was time."
Top prospects like Rangers outfielder Nomar Mazara, 20, of the Dominican Republic and Dodgers pitcher Julio Urias, 19, of Mexico and their peers might benefit the most from the program when they make it to the big leagues.
"The truth is, I can understand it and talk English, but it's very hard, and to do an interview in English is not something I feel great and confident about because I'm not perfect," Urias said in Spanish. "You feel kind of bad when you see reporters don't come to you or don't look your way because they know you don't speak great English. Maybe this program makes us all feel better about language in the clubhouse."
Mazara, who is fully bilingual, realized he needed to improve his English when he attended instructional league meetings in Arizona in 2011 and couldn't understand everything his coaches were telling him on the field and in meetings. He understands the struggle of trying to communicate in a second language and is grateful for Beltran's efforts.
"Every Latino that plays at the MLB level wants to learn English and get better, but it takes time to pick up the language, and it doesn't happen overnight," Beltran said. "I do believe once Latinos get to a point where they feel they can do an interview in English, that some won't need an interpreter anymore. But others will, and this is something that was needed and overdue."