Diversity in language unites teams at Nike RBI World Series

August 14th, 2023

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- The sounds around Jackie Robinson Training Complex this summer are typical of facilities that host stick-and-ball sports -- with one glaring exception.

With baseball’s Nike RBI World Series taking place last week, the click and clack of metal spikes clashing with concrete sidewalks were a constant. And on the boys’ side, there is less dugout chatter overall.

However, that changes when the softball tournament arrives and the girls hit the clover-leafed, four-field setup on the back diamonds behind legendary Holman Stadium.

Chatter becomes the norm. A melodic, welcome wave of inspiring chants floats across diamonds deemed Excellence, Courage, Persistence and Justice as teams try to add runs on the scoreboard.

There’s a good chance fans will hear one reserve player, complete with drum sticks, banging out a rhythmic, encouraging meter on the dugout trash receptacle for teammates in the field or at the plate.

Now, another sound -- equally melodious as the chatter on the bench and the drum measures -- has become a mainstay at the JRTC softball venue.


This past week, a vocal Venn diagram was created with the presence at the Nike RBI World Series of softball teams from the Dominican Republic, Miami, Jersey City (N.J.) and, to a lesser extent, powerhouse (and champion) Houston -- half the tournament’s field.

The tri-sectioned diagram of teams goes from the extremes of all-English to all-Spanish with a smattering of some-English, some-Spanish in between as the meat in the conversational sandwich.

Jersey City’s Roberto Clemente Nike RBI team falls into that middle category, with players speaking or understanding both. The club made its third appearance in the tournament and first since 2021.

“It’s great to see that the program is growing,” said coach Gabriel Villanueva, whose family is from Puerto Rico. “And as it’s growing, it’s more diverse and more cities get involved. It’s good to see the island teams compete against each other and somebody get the opportunity to come to Vero Beach and participate in all these great things that MLB RBI has to offer.

“It’s great to see the (Spanish-speaking) teams interact with each other and become friends.”

Players on Jersey City’s Roberto Clemente team speak or understand English and Spanish. (Jared Blais/MLB Photos)

The camaraderie between the Hispanic-oriented squads is as warm as meeting an old friend or arriving at a family reunion.

After the Miami Marlins were eliminated Thursday morning by the Cleveland Guardians -- a different outcome than the 1997 World Series -- most of the Dominican Republic team lined up outside the first-base dugout on Excellence to high-five and console the dejected South Florida girls.

Amy Falls, whose daughter Lauren is one of the few English-only players on the Marlins, said the communication gaps on the team can create a unique bond.

“There are a few players who don’t speak English, but they really try to mesh with each other and teach each other,” Falls said while scoring her daughter’s game on an iPad. “They spend time trying to teach each other words or make sure they understand.

“What’s interesting is that you find that even though there is a language barrier, the game itself kind of transcends that. Even though they can’t speak it, they develop hand signals and find ways to root each other on.

“It’s an interesting experience because we don’t speak Spanish, but even with the parents, we’re learning new cheers in Spanish.”

Marlins coach Jesus Berrios is a proud Puerto Rican with a strong baseball background and was inducted into the island country’s Hall of Fame.

For the most part, Berrios is delighted to hear his native tongue spoken -- though for strategic reasons he often listens closely to the opposing fans in the stands and players on the bench for any hints as to who, if anyone, is speaking Spanish.

“I try to listen to the other girls because you never know, there could be one player who knows Spanish. That’s all it takes -- just one player. The parents ... if I don’t hear anybody speaking it, then I go with Spanish,” Berrios said.

He has three players who migrated from Mexico plus two from Colombia. He says his dialect can be tough on the quintet.

“I’m Puerto Rican. I speak too fast,” Berrios quipped. “Sometimes it’s hard for my girls to understand what I’m saying. They have fun with me because in Mexico they have different words than in Puerto Rico. But we have fun with it.

“RBI have given us so many opportunities.”

Houston’s Penelope Saenz, whose parents are from Mexico, is one of just a couple of Astros who speaks Spanish. She loves hearing it across the lines from her.

“It’s cool. It’s really pretty. Spanish is a very pretty language. It’s nice hearing them and knowing we have other Hispanics here at the tournament,” said the Space City shortstop.

Then there is the other side -- Dominican Republic RBI -- that speaks no English whatsoever. No player, coach or staff member can, though one male assistant tried valiantly to bridge the cultural chasm.

“From 2007 to now, everyone just spoke English,” said Dominican coach Santo Dotel through an MLB employee. “This is the first time I’m hearing Spanish. It’s just a different energy the girls bring. They are more together and get to talk to other teams. They don’t have to just stay in one space and speak their language.”

At the JRTC ball fields these days in times that are more inclusive and diverse, it’s not hard at all to find a translator.