Wawrzyniak an unsung hero for many Cubs

Club's English instructor focuses on real-world language instruction

May 11th, 2017
Linda Wawrzyniak is flanked by Minor Leaguers Yasiel Balaguert and Gioskar Amaya, both of whom graduated from the program in March. (Cubs)

CHICAGO -- There's a joke that's told in the English classes for Cubs Minor Leaguers about two men being robbed, but one of them doesn't understand what the thief is saying. The robber tells the interpreter to relay the message that he wants all of the other person's money.

After the guy says no, the robber threatens to kill him. The interpreter translates that, and the person confesses his money is buried under a rock by a church on Fifth Street. But the interpreter tells the robber: "He's ready to meet his maker."

The joke is intended to illustrate how important it is to learn English. Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts also tried to emphasize the point when he met with prospects at the team's Dominican Republic academy in January 2013. Ricketts spoke to them in Spanish.

"He told them the No. 1 thing they can do is learn English," instructor Linda Wawrzyniak said. "He didn't say, 'Win the World Series,' or 'Play great baseball,' but 'Learn English.'"

Wawrzyniak is the driving force behind the Cubs' English language program. Her motto: "English builds relationships. Relationships build chemistry. Chemistry wins games. Teach English to win."

It normally takes 500 hours of classroom time to get to the level of proficiency that Wawrzyniak's program aims for. They are able to reach that level in half that time.

In March, 12 Cubs Minor Leaguers from the Dominican, Venezuela, Panama, Mexico and Taiwan took part in a graduation ceremony, dressed in bright blue caps and gowns, at the team's complex in Mesa, Ariz. Venezuelan Adbert Alzolay, now pitching at Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach, gave an emotional and eloquent speech, saying it was a "beautiful moment for us," and thanked the Cubs as well as his teammates for the opportunity.

"These guys came in here and couldn't communicate a year ago, and now we're having conversations," said Cubs Minor League coordinator Tim Cossins. "I joke with the guys all the time, they sound like they're from [New] Jersey."

The focus is not to create a team of Jersey Boys, but to teach baseball-related English. Classes are four days a week, one hour each. Class size is limited to a maximum of 10 players. The teachers don't lecture about how to conjugate verbs, nor do they simply hand players tapes to listen to.

There are times when the class will go onto the diamond. It's tough to explain what cutoffs and relays mean, or what to do with a man on first and nobody out. Wawrzyniak has spent countless hours watching games and talking to coaches to get the lingo right.

"It's not just language, either," she said of her program. "There's so many things that come up in the classroom situation. These are young boys and they're not from this country. We're always on our toes to be ready to address things."

The program helps the players assimilate to life in the U.S. For example, many of the Latin American players are startled by fireworks.

"We had to explain, it's the Fourth of July, it's bombs bursting in air," Wawrzyniak said. "They don't know the history of the United States, they don't know what the song means."

Some of the players had never seen lightning bugs.

"They didn't want to hold them -- they were so scared," she said.

There are lessons on text messages.

"In our texts, we say, 'Ha ha,' and [Latins] say, 'Ji ji,'" she said. "[Mexican infielder] Carlos Sepulveda sat and talked to my daughter for at least an hour about all the texting slang.

"American slang changes every five years. We address it, we talk about cuss words. 'That girl's a dime' -- what does that mean? We have to teach them a dime is 10 cents, and '10' means she's beautiful."

Wawrzyniak gets an assist from her children about the latest slang, and she spends time on college campuses.

"A lot of people want to teach English very properly, but you have to tell the players what 'bro' is and 'dude' is, because that's what they're going to hear," she said. "I think that's what makes us effective is that we're realistic in teaching the language."

Players learn how to deal with social situations, how to handle interviews. The final exam is a 15-minute verbal presentation on finances.

Wawrzyniak's mother, Olga Larimer, was a pioneer in bilingual education, and she built the program's curriculum.

"I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't have the background of my mom and the Cubs were my dad's favorite team," she said. "[My parents] both passed away the same year [2012], and I was offered the job in 2013. It was like karma."

How important is it for players to learn English? Cossins saw it firsthand with catcher .

"People got a wrong read on Willson for a long time," Cossins said. "We didn't know his personality. If a guy's funny, you don't know, because he doesn't talk. You don't know if a guy is locked in because he doesn't look you in the eyes. That dynamic is a big one when you talk about evaluating and projecting and all of those things. You can get a misread.

"[Wawrzyniak's program] is helping clear that up," he said. "They're helping fill the gap between what we know and what we don't know about our players."

Contreras admits not being able to speak English made it difficult at first.

"I could understand, but I didn't know how to speak or respond," Contreras said. "That's why I was always smiling and shaking my head. Since then, I've been learning a lot and I'm able to communicate more."

Wawrzyniak lives in South Bend, Ind., where the Cubs have a Class A team. She recalled a time when she sent players a text about the next English class and got a strange response. They wondered if they could get a ride.

"My 'mom radar' went up," Wawrzyniak said. "I drove over to their house. It was cold but they didn't have coats, hats, they didn't have anything. They had been in Arizona, where it was warm."

It was another lesson. She loaned them some winter gear. It's all part of learning about life in the U.S.

"She's been an under-the-radar awesome grinder for us," Cossins said. "She's made a big impact."