KC helps bridge language gap for young Latin players
KANSAS CITY -- Some of the most important people in the Royals' Minor League organization -- and indeed, in all of baseball -- today are the Spanish-speaking coaches and instructors.
Most of them are guys you might never have heard of like, in the Royals' case, Carlos Martinez or Omar Ramirez or Julio Bruno.
But for players such as Royals pitcher Kelvin Herrera, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic just after he turned 18, such coaches were vital.
"They help us a lot, they are like our second fathers in the United States," Herrera said.
According to Major League Baseball figures, 24 percent of the players on the Opening Day rosters of the 30 clubs were from Spanish-speaking countries.
Royals director of player development Scott Sharp says the percentage in the Minor Leagues is higher, likely about 40 percent this year.
When these kids report from the Dominican, Venezuela, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba or other countries, it's a real challenge for most of them.
"I think people take it for granted that these guys just show up and it's easy because it's just baseball. But it's not," Sharp said. "It's akin to me or you just picking up and saying, 'OK, I'm going to leave everything I know and go to a foreign country and try to work there in an industry that's very competitive and very difficult.'"
The young players must adapt to an entirely new language, new culture, new climate and new way of life.
The Royals have eight Spanish-speaking managers or coaches on their Minor League staffs. That doesn't include the entire staff at their Dominican Academy, where many Latin American players start out.
"For those players coming from Latin American countries to the United States for the first time, it's a huge step for them to assimilate into a new culture and a new language," said Martinez, the pitching coach for the Burlington, N.C., Royals in the Rookie level Appalachian League. "That's why the job that I do is so important in the Minor Leagues."
Martinez, who also works for months at the Royals' training complex at Surprise, Ariz., has helped with such prize pitching prospects as Miguel Almonte, Angel Baez, Robinson Yambati and Noel Arguelles.
"It's a complicated process and the coaches play a huge role in that," Sharp said, "especially guys like Carlos who have experienced it and know what these players need to do -- from understanding English, from understanding the law and the culture. Probably 80 percent of it initially is non-baseball-related stuff anyway."
The primary task, of course, is making them into successful baseball players. As a young player, Herrera remembers being in team meetings and not understanding a word that was said. That's where coaches like Martinez come in.
"The particular problem is for those kids to understand what the American coaches are trying to explain, especially when they're trying to make adjustments on their mechanics or if they're trying to understand the different signs, both the pitchers and the position players," Martinez said. "Because, you know, baseball is a game of signs, and for the pitchers to execute, they have to know those signs. So I have to help them understand everything that is thrown at them."
Miguel Tejada, now a 38-year-old Royals backup infielder after a distinguished career, arrived from the Dominican in 1995 before there were many Hispanic coaches. The Oakland A's put him on their Southern Oregon team where he was the only Latin player. Most of what he learned came from hanging around the American players.
"When you come here and you're 18 years old and you don't speak English and don't even know the rules here, it's like you're born again," Tejada said. "You've got to learn everything, like learning another life, and it's sometimes hard for a kid. That's why it's good to have the Latino coaches around."
Martinez went through a similar learning process as a young pitcher from Santo Domingo.
"Back 16 years ago when I signed with the Royals and they put me in the Minors, I was out there by myself. I didn't know what they were saying, so I just followed along with the group," Martinez said. "Now they have people like me, and instead of just following everybody else, they know exactly where to go and know exactly what to do because they've been told in their own language and they understand it."
The adoption of the English language is facilitated at the Surprise complex, where teacher Monica Ramirez operates a classroom for the players. She also gets players involved in local school programs.
During Spring Training, the Royals held Latino Night for the players, and Martinez and his wife did all the cooking.
"We try to create some sort of home environment," Sharp said. "Once every two weeks, we'll have some kind of Latino food at the complex for all the players, including the Americans. One, because a lot of the American players like it, and two, it gives them literally a little taste of home."
With the Royals and throughout baseball, the emphasis is on helping the Latin American players get comfortable and be productive in the United States. The coaches keep them headed in the right direction.
As Tejada put it with such plain eloquence: "Now they have less chance to do some stupid stuff."