Reds first baseman Joey Votto loves nothing better than to hit one in the gap, but this year, he's just as interested in closing a gap -- the one in his clubhouse.
Votto, the 2010 National League Most Valuable Player Award winner, came to the realization that if he wanted to form better relationships -- on and off the field -- with all of his teammates, then he would have to close the communication gap between himself and players whose first language is Spanish.
While most Latin ballplayers have learned English with varying degrees of success, Votto has decided to meet them halfway by learning Spanish. He hired a private tutor during the offseason to teach him the language, and then he backed that up with additional sessions on the Rosetta Stone program.
"It was an interest. I'm continuing to learn," Votto said. "It's a fun hobby to learn. It's nice to be able to communicate with your teammates."
Elsewhere, Rays superstar Evan Longoria has tried to learn the language on a less formal basis, by relying on teammate Carlos Pena as a Spanish-speaking mentor.
"Knowing how to speak Spanish is a valuable tool," Longoria said. "I thought about getting Rosetta Stone. But we've got Carlos, he's a great teacher. It is pretty cool to have somebody who is willing to teach you and then kind of interact. Baseball is an international game. For me, I think it's more fun to try and interact with our Latin players in their native language, because it's useful."
Decades of increased scouting and development in Central and South America have made Latin players one of the biggest ingredients in Major League Baseball's melting pot. As of Opening Day, 203 of the league's 856 players -- or 23.7 percent -- were foreign-born Latinos.
The vast majority of those players, nearly 80 percent, hail from the Dominican Republic or Venezuela, where many clubs have established developmental academies.
Reds manager Dusty Baker is well ahead of the learning curve, having spoken Spanish most of his life. A native of Southern California, Baker's mother forced him to learn it as a child. He can now speak it fluently to his players, when needed, and has conducted interviews entirely in Spanish.
"It took three years of high school with my mother's hand around my throat," Baker said. "I didn't appreciate it until I went to winter ball. I was thanking my mom, especially when I was the only [American] guy on the team that could talk to the pretty little girls. I was 19 years old at that point. I didn't have any clue how beneficial it would be until later on in my life.
"It really helped for me to go to winter ball, where you have no choice but to speak Spanish, especially in certain countries. In Mexico and Venezuela, very few people spoke English. Even the dogs didn't understand English. I had to talk to the dogs in Spanish."
Like most teams, the Reds provide English lessons to their Spanish-speaking prospects and an English version of computer software programs. But Cincinnati has taken the additional step of offering the Spanish software to anyone in its farm system who wants to learn. So far, about five to 10 players have opted for it.
On a volunteer basis only, Padres player development director Randy Smith asked his organization's Minor League coaches and instructors to learn Spanish. The club believed that since it asks its Dominican kids to learn English on the fly, why not make the effort to learn their language?
"It's something I thought was important to make us efficient when dealing with players when we're going to the Dominican, or with our players who are just coming here and don't have command of the English language yet," Smith said in a 2010 interview.
On the big league level, Cincinnati's roster makeup falls in line with the average of six players on the 25-man roster being foreign-born Latinos. That includes Cuban pitcher Aroldis Chapman -- who speaks little English -- and Dominican ace Johnny Cueto, who speaks English with teammates, but uses an interpreter for most media interviews. Infielders Wilson Valdez and Miguel Cairo speak to reporters in their second languages.
Through his lessons, Votto has gained a better appreciation of how difficult that can be.
"It's very intimidating. You never want to be misquoted," Votto said. "You don't want to look bad. It can be embarrassing to make an attempt at a language that's foreign to you. I feel for them, certainly."
Cairo, who hails from Venezuela, found Votto's efforts to learn his language to be admirable.
"It's nice that they want to learn and understand what we're saying," Cairo said. "It creates a better atmosphere and better clubhouse when they know what we're saying."
"Not only do we appreciate their effort, but it's good for them, too," Rays pitcher Joel Peralta said.
Not unlike other clubhouses, the Latin players on the Reds often congregate together on the sofas or in lounges, and they spend time together away from the ballpark. Votto has gotten comfortable with both engaging with and speaking fluently to teammates he might not have been able to a year ago.
"I'm about there now," said Votto, who will be with Cincinnati through 2023 after he signed a 10-year, $225 million contract extension last month. "It doesn't mean I always make sense, but I can hold a basic conversation with them. The best way is hold conversations and establish a base through a formal education."
As for Longoria, he admitted that he has a ways to go before he masters Spanish, but has received compliments from Latin players he tries to communicate with.
"It's funny to see the players on the other teams when you can have just a simple conversation," Longoria said. "[I say] 'Hey, how are you?' And they say, 'I didn't know you spoke Spanish.' Or, 'You sound like your accent is very good, like you've been practicing.' That's pretty cool. It definitely is like a sign of respect. Or a sign that you care about their culture and it's not just an American game."
Votto, a native of Toronto, grew up speaking bilingual because Canada recognizes both English and French as official languages. He found many similarities between French and Spanish.
"They have to do with one another. It's the only reason I am successful at it," Votto said.
The efforts to learn Spanish are spreading one locker at a time among the Reds. Votto gave right fielder Jay Bruce his copy of Rosetta Stone. Bruce has only had one 30-minute lesson with a different program, but was eager to give it a concentrated effort.
"It's something I definitely think will help, just being in America these days," Bruce said. "I know a little and I know I sound ridiculous to them. I know a few vocabulary words and can get my point across, especially in the baseball realm."
It remains to be seen if a team that speaks two languages together, wins together. But it certainly doesn't seem to hurt.