Phillies players say Spanish translator is clutch for team
ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — In a game against with the rival New York Yankees in 2014, Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell strolled out of his dugout to alert the umpire to a foreign substance on Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda’s neck.
When the substance turned out to be pine tar, Pineda was not only ejected but also suspended for 10 games. Facing a swarm of reporters, Pineda, who is a native Spanish-speaker born in the Dominican Republic, struggled to answer questions.
The incident irked teammate Carlos Beltran, who thought a translator should have accompanied Pineda, who couldn’t find the English words he needed to explain himself.
Beltran knew that with almost 200 players from Spanish-speaking countries in the major leagues, it wasn’t an isolated incident. So he pressured the Major League Baseball Players Association, which in turn approached Major League Baseball, to provide Spanish language translators.
After launching a one-year pilot program in 2016 in which translators were hired for every team, MLB agreed to continue the program for five years.
No team has benefited more from the program than the Phillies, whose roster is among the most reliant on Latino players. And no one has been happier to have it than utility infielder Andres Blanco. Before fellow Venezuelan Diego Ettedgui joined the team last year as translator, interpreting duties often fell to Blanco, one of a dozen or so native Spanish speakers who have been on the roster this season.
Blanco eventually became fluent but struggled with English for a long time after breaking into minor league baseball 15 years ago.
“Pretty much it’s in the clubhouse or when coaches talk or the media asks you something, that’s when we make the most mistakes,” Blanco said.
One wrong word is all it takes to confuse a reporter or run into a mix-up with a question, he said. And sometimes, what gets lost in translation can be embarrassing.
For example, when Blanco was with the Kansas City Royals’ Double A team, he thought the manager told him he could report to the field in flip-flops but realized his mistake when the rest of the team showed up in dress shoes.
For reliever Edubray Ramos, a mistranslation was more costly. While playing for Single-A Clearwater, the Venezuelan-born pitcher was told by a coach to throw a fastball outside. He did what he thought the coach had said and threw a fastball — down the middle, surrendering a home run. Through a teammate who later translated for him, Ramos found out after the game that he did the opposite of what he was supposed to do.
“When I was playing in Clearwater, it happened so often,” Ramos said, through Ettedgui. “So many times I made mistakes, I did things the wrong way because I didn’t know what they were saying.”
Baseball’s popularity in Latin America has swelled the number of Spanish-speaking players to nearly 30 percent, MLB statistics show. That’s a far cry from the post-World War II era when only 1 percent of players primarily spoke Spanish, according to the Society for American Baseball Research. By the late 1990s, the language barrier had become such a problem that MLB started offering classes in English as a second language in 1997, with the teams’ covering the costs. Those classes are ongoing.
As players learn the language, new players join the ranks from places such as the Dominican Republic, where all MLB teams have baseball academies, and Venezuela. Those two countries contribute the greatest number of players, about 170 altogether this season. Until 2016, teams relied on Spanish-speaking coaches and players to translate. When Blanco joined the Phillies in 2014, he was among those leaned upon.
The translator program has removed that burden. The costs vary by market but MLB is subsidizing it with $65,000 for each team this year and next, and $50,000 from 2019 through 2021. The money comes from MLB’s international tax signing fund, which is paid by teams that exceed a spending threshold on international amateur talent, said Paul Mifsud, MLB’s vice president and deputy general counsel of Labor Relations and Player Programs. Those funds are intended to “improve baseball globally.”
The program is strictly for Spanish translators. While baseball’s popularity in South Korea and Japan has lured some Asian players to the U.S., there haven’t been more than 21 Asian-born players on Opening Day rosters in the last 20 years. Since many Asian players have a professional contract in their home countries, they often negotiate private interpreters into the contracts they sign here, which is what Phillies outfielder Hyun Soo Kim did.
But it’s a different story for players from Latin America.
“When it comes to most of the players coming out of the Dominican Republic today, those players are not playing in professional baseball, they’re coming over at 16, 17, 18 years old, without a formal education half the time,” Mifsud said. “So there was definitely a need to provide translation services without cost to those players. Those players usually do not have the leverage to negotiate into their contract the right to translation services.”
Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said he’s pleased with the mandate. He speaks some Spanish, having managed in the Venezuelan League, Dominican Winter League and Puerto Rican Winter League. But before Ettedgui joined the staff, Mackanin delegated much of the interpreting duties for the coaching staff to Juan Samuel, the Phillies’ third base coach. With Ettedgui now filling that role, Samuel can focus on coaching, Mackanin said.
More than a translator, Ettedgui is a go-between who is with players in the clubhouse before the game and through batting practice, relaying information between them and their coaches. He watches the game from the press box but returns to the field and clubhouse for post-game interviews when players might need his services. Sometimes, players might ask for more of his help — such as one who needed help with his taxes. Ettedgui helps where he can but is mindful to follow MLB’s rules and not be used as a go-fer.
“That’s a tough job for him because he is friendly with all the players and the staff,” Mackanin said. “He knows where his boundaries are.”
For players such as Phillies second baseman Cesar Hernandez, who knows some English but converses almost entirely in Spanish, Ettedgui’s assistance is appreciated.
“An interpreter is pretty useful because I feel that I can speak English but there are always those little words that I can’t remember, that I can’t find off the top of my head, that he can help me with,” Hernandez said through Ettedgui.
Ettedgui came to translation through journalism. Working for the Spanish-language newspaper El Mundo in Boston, he regularly covered Red Sox games and was encouraged by a team ambassador to apply for one of the new translator positions. Several teams contacted Ettedgui but the Phillies, he said, were the best fit.
Ettedgui believes the number of Latino players in baseball has skyrocketed largely because children see people from their hometowns, such as Ozzie Guillen, Andres Galarraga and Omar Vizquel, make it big.
“A lot of these guys come from nothing, they barely had food at home, sometimes they didn’t have a father figure and when they watched TV they (saw) people like them who have succeeded,” Ettedgui said.
His understands their situations because like many major league players, Ettedgui is from Venezuela. He said his great-grandfather, Herman Ettedgui Sr., was the first official scorekeeper of the Venezuelan Winter League, helped build the 1941 Venezuelan team that won the Baseball World Cup, and was inducted into the Venezuelan Baseball Hall of Fame in 2005.
Coming from a baseball family, Ettedgui played the sport in school. After high school, Ettedgui took a six-month English course at Dean College in Franklin, Mass.
One morning, halfway through the course, Ettedgui’s father called with the news that his grandfather had been kidnapped. Hours later, after the family paid ransom, his grandfather was released. While frightening, the scenario wasn’t unfamiliar to the family. A cousin had been kidnapped twice, Ettedgui said.
“Every day things are getting worse and worse and worse,” Carlos Ettedgui said on the phone that day to his son. “Just try to stay there (in America). I wouldn’t feel comfortable having you here.”
Ettedgui was happy to comply. Lawlessness had become the norm in Venezuela and he didn’t relish returning to a place where life had little value, he said.
“They kill you over a watch, a pair of shoes, a hat,” he said. “They put three bullets in your head, man, because they know they’re not going to be prosecuted. They know that if they go to jail, they’re going to be released within six months to a year.”
Ettedgui was accepted into Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. He made the school’s baseball and soccer teams, and the soccer coach helped him get financial aid.
Carlos Ettedqui was thrilled for his son.
“I didn’t even finish the sentence and he’s like ‘Do it, do it.’ ” Ettedqui said. “I just want you to be safe. I want you to stay there.’”
Ettedgui eventually transferred to Northeastern University in Boston, where he majored in health management. After a year in that field, he realized it wasn’t for him and took a communications course. He had been writing a sports blog for fun and that helped him land the job at El Mundo.
This season is his second working for the Phillies and while he enjoys translating for the players, he would eventually like to become a player education professional in the minor leagues.
Many major league farm teams have added the positions, Mifsud said, to teach Spanish-speaking players not only the language but also American culture. The positions are not mandated but the commissioner’s office recommends that teams consider adding them, he said.
“We are targeting education for Latinos coming into the United States for the first time as minor league players,” Mifsud said. “A lot of the teams are really putting a lot of investment into this area.”
The Royals are one of the best at off-field development and education in the minors. After they won the 2015 World Series, MLB modeled their approach for other teams. Winning tends to be convincing.
At the 2016 MLB winter meetings in December, 18 of the 30 major league teams reported having education professionals in their farm teams, Mifsud said, adding that MLB is hoping for full participation by this December’s winter meetings.
Ray Robles, Phillies assistant director of international operations, established a program that includes instructors at Double-A Reading and each of the team’s minor league affiliates from Single-A Clearwater and below, as well as at the team’s academies in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. At Triple-A Lehigh Valley, however, players are only offered software programs such as Rosetta Stone.
Kiah Berman, who was hired in August as manager of language education and cultural assimilation, is in the process of assessing the entire program and will make adjustments, Robles said.
Ettedgui feels he may be more helpful to players in the minors, where he can stress the importance of learning about the culture in the United States.
“Some of them just come here and want to play baseball and that’s it,” Ettedgui said. “No, you have to try and get yourself involved in that, too.”
Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com