Moving for work can be challenging at any time in one’s life, but for 19 year old Latin American baseball players, moving to the United States is a whole different story. Imagine locating to a new area where you don’t know the language, you look different than everyone else, is 2,700 miles from your home, and you have no knowledge of the people, customs, culture, food, or weather. This is just shy of what these Major League Baseball Latin American players experience when they come to the U.S. looking to find a job and become major league stars.
It is often said of MLB front offices, that as long as their Latin American based players are performing between the chalk, it doesn’t matter if they can speak English or understand American culture. Throughout the Arizona Fall Baseball League, the Minor League Sports Report will be focusing on Latin American and Spanish speaking players and their advancement as MLB’s future stewards of the game.
The top prospect in the Arizona Fall League, Spanish speaking or otherwise, is Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Of all the players I’ve seen play on the dirt fields of the Dominican Republic, he’s whom I have come to see. Ask any reporter here who their White Whale is and they’ll tell you it is Vlad. Ask any kid whose card or autograph is the most coveted and they’ll tell you it is Vlad’s. Ask any coach whom they wish they had more of… that would also be Vlad.
But Vlad isn’t the only Latin American player here in Arizona. There are many names you’ll see on your everyday fantasy rosters or your favorite team. Here there are plenty of future stars, Gold Glove winners, and first ballet hall of famers. There are also a few who will fizzle out and go the way of the Dodo. They’ll end up back in the D.R. as a Campo wondering what could have been?
Along with international player development, all thirty teams have a culture and English assimilation department. Some are really strong, and focus on the players. They will even help players study for and pass their Dominican high school exams so that they may earn their high school diploma (an honor in any Dominican household). These academies have computer centers and English teachers. They provide the players with English Rosetta Stone and some even provide the coaches with Spanish Rosetta Stone.
Other teams have focused on their players learning a trade or skill such as Microsoft word, excel, and other computer programs so they may work in an office. Classes are also available in sexual education and financial education. Some teams teach basic skills to be a waiter in a resort, or work in the tourism industry (which is one of the Dominican Republic’s biggest industries). Teams such as the Pirates, Royals, and Colorado Rockies have had success in these areas. Much like the NFL and NBA, teams in the MLB know there are many players will not make it, and therefore they want to give these players the tools to be able to work once they are released.
The Dominican Republic is not a big place. The New York City metro area has a higher population than the D.R. And the island itself only takes three hours to drive across. In the D.R. however, baseball is king. The Dominican players are the biggest thing on the island. They are the Kardashians of the island, but with talent. Here in the United States though, things are a lot different, and not just the three-hour drive.
In the fall league I want to focus on the different challenges that Latin American players face when coming to the U.S. I want to focus on what tools they are given to fight, mitigate, and adjust to those challenges. I want to also answer the question of how MLB and teams can better prepare these Latin American players off the field, so that getting lost in translation doesn’t lead to failure.
I’ll give examples from my time working with Spanish speaking players both in the Dominican and the U.S. I’ll try and explain and ferret out a day in the life of a 16-year-old new signee at the academy, and compare it to what a 16 year old in the US faces. When reading these differences remember them so you can understand why Latin American players do what they do, why they work so hard, why they take risks (such as using banned substances in higher amounts), and why they play the game a different way (a way in which at times is looked at as disrespecting the game).
Often times Latin American players are the ones whom report to camp overweight, are accused of being lazy, or accused of disrespecting the game. Are any of these accusations fair, or does the average everyday fan (you) have it all wrong? It helps as I mentioned in the open to understand their lives and where they have come from. When you have 6 brothers and sisters, your Mom is a single Mom, and there is raw sewage with hypodermic needles flowing out your front door, your ideologies might be a bit different. That’s a motivator to take drastic measures to succeed, one in which most in the U.S. won’t have to face. These players leave formal schooling early and go live with a buscone (player developer). Their entire life from that point on is to get signed at 16. They often lack basic life skills. That is where the teams and MLB attempt to step in.
Finally, if you haven’t had a chance to experience the Arizona Fall Baseball League I would highly recommend it, it is said that the Fall League is what Spring Training once was – great access, inexpensive tickets, one in which an entire family can come and enjoy, kids and parents alike can get autographs, and much more. The average crowd is less than 500, yes that’s correct, Five Hundred Fans. At most Spring Training Games you can’t even get a ticket, and are elbow to elbow for autographs.
I look forward to your questions and feedback. I truly hope you all will learn what it’s like to try and come from the Dominican Republic and Latin America, to the Show, a dream we’ve perhaps all shared.
By Carlito Santana-Sierra