Pro Baseball Has International Flavor

The baseball played on these Central Florida fields has a distinctly international sound.

This is the Gulf Coast League, the lowest rung of minor league baseball and the first stop for a growing number of foreign players.

Coaches say most of them speak little or no English. Sometimes, translators outnumber the coaches.

"Just last week I had a Korean pitcher, a Japanese catcher and a Latin shortstop, Frank Klebe, manager of the Gulf Coast League Phillies, noted recently. "And we wanted to do something out at the mound we were allowed to bring the interpreters out."

Crash Course

For many teams, each day begins with English classes.

"El ayvado," Sal Artiaga, the Philadelphia Phillies' director of Latin American operations told a group of players at a recent sessions.

"Fly ball," they said.

"Delina," Artiaga said.

"Line out," they said.

"Okay, good," Delina told them.

It's a crash course on language and culture now required by professional baseball as it assimilates talent from around the world.

"A major league club will put the best player on the field regardless of whether he's American, whether he's Latin, or Japanese, or Korean, or whatever," Artiaga said.

… or whether he speaks English. All-stars like Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki and Montreal's Vladimir Guerrero need full-time interpreters.

‘Vital to Learn English’

But they are not models for success, say professional scouts. For lesser-known players like 17-year-old Dominican Carlos Rodriguez, learning English can be the difference between moving up, or moving out.

"If you want to make it to the majors, it's vital to learn English," said Rodriguez, a shortstop, through an interpreter. "Otherwise, you can't communicate, you can't be effective."

One advantage is that there is an international language of baseball — with hand signals and expressions like sacrifice fly, double play and cut-off man that, in this game, can be understood even by non-English speakers.

Still, among the rookies, everything seems to move more slowly. As they learn to play like the pros, they're also learning the language.

"Everybody's got to talk," Klebe told his players at a recent practice after some on-field miscommunication. "You were saying it and he was saying it. But you guys have got to talk too."

They're learning the language everywhere from practice to game time, where the manager often has to sprinkle in bilingual phrases to communicate his advice.

Even off the field, foreign players find themselves in a completely different culture, often as teenagers.

Japanese catcher Takashiko Sato can hold his own on the field but still needs a translator just about everywhere else.

"It's hard for me," Sato said through a translator. "I still need a lot of help outside the field. I have trouble communicating with my friends and I want to learn."

Good Business

For the business of baseball, the mix seems to be working. Revenue has more than doubled since 1995.

And increasingly the superstars the game is built around are not named Mantle or McGwire, but Sosa and Suzuki.

And maybe, someday, Sato and Rodriguez.

It's the new face of the American pastime.