Aided by interpreters, Spanish-speaking and Asian baseball players make effort to communicate

  • Minnesota’s Byung Ho Park (right), a rookie from South Korea, has two objectives – he wants to learn English to talk to the media, and Spanish to speak with his teammates. AP

Associated Press
Published: 6/27/2016 1:53:56 AM

NEW YORK – Byung Ho Park is trying to learn not one, but two new languages in his first MLB season.

The first baseman and designated hitter from Seoul, South Korea, is working to learn quips of English and Spanish in the clubhouse so he can communicate more easily with his Minnesota Twins teammates.

“I’ve always been interested in learning a new language and I’m here in the United States so that’s good, but more than half of my teammates speak Spanish so I would like to have conversations with them so I’m learning a little bit of Spanish to get by,” Park said through his interpreter, J.D. Kim.

Kim has been helping him with English while outfielder Danny Santana has helped Park the most with his Spanish. Kim has his own locker right next to Park’s and Kim is expected to be with Park almost everywhere the 29-year-old rookie might go.

Kim’s juggling of three languages highlights some of the hurdles of communicating in the majors with so many players from different places. Many Asian players get personal interpreters through clauses written into their contracts; many Spanish-speaking players don’t. This season is the first that all 30 MLB clubs are required to employ a Spanish-language interpreter for their players.

Yankees outfielder Carlos Beltran led the push for Spanish interpreters, convincing the league and players union to agree to new guidelines.

Beltran said he was inspired to bring up the issue after talking with Yankees GM Brian Cashman about Japanese translators last spring training.

“Some of the guys here really don’t speak the language plus sometimes when we do meetings and things like that it’s good to have him (the Spanish-speaking translator) around,” Beltran said. “There are not people lost. Now we know what is going on.”

The interpreters are required to be available for all pregame and postgame interviews, plus during spring training and the postseason.

According to MLB, nearly 25 percent of players on the 2015 Opening Day roster came from primarily Spanish-speaking countries.

Usually, players just try to learn bits and pieces of English when they come to MLB from another country, picking up phrases as they also try to adjust to new levels of complexity, speed and talent on the diamond.

But Park noted Miami Marlins outfielder Ichiro Suzuki as a well-known player who became fluent in English after coming from Japan.

“I think it’s amazing that all these players come from different countries that try to learn English and do learn English,” Marlins team President Dave Samson said. “Ichiro and I joke around a lot because I try to speak Japanese, but I’ve only gotten to ‘konnichiwa.’ ”

Beltran says the new interpreters program has helped younger players feel more comfortable around media.

Players are still willing to learn English, he said, but interpreters help relieve some of the pressure that comes with talking to the press before and after games.

“When I first came to the big leagues I didn’t speak English well and it was overwhelming,” Beltran said. “Knowing when the game was over probably you were going to have to answer questions in English about how you felt, and how the game went. Now we have that person (who can help).”

Park, meanwhile, hopes to get comfortable speaking for himself in Spanish and English along with Korean.

“Some guys like to have translators with them and some guys won’t talk at all, but it’s all personal preference,” Park said through Kim. “But for me I want to know how, with my teammates, to communicate.”

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