Baseball is hard enough as it is. The margin for error is so small that the best players of all-time tend to fail at a 70 percent rate.
How much harder would it be when you do not understand the language? The culture? Where even a simple take-out food order has become a daunting task? For many of today’s players, this is a real problem that is mostly overlooked because of the quality of game they play.
The Lake Elsinore Storm currently have players from six different countries: United States of America, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. The majority of their current roster (16 of 31) speaks a language other than English as their primary form of communication and very few had spent any real time in the United States before they started playing here. The Padres have put practices in place to help the transition, but it does not change the fact that most of these players are a long way from home, in a situation they cannot be prepared for.
To try and grasp just how difficult this situation can be, Storm Assistant CFO and former Padres’ farmhand Andres Pagan (Yauco, Puerto Rico), current pitching prospects Adrian Morejon (Havana, Cuba), Dauris Valdez (Bani, Dominican Republic), Diomar Lopez (Larreynaga, Nicaragua), and outfield prospect Edward Olivares (Caracas, Venezuela) spoke with me about the everyday life of a player in a foreign land.
For Andres Pagan, times were different in the early 2000’s. Something as simple as a phone call was hard to come by back then, let alone trying to explain a situation to a random person.
“I was in Montana in the Midwest League when I first got out here and I was trying to figure out how to contact my family. It was hard because I was trying to explain what I needed to do, but I couldn’t do it.”
Pagan had recently stopped into a store to try and get in contact with his dad. Back then, a calling card was needed and it was an eye-opening experience for someone that had never had to have an interaction like that. Something so simple, that he had taken for granted back home, had turned into an overwhelming ordeal.
“It’s tough, I had to find something close to eat because I couldn’t drive, I didn’t have a license. But once I got there, I couldn’t order food because I couldn’t communicate. Nowadays with cell phones, it’s easier but still very hard on these guys.”
A lot can get lost in translation when looking at these players. For most, we see only the player. We see the stats, the skill level, their positives and negatives on the field, but what about life off of it?
“You have family back home, maybe there is a situation with them? All you see is the player in the uniform but what about everything else? There is so much more that goes on that people don’t realize.” Pagan said on an off-day in April at the Diamond in Lake Elsinore. “Most players understand [English around] baseball, but when you go to the store, or anywhere else outside of baseball, it can get confusing quickly.”
Day-to-day tasks, that can be an afterthought for most, has turned into a daily battle for these young players.
“Imagine you know the word, you understand the word, but you can’t pronounce it? Something simple where they change the pronunciation and it changes the whole meaning?” Pagan continued, “Now you feel like you did something wrong. A big part of the learning process is the confidence, I tell them it’s like baseball, and you have to be okay when you fail.”
Pagan has arguably seen more than most with his time around baseball, on and off the field. The former 18th-round pick was a catcher drafted out of Puerto Rico by the Padres in 1999 and could barely speak the language when he came to the United States. He can relate to these young players because he spent seven years in the Minor Leagues before his career ended after a car accident. Pagan, out of baseball without any work experience outside of the game, went back to school at the University of Puerto Rico. There he earned his degree in accounting and mathematics.
A part of his job with the Storm is teaching the young Latin American players the English language, during their limited spare time. The class teaches the players how to assimilate to the language and cultural barrier that the United States offers these foreign companions.
“I’ve had to learn how to communicate with [my teammates] about everything.” Lopez said through Pagan. “It’s not a big problem if they speak slowly, I can pick up most of it, but there is still a problem communicating.”
“You can go to a city, and not be familiar with what they have. So sometimes, you don’t eat because it’s easier,” Pagan revealed. “I wouldn’t eat very well, so I would send that money to my family because it would help them much more.” Pagan would continue, “We would wait for the meal money and send it to our families because it was like an advance and it was easier than having those conversations.”
Pagan estimates that nearly 80 percent of most Latin American player’s paychecks are going back to their families. Granted, some players have been fortunate enough to see big bonuses on signing day, but that is not the norm. For every big bonus given out by a team, there are many other players signed for much less. That stress can take a toll on a person, let alone a player outside of their comfort zone that is expected to save a franchise.
“Every day I’m here, it is work and motivation to do good for my family,” Olivares commented through Pagan, “but it is tough being that far away from them.”
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“I missed my mom’s birthday in my first year,” Valdez remembered, “and it was the first time that had happened. I use that because I know my family will be better if I continue to get better.”
These players have been given an extreme gift and understand just how lucky they are. Baseball has granted them a life-altering opportunity, and with that comes an uncomfortable experience. No one outside of their situation can possibly understand what they are going through, but they are making the most of it, and they have at least one thing still going for them.
“With baseball, its baseball,” Valdez simplified. “The rules are the same and the baseball is the same.”
“The game in Cuba is so loud, whereas here, I can think more clearly,” Morejon stated. “It gives me a better chance to analyze the game, which is nice because the competition is better here.”
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It puts a lot in perspective and makes a person reflect on simple situations. On the field, these players are still able to contribute and showcase their gifts to a vast public, but let us not forget just what these people are going through. The calm demeanors shown on a daily basis in between the lines are there due to a familiarity, but it is time for fans to realize that sometimes, the hard part may be off the field with something as simple as placing a food order.