By BEN WALKER
AP Baseball Writer
TAMPA, Fla. — There were times in the low minors when Mariano Rivera felt totally lost on the mound. That was, before he got a good grasp of his cut fastball — and English.
“The manager or coach would tell me something and I didn’t understand them,” the New York Yankees’ closer said. “You nod your head yes, but you have no idea what they are saying.”
Major League Baseball is trying to ease the language barrier, adopting a new rule that permits interpreters to join mound conferences when pitchers aren’t fluent in English.
Yet for Latino pitchers, something still might get lost in translation.
As it stands, only people employed full time as interpreters can accompany managers and pitching coaches onto the field. And right now most, if not all, are for Asian players. Yu Darvish and Hiroki Kuroda, for example, are routinely provided translators by their teams. But Spanish-speaking players mostly rely on bilingual teammates or coaches to help them, be it on the mound, in the field or in the clubhouse.
The reasoning is that Asian players go directly from overseas teams to the majors without time to pick up English in the minors. Also, most linguists consider the transition to be more difficult than it is for Latino players.
“It’s kind of the same and it’s kind of different,” Baltimore catcher Matt Wieters said. “For the most part, a lot of the Latin guys that are in the big leagues have been through the minor leagues, have had years of experience in the minor leagues to develop a relationship. Some of the Asian pitchers come over here and it’s their first year over here and they haven’t had that sort of adjustment time. It’s up for debate.”
Baltimore pitcher Wei-Yin Chen said through Orioles translator Tim Lin that, above all, the rule should be fair.
“If I can bring my interpreter, Spanish players should bring their interpreter, too,” he said.
“Yes, that should be allowed,” the all-time saves leader said. “Somebody on the team should be allowed to translate for them.”
Added Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington: “There’s validity in exploring that idea.”
The new rule has already been used by the Chicago Cubs in spring training and will extend into the regular season, which begins March 31. It was approved in January at the owners’ meeting and later OK’d by the players’ union. Pro baseball in Japan already had such a provision. Translators will be dressed like trainers — in sportswear (shirt and long pants), rather than uniforms or street clothes, and be available on the bench.
On opening day last year, more than 28 percent of players on big league rosters were born outside the 50 United States, including more than 200 from Hispanic countries.
Of course, any club is welcome to hire a Latino interpreter. A team without one could eventually get some leeway with the new rule.
“Well, I think there’s going to be a designated interpreter for each club, and I don’t think it’s going to be a coach,” MLB executive Joe Torre said Thursday before managing the U.S. team in the World Baseball Classic.
“Hopefully, it’s going to work well,” he said. “Obviously, until we see it happen, we’re not going to know for sure. But I think in Major League Baseball we’re making an effort to try to make the game better and move along better. With so many international players, to me it made sense.”
Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda is from the Dominican Republic and has focused on perfecting English since becoming a pro. He gladly does interviews in his second language.
“Most teams, they don’t have interpreters for Latin guys,” he said. “It’s very hard for Latin players if they don’t learn English. I tell that to the young players. You’ve got to learn.”
Former A’s pitcher Ariel Prieto works full time for Oakland as an interpreter for Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes and former Cy Young winner Bartolo Colon. But that’s not a common practice among teams.
“You as a club choose whether or not to have an interpreter on staff. You can have two, one for Asian players and one for Latin players and have them on your bench. They would have to be employed for that position,” Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski said. “We don’t have the necessity because we have so many bilingual players, but if we didn’t, we would get an interpreter because you need to be able to communicate properly.”
Many teams provide English classes for their minor leaguers, and players from other countries are encouraged by club management and teammates to learn the language.
“I tell our young pitchers that the more they know English, the more it will help them on the field and off the field,” Rivera said.
“You have to know exactly what they’re telling you, how they want you to pitch and what they want you to throw. If you are not 100 percent sure, that’s no good. It has to be 100 percent,” he said.
On the Yankees, second baseman Robinson Cano frequently is the go-between for Spanish-speaking pitchers during mound summits — a luxury not enjoyed by most teams. .
“Yes, I think someone should be able to translate for them. If it’s a coach or teammate, it’s someone on the same team,” Kuroda said through Yankees interpreter Jiwon Bang.
Yankees bench coach Tony Pena, currently managing the Dominican team in the WBC, liked the idea.
“Most of the time we want that communication during the game, and I think it’s great because some of those kids sometimes, sometimes they feel lost. And we want to be on the same page as much as possible,” he said.
Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee said he’s never had trouble getting his message across. Yet Philadelphia catcher Erik Kratz is ready to help any Hispanic pitchers, if necessary.
In the minors, Kratz made an effort to learn Spanish “in a conversational way, and in the baseball sense,” he said. He might need it — catcher Carlos Ruiz is suspended 25 games to start the season.
Kratz likes the new rule, and could see it evolving.
“As players, as a union, we’re trying to get it right,” he said. “The first time on anything, you might need to tweak it.”