April 2, 2017
By Jennifer Krauss
The first time Fernando Salas, a relief pitcher from Mexico, spoke with reporters after the Mets acquired him from the Los Angeles Angels at the end of August, he gamely tried English, which he is still learning, and was roundly applauded for his efforts.
“Afterward, he and I made small talk in Spanish to get to know each other,” says James Wagner, a New York Times baseball writer who had recently left The Washington Post. “I, too, was new to New York, having moved to the city earlier that summer to cover the Mets.”
Mr. Salas’s pregnant wife was back in California, and he was surrounded by new faces in the midst of a heated playoff race. Plus, though he didn’t want to admit it, Mr. Salas was confused by the complicated rules surrounding his late-season trade after the “nonwaiver” deadline.
“A day or two later, he called me over to his locker when I was in the clubhouse before a game,” Mr. Wagner recalls. “ ‘How was it exactly that the Mets acquired me?’ he asked sheepishly. ‘Am I eligible for the playoffs?’ ”
As the Mets welcome the Atlanta Braves to Citi Field on Monday for their season-opening game, Latinos account for close to 30 percent of Major League Baseball players, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. The majority of United States-based baseball writers for English-language media, on the other hand, do not speak Spanish.
Mr. Wagner is a rare exception. (The Washington Post’s Nationals reporter, Jorge Castillo; MLB.com’s Angels reporter, Maria Guardado; The Los Angeles Times’s baseball columnist and former Dodgers reporter, Dylan Hernandez; and USA Today’s national baseball reporter Jorge Ortiz are a few others.) Of the regular Mets beat reporters, Mr. Wagner is the only Spanish speaker.
His mother was born and raised in Nicaragua, and his father’s job as an American diplomat meant that the family lived in the Philippines, Venezuela and Peru while he was growing up.
“I’ve gotten to know all the Mets’ Latino players,” he says, “so they immediately speak to me in Spanish. They’ve been some of my best sources of information, giving me a pulse of the clubhouse.”
Major League Baseball and the players’ union did add Spanish-language interpreters to every big league clubhouse last season, but a lot can be lost in translation. Relying on an interpreter means the conversation isn’t as natural.
“Latino players are often more likely to agree to an interview with me because we speak the same language,” Mr. Wagner says. “They’re less apt to be misquoted and more able to express complex sentiments and ideas.”
Three players who opened up, despite reputations for being guarded, stand out as examples to Mr. Wagner: Yunel Escobar, Rafael Soriano and Bartolo Colon.
“I covered the first two when they were with the Washington Nationals and I worked at The Washington Post,” Mr. Wagner says. “Escobar and Soriano had reputations for being below-average teammates because they were reclusive and didn’t talk much with reporters — who, of course, didn’t speak Spanish. I got to know both of them.
“For a story about his defection from Cuba, Escobar invited me to his house so we could talk about things he had never shared before, and so I could speak with his family. I learned a lot about the intricacies of pitching from Soriano, who also shared many funny anecdotes about Dominican players in the major leagues.
“Colon, who spent three years with the Mets before leaving for the Atlanta Braves this winter, showed me how he grips and throws all his pitches and explained the nuances of when and why he uses each of them.”
There are also socioeconomic and cultural issues with which baseball has to contend that may more easily be discussed with someone who speaks the language — even, perhaps, in a conversation that can’t be understood by English-speaking top brass who might stroll by.
“There have been times,” Mr. Wagner notes, “when the team’s public relations officials have joked with me about what I know from talking with the players in Spanish.”
For now at least, he’s keeping those secrets under his proverbial cap.
Source: The New York Times