Learning Spanish to Be a Better Teammate

Learning Spanish to Be a Better Teammate

3 min.
April 7, 2021

by Barry Svrluga

Washington Post

Retired Twins star gained close friends as he learned to speak SpanishA Lesson for MLB

Brian Dozier had 4,900 major league plate appearances, and only 482 of them came with the Washington Nationals. When he retired from baseball in February, he did so as a Minnesota Twin, the team that drafted him, developed him, brought him to the big leagues and made him an all-star.

And yet in Washington, where no fan has witnessed an in-person major league game since — why, since the 2019 World Series — Dozier is best remembered as the shirtless dude from Mississippi, holding some sort of Anheuser-Busch product that wasn't long for this world, crooning reggaeton lyrics in … Spanish? Which brought no small measure of delight to his Spanish-speaking teammates.

There's a message in there somewhere.

"I think we, as Americans, need to take it upon ourselves to say, 'Hey, these guys are going to be playing for a championship just like us, and you need real camaraderie to make that happen, and in order to have that, we need to take it upon ourselves to learn Spanish,' " Dozier said.

Baseball, you might have noticed, has an inclusion problem. It is certainly true as it pertains to women, and the sport is grappling with that publicly in ways that are both humiliating for some individuals and degrading for the entire industry. It is, too, the most solitary of team sports, because the action centers on pitcher vs. hitter rather than, say, team-with-the-ball vs. team-without-the-ball, lessening the necessity for strategic togetherness that defines games like football or soccer.

But it remains a team sport, and in some ways — ways as undeniable as they are difficult to pin down — team dynamics matter deeply. Baseball players spend ungodly amounts of time with each other, from early afternoon until late at night, on buses and planes, in hotels and restaurants (at least when there's not a pandemic), for eight months of the year. They come from backgrounds both affluent and poor. They are Black and white, American and Asian and Latino.

That last part, it's important. According to data released by Major League Baseball, nearly one in four players on 2020 Opening Day rosters or injured lists came from Spanish-speaking countries. That would affect any company trying to get its employees to work together, so it has to affect baseball teams.

"There's so many times where things have gotten lost in translation," Dozier said. "Just small stuff, on the field, off the field, in the dugout, in the clubhouse. And all you need — it could be one word. An expression. It could be anything."

Dozier's retirement came right around the time Kevin Mather, who was then the president of the Seattle Mariners, complained at a Rotary Club meeting that some of his team's foreign players didn't speak better English. That's the way baseball treated the issue for years: Players from, say, the Dominican Republic — the largest exporter of talent to MLB — sign at age 16, are in the U.S. by 18 and are asked to learn English.

Why think of Dozier? Because long ago, when he was in the minor leagues, he decided to flip it around. He decided to learn Spanish.

"There were so many great guys that I became friends with, but I really couldn't break that real true friendship barrier," Dozier said, "because you couldn't really communicate in the way that you need to communicate in to have that real bond."

Dozier had no prior Spanish experience, but he took up Rosetta Stone, the language immersion software, and began teaching himself after ballgames and on bus rides.

During one of his off seasons in the minors, he played winter ball in Venezuela. Around that same time, he met Eduardo Escobar, who was new to the Twins organization.

"I taught him English," Dozier said. "He taught me a lot of Spanish, just how to communicate day-in and day-out and stuff like that. I took it upon myself to start reading books on planes and bus rides just to kind of teach myself more. And then obviously the best way to learn it is being around it every day and actually using it."

A funny thing then happened for Dozier: He became friends — close friends — with many of his Latin teammates. Escobar, now with the Diamondbacks, missed the beginning of a team meeting to call into Dozier's retirement ceremony. "I call him one of my best friends to this day," Dozier said.

MLB has come miles and miles in fostering a more welcoming culture for its Latin players. Most clubs offer some sort of Spanish instruction, and the league has mandated that each team designate a translator so players who aren't comfortable speaking English can conduct interviews.

Even though Dozier was in Washington for just one season, his imprint remains here. Not because of much that he did with the bat or glove. But because when the Nationals celebrated their postseason victories, there was Dozier — bare-chested, in the center of a group of Latin players — crooning the song "Calma" by Puerto Rican star Pedro Capo, which became the Nats' anthem.

That 2019 Nationals team was anchored not just by "Los Viejos" — the old-guy veterans who performed so well in salvaging what looked to be a lost season and excelling in the playoffs. It was defined by a cross-cultural vibe in which cliques dissolved. And there was Brian Dozier of Mississippi, surrounded by players of all ethnicities, belting out lyrics in Spanish.

"A lot of the American players learn to have a little conversation in Spanish," Dozier said. "I think it would be great if more guys learn how to take it to the next level."

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