For many, English harder than the game
Such players as Taguchi, Romero overcome language barrier
TAMPA, Fla. -- The Memphis Cardinals faced an important stretch at some point during the 2002 season, a point stressed often by the manager.So Taguchi, playing in his first foray into American baseball, thought he understood the message. The next day the rookie arrived an hour early, got dressed and hurried to the field for the important stretch. He limbered up alone. Confused, he asked teammates, "What's wrong? I thought stretching was important." Initially bewildered, teammates quickly realized Taguchi's error. "They laughed for a while, then explained that 'stretch' meant a period of time," Taguchi said, sheepishly recalling the moment but able to smile about it. "I've had many misunderstandings." Among the challenges common in adapting to the Major Leagues is learning the language, which represents a tremendous hurdle for such players as Taguchi, as well as a handful of others. The Japanese veteran has ventured far from his comfort zone into a career playing "American baseball" in the U.S. Though chuckling at Taguchi's befuddlement at the multiple meanings of the word "stretch" is permitted, it underscores the difficulty in adapting to a new place with a whole new set of rules. It's more than just learning balls and strikes. Now entering his seventh big league season, Taguchi takes great pride in going without a translator, a claim that Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Kosuke Fukudome and Tadahito Iguchi cannot make. Taguchi's English isn't crisp, and he sometimes needs words and phrases repeated, but he manages. And though he's fine in one-on-one situations, he remains shy in group settings. That's natural. Taguchi half-jokingly suggests that he learned English from repeated viewings of Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo, and said that his 4-year-old son, Kan, speaks English more fluently than he. His wife, Emiko, also speaks English. He credits English classes taken in school for allowing him to understand, though he couldn't write anything down. He also credits his American teammates in Japan, including Jon Nunnally, Ivan Cruz and Kevin Orie. Eating meals and watching movies served as crash courses, and self-quizzes would test the level of his understanding. His reasons for shedding the interpreter were financial -- he was sent to the Minors and told that he would have to pay for his own -- but he feels that helped expedite the transition. "I wanted to learn as quickly as I could," said Taguchi. "We helped each other out. They helped me by speaking slow. It was important to me to learn, because I have to speak by myself. With an interpreter, I might have learned slower."
Manager Charlie Manuel applauds Taguchi's effort from the perspective of someone who went the opposite way, heading to Japan in 1976. During a six-year career with the Yakult Swallows and Kintetsu Buffaloes, Manuel immersed himself in the culture, which to him was more difficult than speaking Japanese."The language part wasn't a problem," Manuel said. "I couldn't relate to their culture or ways. When I first went there, I didn't know if I belonged, because it was so different. If I could've found my way back [to the U.S.], I would've come home, because they were killing me. I felt out of place. It took me a season to get used to it." Manuel adjusted, and still speaks the language, often to reporters who remember him from his playing days. Hearing Manuel speak Japanese with a West Virginian accent is still a highlight of any day. "They used to call me 'Inaka Mono,' which means Country Boy, or 'Aka Oni' [Red Devil]," said Manuel, whose accomplishments include winning an MVP Award. "I got used to it. I had to." An interpreter, as well as being around fellow Americans Leron Lee, Clete Boyer and Davey Johnson, helped Manuel, though because of a large Western presence in Tokyo, he never felt totally lost. "They spoke English in most of the places around Tokyo," he said. "There were always a lot of Americans over there." Though Taguchi is the starkest example of culture shock, many players have serious adjustments when it comes to fitting in culturally. Reliever J.C. Romero hails from Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, and spoke only Spanish until after graduating high school. That unfamiliarity helped him decide to attend the University of Mobile (Ala.) rather than sign with Seattle. "I didn't want to take that chance because I wasn't ready," Romero said. "When you come from a place where you don't speak the language, how can you communicate?" While pursuing an education in baseball, Romero took English classes and immersed himself in American culture. "I was lucky," said Romero, who eventually met and married an American woman. "It's a necessity to learn if you're going to work in the U.S. Language is the first big step to feeling more comfortable. It makes you a much better player." Romero encourages such younger players as Carlos Carrasco and Fabio Castro to speak to him in English, hoping to speed their transition. The veteran wants to avoid embarrassing situations, such as the time a slipup angered a classmate he was dating. The woman, an English major, said something that confused him. "[I said], 'I can't stand you,' " Romero said, recalling the moment. "I was trying to say 'understand you.' She kicked me out of her car. I didn't know what was going on. From then on I knew I had to learn the language a little better." He did. Count Carlos Ruiz as another player who's made significant progress. The Panamanian spoke little English as an 18-year-old and couldn't as much as order a pizza. Now 29, he contributes to conversations and, more important, feels comfortable in every situation. That understanding has led to confidence and has allowed his personality to emerge. "His English is much better than people think," said Chris Coste, who speaks fluent Spanish. "The whole team appreciates the journey he's made. That's why he's one of the more loved guys on the team. He's as big a jokester and fun-loving guy as there is -- and often in English." Said Ruiz: "I had to really work on it, and it's important. I want to have pitchers understand me. Every day I learn something different, and I feel much more comfortable now. I understand everything now." As for his pizza choice, it's "Domino's pepperoni and a couple of chicken wings." Ruiz said that he owes plenty to Sal Artiaga, the team's director of Latin Affairs, who enrolls all Spanish-speaking players into a team-taught class. Students are given three books, one that translates Spanish to English (language and baseball terms), one that explains such things as signing leases and another that covers the rules of the country. "I don't know where I would be without that," Ruiz said. "I feel so much better now, like I belong." That sense of belonging was a while in coming for Pierre Luc LaForest, a native of Quebec known as "Luc" or just "Pete." In making the transition from speaking exclusively French to speaking English and Spanish, LaForest discovered an amazing sense of freedom. He likens it to being released from a personal prison. That's what happens when your career spans many countries and your ability to assimilate could directly affect your employment. As did Taguchi, LaForest felt alone, as opposed to Latin players who can rely on Spanish-speaking teammates. French isn't common in clubhouses, so LaForest couldn't help but feel isolated. LaForest signed his first professional contract in 1995 with the Montreal, a seemingly perfect destination -- except that the team trained in West Palm Beach, Fla. "It was a horrible situation," LaForest said. "I went over there with nothing. I understood a little bit, but I couldn't communicate with anyone. It was incredibly hard, and I was 17, too, so I was way out of my element." When it didn't work out with the Expos, LaForest enrolled in junior college and had a language epiphany. He returned in 1997 a new man. He also had his share of embarrassing situations, too many to recall. "I did some stupid stuff," he said. "I was teammates with [pitcher] Matt White for three years. He knew I spoke French a little, but he thought I was American. I was talking to my mom once and he was like, 'You speak good French.' I said, 'It's my first language. I just learn English three years ago.' He said, 'All this time I thought you were the dumbest guy I ever met' because I wouldn't put 's' at the end of some words and mess up others." He laughed, then realized his amazing accomplishment. He learned Spanish in three months while playing for Culican, Mexico. He wants to learn more, though he doesn't think Japanese will be one of them. "I don't know about that," he said. "But I think it's amazing that your brain can process different languages. I'm not limited to depending on people. If I want to go to take a walk, or go eat, I can do what I want. It's an amazing feeling." This story can't end without another humorous Taguchi moment. "One day I went to Bible study, and they were talking about King Solomon," he said. "I heard it as 'King Salmon made a great roll' [instead of King Solomon played a great role]. I heard the fish. Salmon Hashimi. I wondered why they were bringing that up in Bible-study class. I was very confused. I brought this up to teammates. 'How come you guys are talking about Salmon Hashimi?' And they're laughing. They said, 'No, King Solomon.' " Now his command of the language is equally noticeable and impressive. "I don't have to think about it much any more," he said. "Speaking English is just another thing I had to learn, and I'm happy to have learned it."
Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.