New Dodgers Shohei Ohtani, Teoscar Hernández Aren’t Letting Language Barriers Get in the Way

The two have become fast friends in Los Angeles, as they navigate a new clubhouse.
Ohtani and Hernández are teaching each other Japanese and Spanish.
Ohtani and Hernández are teaching each other Japanese and Spanish. / Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
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Most afternoons, shortly after he gets to work, Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Teoscar Hernández will hear a bright, “¡Buenas tardes!”

Hernández, who grew up in the Dominican Republic, will grin as he turns to one of his closest friends on the team, designated hitter—and Japanese native—Shohei Ohtani. Hernández, for his part, has asked Ohtani to teach him one new Japanese word or phrase every day.

For the first time in his Major League Baseball career, Ohtani is playing alongside a countryman, pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto, and seven Dodgers speak Spanish as a first language. Both Ohtani and Hernández have much easier pathways to making friends in Los Angeles, and they have done just that. But they also spend a lot of time palling around with one another in their mutual second language, English.

They became friendly when both played for the American League team at the 2021 All-Star Game and have since made a point to greet one another whenever their teams met. Last April, Ohtani hit Hernández with a pitch and apologized dramatically. Ohtani signed with the Dodgers in December; when Hernández, 31, did the same in January, he opened Instagram and saw he had a direct message from Ohtani, 29, expressing—in English—delight that they would be teammates.

They sought each other’s company almost immediately when spring training opened, as two of the only fresh faces in a clubhouse stuffed with holdovers. (Just seven members of the current 40-man roster are in their first season with the organization, and the other five are pitchers.)

“We’re the new guys,” Hernández says.

They also share a friendly demeanor, quick to make fun of themselves and slow to get frustrated. And they are both playing well—Ohtani has an OPS of 1.038, and Hernández of .783, for the 18–12 Dodgers. Both say they feel comfortable with their new team—in part because of one another.

Theirs is an unusual friendship in that both parties are communicating in their second language. They do not use interpreter Will Ireton, Hernández says. (Ohtani’s previous interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, allegedly stole some $16 million from Ohtani to pay Mizuhara’s illegal gambling debts. He has been charged with bank fraud. His attorney, Michael G. Freedman, said that Mizuhara is cooperating with the government.) Instead the friends prefer to muddle through in imperfect English and extravagant hand gestures and facial expressions.

“He understands a lot of English and I understand a lot of English,” Hernández says. “But sometimes I say something and he don’t get it right away, so I have to explain it the way that I know, but I don’t know if he [gets it]. But I think that’s part of our job, to get to know each other, to help each other, and just to learn. We learn together a language that is not his language or mine.”

Both players have some experience in this department—Hernández was friendly with pitcher Yusei Kikuchi, who is also from Japan, when they both played for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2022—and Ohtani has played with more than a dozen Spanish-speaking players in his eight years in MLB. But this is the first time either has been so close with someone whose native language is so different.

So which is better, Hernández’s Japanese or Ohtani’s Spanish?

“Teoscar’s Japanese,” Ohtani says with a smile.

Hernández disagrees. Ohtani’s Spanish, he says, “is really good. He knows a lot of things. And the things that he’s confused with, he asks me—‘How do you say this?’ ‘Why do you say this?’ ‘Why do you pronounce it like that?’”

As for Hernández’s Japanese, “it’s a little bad,” Hernández says, chuckling.

But fluency isn’t really the point. They are mostly trying to connect.

“I think Japan is way different than the States and the Dominican Republic,” says Hernández. “For me, it’s good to know about their culture. I like that. I went there one time, and now I went to Korea [for the team’s season-opening series against the San Diego Padres]. It’s the second time that I went to Asia, and it’s so different. So I’m interested in learn more about them because I already know a lot about the States and the Dominican Republic. I want to learn more.”

Perhaps someday Ohtani will ask, “¿Como estás?” and Hernández will reply, “私は元気です。おかげさまで。” But for the moment, “How are you?” “I’m fine. Thank you for asking.” works just fine.


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Stephanie Apstein

STEPHANIE APSTEIN

Stephanie Apstein is a senior writer covering baseball and Olympic sports for Sports Illustrated, where she started as an intern in 2011. She has covered 10 World Series and two Olympics; and is a frequent contributor to SportsNet New York's Baseball Night in New York. Stephanie has twice won top honors from the Associated Press Sports Editors, and her work has been included in the Best American Sports Writing book series. A member of the Baseball Writers Association of America and its New York chapter vice chair,she graduated from Trinity College with a Bachelor of Arts in French and Italian, and from Columbia University with a Master of Science in journalism.