Links In The Chain To adjust to life in the major leagues, Latinos turn to each other

March 22, 1999
March 22, 1999

Table of Contents
March 22, 1999


Links In The Chain To adjust to life in the major leagues, Latinos turn to each other

Vladimir Guerrero was lost. He was walking home from the store.
He was sure he lived just around the corner, but he couldn't
find his way. As a Dominican who spoke only Spanish, Guerrero
was afraid to ask anyone in Montreal for help in finding the
apartment building where he lived with Pedro Martinez, his Expos
teammate at the time. Then Guerrero remembered the piece of
paper in his pocket. Written on it was The Manhattan Building;
1625 Lincoln Avenue; Apartment 2102.

This is an article from the March 22, 1999 issue Original Layout

It was the spring of 1997, and Guerrero, then a 21-year-old
outfielder, was starting his first full season in the major
leagues. The veteran pitcher Martinez had taken him under his
wing and invited him to share his apartment. It was Martinez who
had written their address on the scrap of paper in case his
young ward got lost. "At first I was worried about him every
time he went out," says Martinez, who now stars for the Boston
Red Sox. "I care about Vladi like a little brother."

That's how it has been since the first waves of Latin
ballplayers arrived in the majors: the veterans helping their
young Latino brethren across a cultural divide. Young players
from Latin America have to overcome racial and cultural
stereotypes as well as the language barrier. The veterans serve
as navigators across this treacherous territory, forming a
ministry they call La Cadena--the chain. Foreign-born Latinos
composed 16.8% of Opening Day big league rosters last season
(compared with 7% in 1978), demonstrating that America's pastime
has become a pastime of all the Americas.

"There's a lot more awareness of the Latin players now," says
Dusty Baker, the former major leaguer who manages the San
Francisco Giants and is one of the few big league skippers who
speaks Spanish. "I was lonely and homesick when I first started
[in the Atlanta Braves system], and I was only from California.
You can imagine how much tougher it is for somebody who doesn't
speak the language and is away from his homeland."

The language barrier is the most difficult obstacle for Latinos
from abroad, says Expos second baseman Wilton Guerrero,
Vladimir's older sibling, who, having been traded by the Los
Angeles Dodgers last season, is now his brother's keeper in
Canada. "Once we have the English, we have everything," says
Wilton. "We know we have the talent and skills to play baseball.
All we need is the English."

That's what second baseman Quilvio Veras needed as he started
out in the New York Mets system in the early '90s. His career
nearly came to a halt because he couldn't tell his coaches that
he was hurt. "In rookie ball in Tennessee I injured my
shoulder," says Veras, a Dominican who now plays for the San
Diego Padres. "They wanted me to play, and I said that before I
would play in that condition, I would prefer to go home. I could
not explain exactly what I felt in my shoulder because of the
language. They did not believe me and said that I just did not
want to play."

Relief came with the arrival of Felix Millan, then a roving
instructor for the Mets. Millan is Puerto Rican, and he spoke
with Veras in Spanish. "He explained to the manager my problem,"
Veras says. "Finally the manager gave me a few days off, and I

The language barrier also separates Latino ballplayers and the
mainstream U.S. media. Reporters who speak only English can't
get useful sound bites or quotes. "Latino ballplayers in
non-Hispanic cities get no media attention," says Julio
Sarmiento, the Florida Marlins' assistant director of baseball
information and publicity. "There's just no communication there.
These players are difficult interviews for Anglo reporters."

Latino players who speak little or no English often decline to do
interviews, but not because they disdain the press. "They don't
want to be embarrassed," says Philadelphia Phillies utilityman
Alex Arias. "They don't want to look foolish."

Conversely, Latino players take pride in communicating in
Spanish on the field. It's a secret weapon, says recently
retired second baseman Joey Cora, a Puerto Rican who went to
Vanderbilt on a baseball scholarship. Before being traded to the
Cleveland Indians by the Seattle Mariners last August, Cora and
shortstop Alex Rodriguez talked strategy in front of opposing
players--in Spanish. "They didn't know what the hell we were
saying," Cora says. "But if we messed up, Lou [cursed us out] in
Spanish." Cora is referring to Mariners manager Lou Piniella, a
Floridian with Spanish roots.

A tongue-lashing from the fiery Piniella is nothing compared to
the culture shock young players feel off the field in the minor
leagues. A team's success in developing its Latin American
talent depends on the organization's effort to help the players
feel comfortable in their new surroundings. The Dodgers,
Indians, Rangers and Milwaukee Brewers all maintain baseball
academies in Latin America. English is part of the curriculum,
as is cultural training (including even how to eat in American
restaurants). Even after that, says Ralph Avila, who runs the
Dodgers' academy in the Dominican Republic, 90% of the kids who
move on to North America are not ready for life there.

"People don't realize how difficult it is to adjust when you come
from an underprivileged country," says Giants first base coach
Carlos Alfonso, who was born in Cuba. "Sometimes they just don't
know the things we in the U.S. take for granted. When I was in
player development, there were a couple of Latin players sharing
an apartment. I got a call one night because they were trying to
light their microwave oven."

Once they get to the U.S., many of the players, most still in
their teens, face additional pressure from their families, who
are likely to be poor and to see them as financial providers.
"These kids are making $850 a month," says Mets assistant general
manager Omar Minaya, a Dominican, "but their parents back home
think they are making as much as major leaguers."

Then there's the homesickness. During last year's All-Star break
Bobby Abreu, the Phillies' then 24-year-old outfielder from
Venezuela, embarked on a Homeric odyssey, making the two-hour
drive from Philadelphia to a New York airport, taking a 4
1/2-hour flight to Caracas, renting a car and driving two hours
to his hometown of Maracay, only to make the return trip two
days later. "I just needed to spend time with my family," says

Another way for clubs to help young Latinos be happy, Minaya
says, is to hire the right people in the role of "accommodator,"
or mentor. That means, for example, keeping as coaches former
Latino players such as Alfonso, Millan and Brewers bullpen coach
Bill Castro. "Players have to be taught how to shop at a
supermarket, how to make a phone call at a hotel," says Minaya.
"Many of the kids feel lost. So then you have to be like a
psychiatrist. At the major league level, though, it's more about
handling money and the media."

It's also about warning the younger players about the perils and
temptations that await them, says Martinez. "They need
discipline," he says. "If you're disciplined, you're going to
behave yourself."

La Cadena, then, is critical even in the Show. "It's as
important as eating every day," says Martinez, who was tutored
in U.S. ways by his older brother Ramon and by fellow Dodgers
Pedro Astacio, Rafael Bournigal and Raul Mondesi. "You can get
into trouble so easy. Just by saying one bad word to a woman,
you could ruin your whole career." Hispanic players feel, in
fact, that they have to be beyond reproach.

"The heaviest weight is carried by the Latino player," Veras
says. "There is a lot of discrimination." Says Expos manager
Felipe Alou, who became the second Dominican to reach the majors
when he appeared with the Giants in 1958, "There was a time when
we were [seen as] only a bunch of hot dogs. We had to destroy
that image by living a clean life and playing the game the way
it should be played. We had to erase some of those tags: Every
Latin didn't hustle, every Latin was not smart enough."

La Cadena does not discriminate among the different
nationalities of Latin America. Yet each nationality is
distinctive in some aspect of its culture. This hasn't been lost
on Phillies general manager Ed Wade. "If you had an American, an
Englishman, an Irishman and a Canadian," Wade says, "you
wouldn't expect all of them to assimilate into a culture the
same way."

The common bond, of course, is the Spanish language, although
the various Latino groups speak it with different accents. "I'm
Dominican, but Roberto Clemente [who was a black Puerto Rican]
is the Number 1 symbol for all Latin players," Alou says. "He's
our Jackie Robinson. He was not the first Latin to play, but he
was such an excellent player, and the principles he believed in
and the cause for which he died [relief for victims of the 1972
Nicaraguan earthquakes] make him, to me, the Number 1 guy."

While being from the same homeland didn't hurt, it wasn't the
defining factor in the Martinez-Guerrero relationship. "It
didn't matter," Guerrero says. "He helped me with everything,
telling me where to go, where not to go, where to eat, where not
to eat, everything." So is it fair to say that Guerrero, who hit
.324 with 38 home runs and 109 RBIs last year, wouldn't have
enjoyed his monster season without Martinez's help the previous
year? "Si, claro," Guerrero says. "Yes, of course."

"He knows what I did with him," says Martinez. "Now he has to do
it with the younger ones who will come up."

Another link is added to La Cadena.

--Paul Gutierrez

COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Abreu misses his family in Venezuela so much that he'll fly home just for a two-day visit.COLOR PHOTO: VICTOR BALDIZON Vladimir Guerrero (left) now has older brother Wilton to lean on.