How do Yankees help prospects learn English? They teach them how to be ‘Friends’ | Klapisch – nj.com

by learn a language journalist

TAMPA – Let’s start with an irrefutable premise about the state of baseball: Things are not going well. The owners and players’ union hate each other’s guts, a strike seems inevitable next winter and attendance slowly but steadily has been sinking for the last seven years. That’s why spring training couldn’t get here fast enough. Baseball’s been crying for help.

So try quantifying the damage that was done by Mariners’ CEO Kevin Mather, who this week got caught running his mouth to a local Rotary Club in Seattle in early February. He paid for it with his job, but not before trashing the M’s best players for reasons only a corporate bully would understand. Think: George Steinbrenner on his very worst day.

But Mather didn’t have the old Boss’ hunger to win. Nor did he appreciate baseball’s global expansion and its reliance on foreign players – foreign kids – who sometimes arrive in the U.S. with no English and in desperate need for translators.

No big deal, right? Anyone with half a brain (and heart) gladly would cut some slack to those who unravel doing interviews in English. But Mather, lacking the smarts or compassion to see it that way, trashed Hisashi Iwakuma, a retired right-hander who last pitched for the Mariners in 2017. Iwakuma was just brought back as a special assignment coach – welcomed by Mather with a wise guy’s dis.

“Wonderful human being. His English was terrible,” Mather said. “I’m tired of paying his interpreter.”

Mather laughed at his own joke, but he wasn’t through. He proceeded to mock some of the Dominican players who, despite coming through the Mariners’ development academy in that country, nevertheless struggled with ordinary tasks like buying food with their $30 per diem.

“Surprise, surprise,” Mather said. “They’d get in trouble because they wouldn’t know how to speak the language or make change or even buy dinner.”

Mind you, these were teenagers, some who’d never been formally educated in their own county, even in their own language. Fortunately, Mather is – or was – in the minority among MLB’s barons. The blowback was immediate, delivered with the ferocity of a monsoon. The Mariners announced Mather’s resignation by the end of the day on Monday, renouncing his every word.

“There’s no excuse for what was said,” Mariners chairman John Stanton declared in a statement. Terrific. Mather had to go. But he left 25 years of service in his wake, begging the question: How did such a bigot go undetected for so long? Mather’s cruelty didn’t materialize spontaneously. It had to have been hard-wired somewhere in his brain.

To be fair, almost every club is sympathetic to foreigners. The Yankees are one of them. Like the Mariners, they, too, maintain an academy in the Dominican, but double up on the education with a night school in Tampa.

Luis Severino is a graduate of the program, having been signed as an international free agent out of the Dominican Republic at age 17. The right-hander is one of the lucky ones; he picked up English fairly quickly and is fluent today. But to those who take years to master the slang we take for granted, Severino has nothing but sympathy.

“I wish everyone could learn, but it’s hard,” he said on Zoom Monday. “You do have to learn English to pick up food, but it’s just not that easy to do.”

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Starting in 2014, the Yankees formalized the classroom setting for the 170 or so prospects playing in Rookie Ball. Altogether, in pre-pandemic times, the Bombers kept 300 kids in the system, of which only 10% would reach the majors and stick around long enough to become vested in its pension program.

But as long as they’re in the Yankees’ chain, the kids are well-served for their time. For every prospect who washes out, the Yankees offer a full college scholarship to anyone who wants it. And at the very least, they come out of the chute speaking English. Some better than others, but with at least an understanding of how to place an order in a restaurant or use an ATM.

Among the novel ideas was gathering those kids in groups of five or six to watch old episodes of “Friends.” Most of the rookies were from the poorest areas of the Caribbean and Latin America. One instructor told me, “We’ve had kids come through here from Venezuela who hadn’t even seen electricity. When they get here, they’re lost.”

So how does an American sitcom like “Friends” help? Because though it wasn’t intended to, the series could’ve been scripted for the purpose of teaching young players civics. The actors speak slow, un-accented English with none of the street vernacular. And the themes reinforce what the Yankees teach from Day One: friendship, teamwork and living in peace with buddies who, if they’re lucky enough to get called up to The Show, will badly out-earn you.

The goal, of course, isn’t just to become front-line stars, but to assimilate in the new culture. And crossing the finish line means talking to the press. Kevin Reese, the Yankees director of player development, told me, “Our focus and goal is for the players who go north to be able to do their interviews in English.”

In case they don’t, the Yankees are more than happy to provide a translator. True, they don’t have a choice – MLB mandates the presence of interpreters for Japanese and Spanish-speaking players. But it’s the attitude toward these young foreigners that matters.

Severino once told me, “I never once felt uncomfortable here (in the clubhouse). My English wasn’t great at first, I made a lot of mistakes. But when you’re around people you trust, you don’t get embarrassed. That’s the only way to learn. Keep trying, keep making mistakes. Eventually, it comes to you.”

Too bad Mather didn’t get that. Baseball has 99 problems in 2021, and he was surely one of them. Good riddance.

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Bob Klapisch is a freelance columnist who covers the Yankees and Major League Baseball for NJ Advance Media.

This content was originally published here.

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