As part of the season-long Béisbol Experience rollout, we will be releasing an interview every day from June 15-25. Find all of them at espn.com/beisbolexperience.
This interview was conducted in Spanish and has been translated.
At 34, Cleveland Indians first baseman Edwin Encarnación is a three-time All Star and a World Baseball Classic winner with the Dominican Republic. He spoke with Marly Rivera about his early days in the U.S., racism against Latino prospects and what advice he'd give his 17-year-old self.
What was the hardest thing for you when you first arrived from the Dominican Republic?
I think it was the culture. You have to adapt yourself to the language. A lot of us didn't speak English when we got here. Early in my career, it was a little harder than it is now. Kids now have a lot more opportunities to learn. There are more Latino players, we have interpreters, players get a lot of help in the minor leagues. Those are things you didn't see before. Adapting, being away from your family and being on your own in the United States -- that's the hardest thing you go through.
What did you do in order to eat?
It was very tough. The first thing you learn how to say is 'the same,' so you would order the same thing your teammate asks for, because that's the only thing you know.
Who helped you out with your English?
I used to have a Latino coach, Carlos Subero; he's now with Milwaukee as first-base coach. He was the only Latino coach there, and he helped us a lot through the initial years, since it was hard for us. He translated for us, and he said to us what they told us in English, because we knew so few of it.
Tell me about your transition in the minor leagues.
I was 17 when I had my first year as a pro. We were in Port Charlotte, Florida. I was living a bit more comfortably because I had the chance to live with a group of kids who were already on extended spring training, and they rented an apartment with the money they got from some pretty good signing bonuses. They took me with them. When you're promoted to Class-A ball and you're progressively going your way up, you slept whenever you could, on air mattresses, houses with no furniture in them. Back in those days, you had no Internet. You had nothing.
On road trips, teams gave us meal money, approximately $20. In order to help each other, let's say we were six or eight Latinos, we collected our money and we bought groceries collectively. We got chicken and rice. We had an electric skillet for rice, and we had a pan for the meat. It was forbidden to cook inside the hotel, so we had to try and not having the smoke from our cooking get to the smoke detectors. We cooked in there, and we saved ourselves a ton of money. If each of us contributed $20, we did a good grocery shopping trip, and it lasted for the four to eight days a road trip lasted.
When you look back at all the things you went through, do you feel privileged?
Whenever you look back you thank God, since there are so many guys you saw, who played against you and with you, who had the same dream we all have, which is to play in the major leagues. Just a few of us made it. So yes, this is a privilege, and you have to be thankful for the blessing you have by being able to get to this level, and for all the people who helped you being here, because you don't just do it on your own. You wouldn't be here without all of them.
Have you ever felt racism just for being Latino?
In my minor league years, I was always among the top prospects, and to be honest with you, when you're a top prospect, you're treated differently. However, I did see it with some of my teammates who weren't so highly ranked. You did notice that. I did feel pretty bad about it, since I knew they didn't mess with me just because I was a high-ranked prospect.
Before the translator system started, did you think people didn't understand who Edwin Encarnación was?
Yes. Many times, a lot of American journalists didn't interview you since you didn't speak the language. Now you can express yourself confidently and freely, and that has helped Latino ballplayers a lot. I have my son at a bilingual school so he doesn't have to experience what I've been through. That's one thing I'm quite concerned about. That's why I work so hard.
What would you say to 17-year-old Edwin Encarnación?
First, I'd tell him to keep working hard. His hard work will lead him to success. I am a living example of that. I'd also tell him to stay humble. I never got too carried away with the "top prospect" label. My goal was to get to the major leagues and I wasn't going to rest until I achieved it. But the most important thing I'd say to him, and to young kids today, is to never lose hope. Faith, combined with hard work, makes anything in life possible.