MLB managers learn Spanish to unite teams and clubhouses

One Nación: The need for more Latino managers and coaches in MLB (3:57)

Beisbol Esta Noche's Carolina Guillen, Ozzie Guillen and Candy Maldonado discuss - in English y en español-some of the Latino coaches who are candidates for managerial jobs in Major League Baseball. (3:57)

At spring training of 1962, the newly hired manager of the San Francisco Giants, Alvin Dark, gathered several of his side's Latin American players together behind second base. Once there, he gave an order that left them surprised, stunned and outraged.

"He told us that we couldn't speak Spanish to each other in the clubhouse", said Orlando Cepeda, who had finished second in the MVP voting and was the eldest of a group of Latinos that included Juan Marichal, the Alou brothers, Felipe and Matty, and José Pagán. "Those were tough times, because we came out and told him: 'You're wrong and you can't stop us from doing that.' We were surprised he'd try that, even at that time, because, back then, we couldn't really speak another language with one another."

In his book Baby Bull: From Hardball to Hard Time and Back, Cepeda made his peace with Dark, saying that Dark later apologized at a Giants function. It was, really, a matter of language.

Just over fifty years later, with Latinos accounting for around 30 percent of Major League baseball players, it is unthinkable that a manager would dare to ban a player from speaking in their native language. In fact, today many managers are able to speak Spanish, and some English-speaking players have started taking classes in order to be able to communicate with their teammates. Increasingly, organizations often find it desirable, and sometimes necessary, to have a bilingual manager, even if communication during the game tends to be in English.

"If you have serious aspirations of being a major league manager, there is a baseball 'book' you have to learn. Alongside that book, you have to practice Spanish," said Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, who won three World Series with the Athletics and the Cardinals. "Out of 25 players on each roster, sometimes there are between eight and 15 players who speak Spanish. If you're not confident speaking to them, you're running the risk of missing something that you could straighten out if you spoke their language."

Of course, the Cuban-born Fredi González, who has been a manager for the last nine years, is a native Spanish speaker. La Russa and Lou Piniella, who grew up in bilingual families in Tampa, Florida, spoke Spanish to their players during their careers and others such as Tommy Lasorda and Dusty Baker took the time to learn the language during their time in the Caribbean winter leagues.

Among active managers, Mike Scioscia of the Los Angeles Angels, Mike Matheny of the St. Louis Cardinals, and Joe Maddon of the Chicago Cubs are good examples of managers who speak fluent Spanish. It's not just a case of repeating words they've learned during their careers like ¡duro! ("hard"), ¡vamos, arriba! ("c'mon, keep it up!") or corre fuerte ("run hard"). These managers are able to hold entire conversations with their players and conduct media interviews without needing an interpreter.

“It's helped a lot, and players really appreciate it when you at least try," Maddon told ESPN as his Cubs are attempting to hold on to a postseason spot in the 2015 season. "And there’s those moments when I can get my words together in an instructional moment where I can be more helpful. I took two years in high school, two years in college. My first year in pro ball, my roommate was Dickie Thon, who grew up in Puerto Rico. He spoke English to me and I spoke Spanish to him. I’m just glad I chose Spanish over French in ninth grade.”

The truth is that speaking Spanish has become a great tool for managers, even though the vast majority of Latin players are able to express themselves in English. In fact, for some managers it goes far beyond understanding what the players are saying in the clubhouse or giving them instructions.

"The ability to speak two languages, especially Spanish, not only helps me to communicate but also to understand their problems, their culture," said Dusty Baker in 2012.

Baker, who managed 20 years in the Majors, was comfortable communicating in the Spanish he learned during his winter stays in Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

"When you speak to them in their language, you understand more about where they come from and you show them respect and appreciation," Baker mentioned.

Being bilingual is optimal, as La Russa admitted a few years ago. "I don't think it's something I thought would help in the game," he said, "but it was important to establish relationships with Latino ballplayers."

La Russa, the son of an Italian father and Spanish mother who, like Piniella, was raised bilingual in Tampa.

"I always thought that when you spoke to them (in Spanish), they felt like they wouldn't get confused, they wouldn't miss something. And I always thought they felt more at home," he said.

Speaking Spanish adds value to any managerial candidate's resume, but La Russa believes that several organizations have already begun to see it as a key requirement. Three of the last four Marlins managers, for example, have been Spanish-language speakers; the 30 MLB organizations all have at least one coach who speaks the language and, when it comes to interviews for vacant positions, the same names crop up year after year, names like Tony Peña, Sandy Alomar Jr., Alex Cora and Charlie Montoyo, among others.

"It is an essential tool for any coach these days. I see it as a 'plus' in any managerial interview", said Mike Maddux, the Texas Rangers pitching coach, speaking in 2012. "For a pitching coach, it can make a big difference in a key moment of the game. My Latino pitchers speak English, but a vamos, tú puedes ["c'mon, you can do it"] in Spanish at a key moment of the game encourages more than anything you can say to them in English".

"It is not just about Latinos, but about all managers," said Manny Acta, former manager of the Washington Nationals and Cleveland Indians and current ESPN analyst. "Being bilingual is in demand. Although its tough, players will appreciate the effort. We'll soon see more managers who speak two and three languages, because we are already seeing this in the minors. Many things are lost in translation when you don't speak to players in their language. Players feel more comfortable, are sometimes more open, and generally express themselves with more confidence."


Al López, a son of Spanish immigrants who was born in Tampa, was the first manager of Hispanic descent in the Majors and managed from 1951 to 1969, a period that coincided with the boom in Latin American players in the Majors. He was followed in 1969 by the first Latin American manager, Cuban Preston Gómez of the San Diego Padres, but at that time Spanish was still a rarity among field staff and situations like the one that occurred between Cepeda and Dark were still possible. In the 80s, Lasorda was able to give instructions in Spanish to Fernando Valenzuela; and the hiring of bilingual managers really took off with the arrival of La Russa, Piniella and Dominican Felipe Alou, who in 1992 followed Gómez as the second Latin American manager in Major League Baseball, following 17 years in the minors.

The increase in the quantity and quality of players from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Panama, Colombia and Venezuela also brought about an added need for Spanish speaking managers in the minor leagues. A lot of players were unable to play to the best of their ability because they didn't understand the instructions of their managers and coaches, and sometimes their difficulties in understanding were confused with bad attitudes. The hiring of Latino managers and coaches, who had experienced such situations, immediately resolved the issue and contributed to the rise of more Latino players who became stars.

"It was tough for me, imagine those who came before me", said José Oquendo, third base coach for the St. Louis Cardinals and one of many bilingual coaches in the Majors today. "When I arrived in the minors, I was lucky to play under Danny Monzón, who spoke English to us all the time until he realized there was absolutely no way he could make us understand and then he would speak to us in Spanish. The situation nowadays is very different for Latino players; firstly, they learn English in the academies, and secondly, they come across Latino managers and coaches at all levels."

Something as simple as being able to explain an injury was the difference between a short and a lengthy career for a Latino player, according to the former pitcher Mario Soto, who won 100 games with Cincinnati between 1977 and 1988. Soto, a native of the Dominican Republic, knows this firsthand thanks to his experience in the Cincinnati Reds' head office and as president of his country's players' association.

"No matter how well a Latino player speaks English, Spanish will always be their first language," said Soto in 2012 when interviewed for this story. "Having managers, coaches and even trainers who speak Spanish is a great help, no matter how well the player speaks English. An injury, a personal problem, a concern, that kind of situation is easier to explain in your language. A manager is a great influence on a player. And if they speak your language, that influence is even greater."


Being bilingual had never been so beneficial to Baker as it was during his last three years at the helm of the Reds. The manager was able to communicate seamlessly with his closer Aroldis Chapman, who arrived in America without speaking a word of English but armed with a 105mph pitch that earned him an initial six-year, $30 million contract with the Reds.

Communication with Baker opened doors for Chapman, not only to perform better, but to adapt better to life in a foreign country.

"It's not been easy for me to learn English. But having Dusty, who understands what I'm saying and has no problem speaking my language, is a big thing for me," Chapman said of his manager in 2012. "What's more, he knows my country, because he played with a lot of Cuban players. You feel appreciated when people take the time to speak your language."

Spanish was never a foreign language to Baker. His sister was a missionary in several Latin American countries, particularly Colombia, and from a young age he heard several of his family members speaking the language.

"What's more, I spent five months playing winter ball in Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic," Baker recalled. "All those experiences not only helped me with my Spanish, but also helped me to better understand the reality of these countries and thus better understand and appreciate the Latino ballplayer. Not only do I understand the language, I also understand how difficult it is for them when players come here."

Maddon, raised in Hazleton, Pennsylvania -- a city with a growing Latino population -- has had a similar experience in Chicago with Jorge Soler, a promising Cuban infielder who, like Chapman, speaks little to no English.

“When I talk to Soler I try to speak more Spanish but most of my guys speak good English," Maddon said. "If there is someone less comfortable with English, I’ll speak more Spanish.”

Baseball: a universal language

Scioscia would have loved to speak as fluently as he does now when he was a catcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 80s. Back then, he caught for Mexican ace Fernando Valenzuela, who at the time did not speak any English.

"Baseball is a universal language, and when I approached him, I gave him signs," Scioscia recalled in 2012. "It was easy [for Fernando] to understand bola adentro ('ball inside'), bola afuera ('ball outside'), alta ('high'), bajita ('low'), using signs, but life away from the ballpark... must have been very difficult for him".

Valenzuela, now a Spanish-language broadcaster for the Dodgers, won the Cy Young Award and Rookie of the Year in 1981, when the Dodgers won the World Series. Scioscia is in no doubt as to skipper Lasorda's impact on the left-hander's initial success.

"Tommy spoke to him in Spanish, and that could certainly have played a part in his success," added Scioscia. "All the instructions were given in Spanish. But those were different times. Latino players usually arrive here already speaking English thanks to the academies over there. Erwin Santana (pitcher for the Angels in 2012), for example, speaks better English than I do. When I go to the mound to talk with him, I speak in English. But perhaps in the clubhouse, with other players, we speak to each other in Spanish."

And they appreciate it.

"I can speak English, no problem, just like all the Latino players here," said shortstop Eric Aybar. "But the fact that Mike understands us, that he can speak to us in our language, is something that makes us feel comfortable. He doesn't understand everything, but jokes and knows swear words, sure he does."


If cases like Chapman's are a minority in the Majors, and if Latino players already speak English fairly fluently, then how much help is it for a manager to speak the language that is spoken by 30 percent of major league players? Matheny believed that, in addition to being able to communicate, his effort is seen as a way to appreciate and respect the culture of his players.

"It's important because the players understand that I respect their language and culture," said Matheny, who learned Spanish on the recommendation of Bill Freehan, a former Detroit Tigers catcher who was his coach at the University of Michigan. "But it could be a situation where a pitcher does not necessarily understand something specific -- in that case, I'm able to explain it in Spanish."

Baker, Scioscia and Matheny shared a great workshop to improve their Spanish; all three played Caribbean professional baseball for several years, where they not only honed their skills as players in their youth, but also had to use their knowledge of the language, mainly outside the ballpark.

"I played one year in Puerto Rico and another year in the Dominican Republic and I tried to practice Spanish all the time, because that was the best opportunity to learn," Matheny mentioned. "I like the language and I like the people. Learning another language was the most important aspect of my education."

ESPN Chicago reporter Jesse Rodgers contributed to this story.

Editor's Note: This story is updated from a version that published in 2012. The Spanish-language version from ESPNDeportes.com is here.