When Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes spoke to reporters following his first spring training game with Oakland in March, his interpreter took a moment to say something. With equal parts astonishment and pride, Ariel Prieto said he was serving as an interpreter even though he hadn't been able to speak a word of English when he arrived from Cuba himself 17 years earlier.
Forget English. When Prieto reached the majors just weeks after Oakland picked him in the first round of the 1995 draft, he had trouble even following the Spanish he was hearing. The interpreter the Athletics provided was from Mexico, and with the dialect and accent differences between Cuba and Mexico, Prieto says he could barely understand the man who was supposed to make him understood.
"I go, 'What kind of interpreter do I got?'" Prieto recalled last month. "And he didn't know anything about baseball."
Prieto didn't want to seem like a problem child, though, so he didn't tell management there was an issue. Which is just one reason his adjustment to America was a rough one.
"Believe me, it was tough my first season," said Prieto, who went 15-24 with a 4.85 ERA in six major league seasons. "Even my second season, it was almost the same thing."
Adjusting to life and baseball in the U.S. is rarely easy for Latin American players due to the language issues, and it can be especially trying for Cuban players. As Prieto learned, Cubans speak with a dialect that can be difficult for other Latin American players to understand. They also are coming from a very foreign life and culture.
"We're scared a little when we come from Cuba," said Prieto, 42. "Because in Cuba, they say a lot of bad things about the United States. They say the United States is the worst country in the world. They say that we think only about money, that we don't help nobody, that we only think about work. That there is a lot of crime and we kill a lot of people. That there's racism. All that stupid crap. So when you come over from Cuba, that's the first thing you have on your mind."
Having signed Cespedes to a $36 million contract, the Athletics reassigned Prieto, who was a pitching coach in their system, to serve as his full-time interpreter and ease his transition from Cuba. With as much time as he spends with Cespedes on and off the field, his role is closer to that of mentor.
"It was a natural based on where Ariel is from and his whole odyssey," Oakland manager Bob Melvin said. "I don't make those decisions, but when they came to me and said this is what we'd like to do, it was a no-brainer. He has a pretty good understanding of what Yoenis has to go through, being that he had to go through the same thing."
Prieto did not defect from Cuba; he came to the U.S. as a legal immigrant through the help and connection of his wife and his father-in-law. He recalls flying from the Cayman Islands into Miami's airport, then driving an hour and a half across Florida to his in-laws' in Naples on the barren highway known as Alligator Alley.
"I'm going, 'What am I doing in this country?' For an hour and a half, there's nothing. I go, 'What the hell is this?'" he said.
While he soon learned there is far more to America than ugly, straight stretches of highway, Prieto was so naive about life in the U.S. that shortly after his major league debut, he went to a department store to buy some pants. Needing to try them on, he took off the pants he was wearing in view of everyone else in the men's clothing department. He simply did not know there were dressing rooms for that.
"You come over here and you have some money in your pocket and you can go whatever you want to go. You can do whatever you want," Prieto said, stressing three major adjustments. "First, I'm free. Second, I can go wherever I want. Third, I can buy whatever I want. That's completely different when you come from Cuba."
Buying anything you want is especially strange, he said, given that in Cuba, it's difficult enough just finding something you want to buy.
Prieto went 2-6 with a 4.97 ERA in his rookie season and 6-7 with a 4.15 ERA the next year. His career was mostly downhill after that, though, and he pitched his final major league game in 2000.
While Prieto says the cultural adjustments did not set back his career, he also acknowledges that, "For me, I tried to be focused on baseball. But at the same time, I had my family in Cuba, I had my wife in Palm Springs. I had nobody with me in the hotel [where he lived in Oakland]. I had nobody in the hotel who spoke Spanish. I believe what Oakland is doing now is great."
Cespedes is grateful for Prieto, saying that he has helped him a lot. For one thing, Cespedes can understand Prieto when he speaks.
"Once [Cespedes] gets on the baseball field, he probably feels the most comfortable," Melvin said. "It's everything else he has to deal with over the course of a day that probably gives him some trepidation. But he's been handling it great, and Ariel's been with him much of the time. He's learning English. He's a very serious kid. He wakes up thinking about baseball. He's not a kid sampling everything else America has to offer. He's pretty focused on baseball."
"On the field, the adjustment is easy, because you have a lot of people around you," Prieto said. "Outside, it's hard to make the adjustments. If you don't bring the bad things on to the field, you'll never have trouble. But if you bring the bad things onto the field, you're in trouble."