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Bilingual skills useful tool for baseball players

by Wayne Graczyk

The ever-increasing internationalism and players from many nations joining professional baseball ranks in whatever countries where the game is played has inspired sports news articles regarding the way teammates communicate.

A recent New York Times story by David Waldstein told of how George Rose handed out Living Language kits to the four Japanese players in the New York Yankees camp. Rose, fluent in Japanese and Hideki Irabu’s interpreter when that pitcher joined New York in 1997, oversees Pacific Rim affairs for the ballclub.

Another piece, by Stephen Hawkins of The Associated Press, pointed out the Texas Rangers will most likely field a starting lineup with players from Curacao, South Korea (Choo Shin-soo), Cuba and two each from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Add to that Yu Darvish from Japan, named by manager Ron Washington as the starting pitcher for Opening Day.

The Japanese players going to the major leagues usually show up with little or no English-language ability. Last month, Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka gave a halting self-introduction at his join-the-team press conference. He seemed tentative and nervous while carefully saying, “Hello. My name is Masahiro Tanaka. I am very happy to be a Yankee.”

He was then obviously relieved when he could switch to Japanese and rely on a translator to explain what he was saying.

I can recall then-Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda coaching Hideo Nomo to say, “I bleed Dodger blue,” when that Japanese pitcher joined the club in 1995. Nomo sheepishly repeated the phrase, but it was obvious he had no clue what he was saying.

Picking up English does not seem to be a priority among the Japanese players upon arrival in the U.S. They are too busy practicing and playing ball and dealing with the other adjustments they need to make for a successful transition to life in North America on the baseball diamond.

Some have become reasonably skillful linguistically, though. Perhaps most impressive is former American League pitcher Shigetoshi Hasegawa who can carry on a decent conversation in English after having played nine years with the Anaheim Angels and Seattle Mariners.

According to Wikipedia, Hasegawa has permanent residency in the U.S. and has authored a book with advice for Japanese people on how to improve their English-speaking ability.

On the other hand, one who seemingly did not have time to learn English during a 10-year major league career is Hideki Matsui. Now that he is retired and continuing to live in New York, the former American League slugger is taking English lessons, and his efforts are paying off.

At a recent reception at the American Embassy in Tokyo where the Boston Red Sox showed off the 2013 World Series championship trophy, I had the chance to chat with Matsui, and he wanted to speak only English. Having covered him with the Yomiuri Giants from 1993-2002, I can tell you he has improved dramatically. I was impressed.

That same evening, Red Sox closer Koji Uehara told guests one of his main goals this year will be to learn to speak English as well as his 7-year-old son, Kaz, who charmed TV audiences during post-game interviews last October after his dad saved playoff games.

Most foreign players coming to Japan also arrive with zero knowledge of the Japanese language, and they leave the same way. Two notables able to achieve a more-than-reasonable degree of fluency, however, are Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Ramirez. Both played 13 years in country.

Rhodes said, “From my first day of spring camp (in 1996 with the Kintetsu Buffaloes), I wanted to learn as much of the language as I could as quickly as I could.” He got pretty good. Ramirez, a native of Venezuela now playing independent league baseball in Gunma Prefecture and helping his wife run a Tokyo restaurant, is even considering Japanese citizenship.

Another who should be mentioned is former pitching coach Jim Colborn who tutored hurlers with the Orix Braves and BlueWave in the early 1990s. He took back Japanese vocabulary that later served him well while coaching Japanese pitchers with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Pittsburgh Pirates and Texas Rangers. This was especially helpful, since major league rules prohibit interpreters from accompanying coaches to the pitcher’s mound during games, as they do in Japan.

The language barrier may not be as difficult as it seems, however. Sometimes you might be watching a Japanese game on TV, and you’ll see a Japanese base runner having a conversation with an American first baseman. They seem to be doing OK.

Foreign infielders, too, can be noticed joining their mates on the mound while the pitching coach goes out to talk strategy when the team gets in a jam. The gaikokujin may not understand what is being said, but they’re there to show unity, fiddle with the rosin bag and give the Japanese pitcher an encouraging pat on the back.

All this reminds me of Hiroko Kubota, a Tokyo woman who used do a one-minute spot Japanese lesson for the foreign community on the American Forces Far East Network (FEN) radio station back in the 1970s. Her catch phrase in English was, “A little language goes a long way,” and it has a special meaning in today’s multilingual baseball world.

Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com