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Interpreters continue to play important role in NPB

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If I had known then what I know now, I would have taken Spanish in high school instead of French. It is not that I remember any of the French (I failed the course), but there are very few — if any — professional ballplayers whose native language is Francais. Even a little Español would come in handy today in covering Major League Baseball or foreign players in Nihongo-land.

There are also increased opportunities for Spanish-language interpreters to help ease communication for the substantial number of Hispanic players in the major leagues and Japan. According to a recent article by Christopher Carelli in Sports Illustrated’s The Cauldron, more than 28 percent of all Major League Baseball players are Latin American.

In the minor leagues, there have been estimates that as many as 40 percent of the players are Hispanic, and those younger guys are less likely to speak English because of their relative inexperience living in the U.S. or Canada.

In Japan, 28 of the 65 foreign players set to play in the Central and Pacific Leagues in 2016 speak Spanish as a first language, and the English-language skills of the players from Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Curacao, range from extremely fluent to none at all.

Carelli’s story says MLB has issued a requirement that each of its teams must have at least two Spanish interpreters on staff for the 2016 season. Japanese teams are on their own to decide how many interpreters to hire and, of course, in some cases it is necessary to employ Japanese-Korean and Japanese-Chinese translators in addition to those who speak English or Spanish.

The Chunichi Dragons, with the exception of American first baseman Matt Clark in 2013, current Australian pitcher Drew Naylor and an occasional pitcher from Korea or Taiwan, have hired their foreigners from Latin American countries since Tyrone Woods left the team following the 2008 season.

The Dragons will have six Latin players on the roster this year, and taking care of them are tri-lingual interpreters Noboru Katsuragawa and jack-of-all-trades Francis Ruiz, who also serves as a batting practice pitcher and bullpen catcher.

Over the past three seasons, the influx of Cuban players coming to Japan has caused teams such as the Yomiuri Giants and Chiba Lotte Marines to hire more Spanish-Japanese interpreters, and the post-game hero interview with foreigners is often conducted in Spanish.

Marines outfielder Alfredo Despaigne, when approached by foreign sportswriters, tells them right off, “No English, no English,” in broken English.

A Giants player who doesn’t even have a Latin-sounding name, Leslie Anderson, a native of Cuba, played three years in the U.S. minors but still has not become fluent in English. He tries his best when dealing with the English-speaking media, and his efforts are appreciated by those of us who don’t know any Spanish other than “Amigo,” “Gracias” and “Que pasa?” And maybe Corona.

Some foreign players over the years have made the attempt to learn Japanese. Most notably, 13-year veterans in Japan Tuffy Rhodes (1997-2009) and current Yokohama BayStars manager Alex Ramirez achieved a degree of fluency in the local language.

Rhodes said, “From my first day in spring camp with the Kintetsu Buffaloes, I wanted to learn as much Japanese as I could.” His efforts have paid off handsomely, and his skills are still being put to good use in his role as player — manager of the Toyama GRN Thunderbirds of the independent BC League.

Some foreigners try to throw in a basic Japanese phrase during a hero interview, and veteran players are often asked by the post-game interviewer to give a message in Japanese to the hometown fans.

However, due to protocol, respect for the interpreters and perhaps a worry someone may say something embarrassing, most teams insist the guys do the impromptu interviews —piped over the stadium PA system and given before a nationwide TV audience — in their native language.

Tokyo Yakult Swallows slugger Wladimir Balentien, a Curacao native, speaks four languages fluently—English, Dutch, Spanish and his country’s Papiamento—and gives the interviews in English.

Indeed, baseball has become a multi-lingual sport with players from all over the globe speaking different tongues, and the importance of having skillful interpreters has increased.

As the old saying goes, “A little language goes a long way.”

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Diamond Dust: The day when Major League Baseball will follow the National Basketball Association and National Football League with female officials appears to be drawing closer. Perry Lee Barber, the umpire who worked two exhibition games in Japan in 1989, reports two women are attending The Umpire School in Vero Beach, Florida, competing with 100 male students for jobs as professional umpires during the 2016 season.

“Looks like MLB and MiLB are finally making a sincere effort to draw women to the umpire schools, the first step on the long road to the major leagues,” Barber posted on her Facebook page. The student umpire hopefuls are Jen Pawol and Annie Monachello, and Barber says, “Knock ‘em dead, ladies.”

It has been said becoming a major league umpire is extremely difficult for anyone — male or female — so Pawol and Monachello will face a long and tough road in the years to come. Good luck.

Contact: Wayne Graczyk at Wayne@JapanBall.com