When Ron Swoboda
checked into Montreal two weeks ago, there was talk that he would sign up for
French lessons at Berlitz. Actually, he might learn the language more quickly
in the city's bistros. French, approached that way, isn't really so
difficult—un whiskey, un Schlitz....
But Berlitz has
its place in baseball or so one team, the New York Mets, feels. Recently it
began stocking its minor-league teams with Latins, almost none of whom speaks
more than a few words of English. To their consternation, the Mets found they
were importing ballplayers from the Caribbean who could not even order meals in
restaurants and instead went days without eating. One player was discovered
scrounging fruit in an orange grove.
So last month the
Mets hired an English teacher, Albert Miner, at the Berlitz school in New York
and sent him to St. Petersburg. For six hours a day Miner has been drilling a
dozen Latins in the language. His aim is for each man, when he breaks training
camp this week and leaves for his farm club in Memphis or Norfolk or Lewiston,
Idaho, to know 750 English words. Some of the ballplayers, Miner believes, will
know a good many more.
Because they are
inarticulate—as the Minnesota Twins' Cesar Tovar put it last summer, "I
could not defend myself in English"—Latin ballplayers frequently encounter
discrimination. The rookies in Miner's class are no different. One evening a
fortnight ago they were turned away from an open dance in St. Petersburg. No
one protested—in English. In various dialects of Caribbean Spanish, however,
the word spread quickly.
what it was," said Miner upon learning of the incident. "Last night
there was something strange about them. I couldn't put my finger on it. It must
have happened just before class. They were quiet, pensive, sullen." The 12
Puerto Ricans and Dominicans did not report the snub, either to the club or
city officials, apparently accepting it, like Miner's English lessons, as part
of their orientation toward the United Stales. Nothing was said last year,
either, when Dominican Teddy Martinez, 23, was chased out of a segregated
barbershop in St. Petersburg, or earlier, when Puerto Rican Chico Diaz couldn't
get a beer in Sarasota.
this nature are neither unusual nor outrageous to these Latin Americans, who
claim they would rather be better ballplayers than equal citizens in the United
States. "I ignore the racism." remarked Angel Luis Contres, a 6'3"
17-year-old from Toa Baja, Puerto Rico who the Mets think has considerable
potential. "Things like that help to prepare me for life because that's the
way life is."
What indeed seems
extraordinary is the Mets' sudden concern about Latin America. Joe McDonald,
director of the team's farm system, toured Puerto Rico and the Dominican
Republic just after last November's free-agent draft. He signed three players
and gave Saturnino Escalera, the team's full-time Latin American scout, the
signal to look for more talent. Escalera set up clinics in some heretofore
unexploited parts of Central America and then in January invited more than 40
Dominicans to a Mets' tryout in Santo Domingo. Nelson Burbrink, head of the
club's scouting staff, and Whitey Herzog, whose job is to develop the players,
attended that tryout and signed four more prospects. Escalera made three more
trips south in the weeks that followed and brought back another half dozen
Latins, bringing the total to 13. "That's three times as many as we signed
in a single season in the past," McDonald said. Now the Mets have 21 Latins
Why? "I don't
know. I ask you: Why?" said Escalera, grinning like a man who had just
bitten a $20 gold piece. "But something is happening, I tell you that."
For one thing, the Mets did not sign their first, second or fifth selections in
the 1970 free-agent draft. "Now with the draft you only get one pick out of
every 24," Herzog said, "but the Latins are not subject to the draft
and you can pick as many as you want." McDonald admitted, too, that it
could be good business to have a Latin playing for the team in New York, where
two million Latin Americans live. Another reason, McDonald said, is,
"They've got to be hungrier ballplayers. I visited some of their homes last
year and so many live in one small, crowded room. The stench was something
else. One club was trying to sign a kid to play for $68 a month in Santo
Herzog does not
agree with McDonald on that point. He said, "I wouldn't classify them as
hungry as much as moody and lazy." Herzog went on to say that perhaps these
are symptoms of culture shock. When Herzog thinks of moody Latins he thinks
specifically of Teddy Martinez, who looks like a cinch someday to bring out all
those cheering Latins in New York. When the Mets sent Martinez to Winter Haven,
Fla. four years ago, he was so embarrassed to order food with the little
English he knew that for three days he ate only oranges from a grove next to
the ball park. "So Teddy tells me he is homesick at Winter Haven and I send
him to Marion in the Appalachian League," Herzog said. "In Marion he
has other Latins for company but then he starts to get into fights with them.
Last year at Tidewater, Martinez wanted to return to the Dominican Republic
because he missed his wife. We let him go back and get her, and darned if he
didn't have a tremendous year." Martinez batted .306 and was an All-Star
infielder for Tidewater in the International League. He even ascended briefly
to the major league club but returned and told Virginian-Pilot Sportswriter
George McClelland: "Happy to be back...no one talk to me in New York...my
The current crop
of new Latins share Martinez' symptoms—with some variations. "Tormented I
feel," said Felix Minaya, a 6'1" third baseman from Valverde, Dominican
Republic. "It takes a letter 12 days to get from here to my home."
Minaya and Franklin Colon, 16, who are from the same town, consumed a lot of
chicken and cold milk in St. Pete this winter, in part because it was something
they knew how to order but mainly because it is a meal they are accustomed to.
"If you start feeding these kids steak and prime ribs," Herzog said,
"they would just get sick. It's too rich for them."