It's 7:15 a.m. on a cool spring morning in Arizona, and 18 Latin American ballplayers in the Oakland A's farm system are clutching pens and notebooks instead of bats and balls. They are in a classroom at Scottsdale Community College studying English. The students, 17 from the Dominican Republic and one from Venezuela, ponder a question written on the blackboard: HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE YOU TO MAKE THE MAJOR LEAGUES?
Osvaldo de la Torre, 32, a bilingual teacher for the A's program, scans the room for an answer. Manuel Martinez, a 20-year-old outfielder, volunteers one, in Spanish, "How long does it take to drive from here to Oakland?"
Interesting, and certainly the right attitude, but not the response de la Torre wants. He writes a follow-up question on the board: IT WILL TAKE——YEARS. Again, he eyes the room for an answer. "Two years," a voice says. The instructor smiles, impressed by his student's optimism. But de la Torre knows better and scribbles:
MAYBE THREE YEARS.
However long it takes, de la Torre and the A's know that learning English might shorten the journey. In 1984, Oakland began recruiting heavily in the Dominican Republic, and in the succeeding years the English-language training program has evolved. It begins as soon as a player from that country is signed, and it continues when he comes to America. The training in the U.S. usually lasts nearly eight months, with the first portion starting during the instructional league in mid-September and continuing through October. Classes resume with spring training in March. For some players, school ends at the start of the season when they are assigned to a farm team and shipped out. Those who remain in Scottsdale to play for the Scottsdale A's, in the rookie league, study English until the season ends late in August.
A's vice-president Sandy Alderson says language training is part of a broader program that includes an introduction to American food and cooking, how to order from a restaurant menu and even how to shop. "We feel strongly that the acculturation process is important to the ultimate success of a player," says Alderson. "If he can't adapt to the environment in the U.S., it's tough to succeed, and English is a big part of it. The player has to know a certain amount to even survive here. Frequently, we aren't just taking kids from the middle class there and bringing them into middle-class life here. Often we are taking kids from the low end of one culture and putting them into an entirely different culture."
Three times a week during spring training, from 7:15 to 8:45 in the morning, the big league hopefuls crowd into a classroom for instruction in vocabulary, pronunciation and a bit of grammar. Judging by today's class, it's evident the teachers face a big job. When de la Torre's teaching partner, Carol Gaab, 27, enters the room, catcher Nelson Fuentes welcomes her by saying, "Good afternoon."
Fuentes is corrected, and Gaab begins firing questions: What does it mean to advance the runner? What is a sacrifice fly? What am I doing when I step off the base? "Osvaldo doesn't know much about baseball, so every class, I do a half hour of baseball at the end," says Gaab, who grew up in Medford, Wis., and learned Spanish as a university student in Mexico.
Words beginning with S pose a particular difficulty. Keeping with Spanish pronunciation, students add an es sound to English words. Steal becomes essteal. Stop becomes esstop. Homonyms and words with similar sounds—e.g., work and walk, shoe and chew—present other obstacles. The teachers use repetition to get the meanings across, but their efforts are often thwarted by students who say they understand when they don't. "That goes on in class and on the field," says Ron Plaza, a baseball instructor for the A's who supervises the Latin players. "They're afraid of being laughed at if they say they don't understand. But we stress, 'If you don't understand, say so.' "
Gaab says the problem is particularly prevalent among the younger players. Their ages generally range from 18 to 23. The students' education levels vary, but most have had at least a couple of years of school. However, one member of this season's class is illiterate. He grew up on his parents' farm and cannot read or write, and his vocabulary, even in Spanish, is limited. He can print only his name. Gaab and de la Torre have persuaded the A's to hire a private tutor for him. "At first I'd ask his name, and he'd answer with his position," says Gaab. "When I asked his position, he gave his uniform number. He can answer those questions now, but that's it. His 10 is average, but he doesn't know how to communicate in any language. I've had to work with him in Spanish because he simply doesn't know how to learn."
One trait the players share is competitiveness. To take advantage of that, de la Torre and Gaab play Pictionary, or their own version of the TV game show Win, Lose or Draw, in which one student sketches an object on the blackboard while the others try to guess what it is and then name the object in English.