By Luke O’Roark | Post Register | @LukeORoark
Chukars’ employee Andrew Scarlata said two Latino Chukars players, instead of driving, once pegged his bike to go to the local grocery store a couple miles down the road.
Another time, one player wanted to order Domino’s Pizza 30 minutes before a game’s first pitch.
Scarlata’s quick tales aren’t malicious — rather, examples of cultural barriers some players may face when being drafted from overseas into the MLB’s farming system.
“I’ve realized that these guys will probably need some sort of help or information or support when they come to the U.S., a completely different culture,” said Scarlata, who was in the Dominican Republic last summer and worked with a few Chukars players like Freddy Fermin. “Some guys handle it differently than others. A lot of times with the Latin players … having money is a total 180 for them. Language-wise, it’s all about commitment.”
The Chukars — a rookie-level affiliate of the Kansas City Royals — have seven Spanish-speaking players on their roster this season.
Scarlata, who was hired by Chukars’ general manager Kevin Greene because of his close relationship with the seven players, said they receive English classes in their hotel have gone on a fishing trips and even visited Tautphaus Park to help become acclimated to Idaho Falls — an overwhelmingly white, English speaking area of the United States.
The percentage of Hispanic or Latino population in Idaho Falls is 12.8 percent of the total general populous, according to city-data.com.
“The Royals do a really good job. They have classes for the Latin players, and we communicate a lot,” Jake Wakamatsu said. “I think it’s a good thing for all of us to get together and just learn about each other’s cultures and about each other.”
The Spanish-speaking players, like Fermin and Cristhian Vasquez, have used the developmental league to not only hone their craft, but to understand American culture, societal norms and the English language.
Fermin, in a translated interview with Scarlata, said it can be an adjustment for them, though.
“It is hard,” Fermin said. “It is difficult with the language barrier, but I’m learning new words every day by talking with the coaches and learning inside the clubhouse every day.”
According to the Society for American Baseball Research, a study by Mark Armour and Daniel Levitt found that 27.4 percent of MLB players identified as Latino.
The MLB and MiLB has slowly, but surely, become more inclusive over the years to accommodate other players’ backgrounds.
For an example, the MLB mandated that all teams provide interpreters for players with limited or no English proficiency in 2016, according to NPR.
“I know if I were playing or managing in Latin America today and had to speak Spanish, I would want a translator, just because the nuances of everything you say can be misunderstood or taken out of context,” Angels’ manager Mike Scioscia told USA Today in 2016.
Chukars’ pitching coach Jeff Suppan and designated hitter Darrell Miller, Jr. said they recognized the language (and cultural) barrier that happens since the Chukars are a melting pot of players from the likes of Georgia, California, Venezuela, Arizona and the Dominican Republic.
“Every year, almost half the team is Latin,” right fielder Amalani Fukofuka said during the preseason. “So, it’s good to try and get to know them a little more and learn a little Spanish to communicate. You can mess with them sometimes, and they’re usually cool to talk to.”
Suppan pitched 17 years in the majors, communicating with players of multiple Latin backgrounds. He said the cultural and language barrier “is just baseball.”
“Hopefully, you just mesh as a team,” Suppan said. “So, I might come in with a California accent, somebody else comes in with a Georgia accent, a Philly accent, somebody is a Spanish speaker and you kinda blend and have your own language together.”
Suppan added that “team language” is a universal component to sports.
Miller, who occasionally has to communicate with Spanish-speaking pitchers during games, agreed.
“I know it can be a challenge in clubhouses, but being a member of the Royals, and knowing what they’re about, we mesh really well — whether or not we can understand each other sometimes,” Miller said. “Baseball has a universal language, and I do know a little bit of Spanish, and these guys work their tails off … It might be broken in our communication but again, you know what they’re trying to say. They know what you’re trying to say.”
The term “universal language” as Miller and Suppan described comes with just playing the sport.
No matter if a player is from South America or North Dakota, the objective is still to score as many runs as possible before three outs.
Win or lose, Scarlata said he takes responsibility for the Latin players in Idaho Falls, though. He has tried to be empathetic to people of different backgrounds attempting to merge into the United States.
“They’re really like kids, when you think about it,” Scarlata said. “You go into a place, you don’t know the language very well, and you’re here to play baseball and all you know is that there’s a town around you. They’ve really impressed me coming here.”