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"Learn Spanish," wrote the celebrated chef/author/TV personality Anthony Bourdain in his best-selling autobiography Kitchen Confidential.
Bourdain was spewing his advice to anyone contemplating a culinary career as a chef.
"I can't stress this enough. Much of the workforce in the industry is Spanish-speaking. If you can't communicate, develop relationships, understand instructions and pass them along, then you are at a tremendous disadvantage."
Creating a culinary experience and managing a major league ballclub might be worlds apart, but Bourdain's words may just be pertinent to the challenges facing White Sox manager Robin Ventura and his brethren.
The demise of Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez - more about him later - rekindled Bourdain's words in my mind. Alexei is joined by Jose Abreu, Carlos Sanchez, Melky Cabrera and Avisail Garcia to comprise five members of the Sox' regular starting eight.
With pitchers Jose Quintana and Junior Guerra, catcher Geovany Soto, and utility man Emilio Bonifacio on the current 25-man roster, Spanish is the first language of nine players. That's not unusual considering approximately 28 percent of spots on big-league rosters are occupied by Latin players.
Yet to my knowledge only one major league manager, Atlanta's Fredi Gonzalez, is bilingual. Many clubs have Latin American coaches such as Omar Vizquel, who manned the first-base box for the Tigers over the weekend as Detroit took two of three one-run games from the Sox.
The Sox rely on Lino Diaz, a Panamanian who played, coached and managed in the minor leagues for a number of years. I have no knowledge, but I assume that when the team's Latin players are quoted through a translator, that person is Diaz.
"He understands what you're saying and what you're trying to get across so the message and tone and everything else that goes with it is exactly the way you want it," Ventura said last year. "We're lucky to have him."
When Latin players first burst onto scene in the 1950s, they received a similar reception as the African-American pioneers. Perhaps the most blatant instance occurred in 1964 when the San Francisco Giants were in the midst of a pennant race.
Willie Mays and Willie McCovey were future Hall of Famers on that team, and Jim Ray Hart was a sensational rookie. But the Giants also had great Latin-American stars like Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda, who also are in the Hall. Their manager was Alvin Dark, a Louisianan and a fixture at shortstop for the Giants in the '50s.
When the club encountered a mid-season losing streak, Dark unbelievably was quoted as saying, "Negro and Spanish-speaking players on this team are just not able to perform up to the white players when it comes to mental alertness. You can't get Negro and Spanish players to have the pride in their team that you get from the white players. You can't make them subordinate themselves to the best interests of the team."
Dark later backtracked and said his comments were misconstrued. But guys like the proud Puerto Rican Cepeda knew better. Cepeda spoke out, and Dark was fired after the season. Although he was a social Neanderthal, Dark was a student of baseball who went on to manage four other teams, including winning the World Series in 1974 with Oakland. Alvin's stance on black and Latin players obviously took a back seat to his ability to call for the hit-and-run at the most opportune time.
Meanwhile, Cepeda wore out his welcome in San Francisco - why would a ballclub tolerate an outspoken Puerto Rican? - and was traded to St. Louis where he was MVP in 1967 as the Cardinals beat the Red Sox in the World Series.
Of course, those days are behind us. Or are they?
In a Bleacher Report piece written by pitcher-turned-journalist Dirk Hayhurst last year, a scout said the Toronto Blue Jays had "too many Latinos on it to win. Get too many of them together on a club and they take over. The club divides, has no sense of itself. They might not be terrible. Them boys can play, but they ain't gonna win no championship. They're too emotional to go the distance."
Of course, one broken-down, over-the-hill old-timer doesn't necessarily represent the majority, but the comments are disgusting. Avi Garcia runs hard on every ground ball. Abreu comes across as a young man who appreciates from whence he came (Cuba) and is grateful for every day he puts on a Sox uniform. Quintana, the king of no decisions, never complains.
Yet if you look into the White Sox dugout at any given moment, the Latin players sit together apart from their English-speaking teammates. That's not surprising since talking to one another in the dugout comes naturally. It's what ballplayers do. However, not sharing a language dictates that they seek out others with whom they can share a conversation.
Rarely is a Latin ballplayer interviewed after a game. Garcia is an exception because he speaks decent English and is not averse to taking the risk of being misquoted.
That risk is real. For instance, back in 1997, Miguel Tejada, a much-heralded rookie, broke in with Oakland toward the end of the season. Twenty-three at the time, the Dominican, who grew up in a home with dirt floors and an outhouse, was interviewed, and he meant to say, "My goal is to be the A's shortstop for the next 10 years." What came out was, "I'm going to be the As shortstop for 10 years, maybe more."
The next morning the writers portrayed Tejada as arrogant and cocky, as well he could have been because of his talent. For the record, Tejada wasn't Oakland's shortstop for 10 years - only seven before testing the free-agent waters and signing with Baltimore. But before leaving Oakland, Tejada led the A's into the postseason four times while being named MVP in 2002. He's still playing in Mexico at age 41 after earning nearly $100 million in the major leagues. His Florida home has many bathrooms and granite floors.
Getting back to Alexei Ramirez, in his eighth season on the South Side after defecting from Cuba. He's having by far his worst season, hitting 54 points below his career average. His defense is spotty. You hold your breath even on routine grounders, hoping that he fields the ball cleanly and makes an accurate throw to first. Since June 15, he is just 6-for-48, five of those being singles. This is a guy who has never hit below .265, and just last season, he smacked 15 home runs and drove in 74. He won the American League's Silver Slugger award for shortstops in 2014.
At 33 you question whether his physical abilities - in a matter of six months - have evaporated. Without any knowledge of the situation, you wonder what's going on with Ramirez.
"[Ramirez] is an emotional guy," said Ventura recently. "You know, when the average isn't going your way, sometimes that can pile up on you, and you feel that you are getting swallowed up."
It is convenient for those of us who are not around these guys to make assumptions. Ramirez is not injured. He is relatively young, or at least at an age when a player like him should be in his prime. How can you not conclude that his problems are psychological? He may be doubting himself. He may be bothered by a situation far from baseball. You wonder if he is at peace with himself.
Last week MLB.com's Scott Merkin asked Ventura about his shortstop.
"We had a talk, and he's good," said the Sox manager. "He's going to be ready to go."
Of course, we have no idea whether they signed, talked in Spanish, English or whether Lino Diaz was present as a translator. We do know that after particularly bad games, Ramirez retreats to the training room to elude the media. Never has he been interviewed in English. All we know is that a talented, productive ballplayer, one of the best at his position, has become a liability. And we are left wondering whether the cultural divide has contributed to his deterioration.
Sun-Times beat writer Daryl Van Schouwen wrote last week about Abreu and his role as a leader on the team. Through an interpreter (Diaz?), the Sox first baseman said, "Since this [team's struggle] started, I have wanted to say something to the guys to motivate them but sometimes I don't know how they would take it. I don't speak English. Sometimes you feel like you have to say something to motivate the guys, to change the momentum. Sometimes I feel a little shy to express my feelings about what I think."
After another week when the Sox dropped four of six, leaving them 10 games below .500, you search for reasons for the sorry showing of what had promised to be an improved team. Of course, you can point to the mental and physical errors and lack of hitting in the clutch. The numbers don't lie.
What we can't quantify is the athletes' ability to communicate, to develop camaraderie, to be a family. Maybe this is a non-issue, but tell me of another workplace that is productive when people can't talk to one another. Better yet, tell Robin Ventura.
Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox. He welcomes your comments.
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Posted on Oct 11, 2021