MLB: On Why SSL And ESL Should Have Equal Footing For All Players

Gary Sanchez "talking" with Masahiro Tanaka

MLB Editorial: Bi-Lingualism is a rarity in baseball when it should be the norm. MLB needs to step up its efforts in the Minor Leagues…  

This article was first published in August 2020. However, the issue is as pressing as ever as the ethnicity of major league ballplayers tips evermore to those of Latin descent.

MLB’s interest in not only promoting bilingualism but also in providing tools for players to learn a second language as a means to grow the sport should be self-evident.

In 2016, Carlos Beltran pushed Major League Baseball to provide interpreters for all non-English speaking players. At the time, it was a ground-breaking territory that should have been seen as a first step to achieve a different goal.

Alas, the crutches provided by MLB remain today as well-established players like Gary Sanchez, Aroldis Chapman, Michael Pineda (who didn’t understand the language of the “no pine tar rule” before he was suspended), and a cast of others.

Trying to teach an old dog new tricks is never a wise choice when attempting to implement change.

The real trick and the one MLB needs to be concentrating on is to capture the young – the 17 and 18 year-olds who are signed off the ballfields in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

These are the ones with a stake in “making it” in the United States and the major leagues.

Gary Sanchez, for instance, is past that and therefore has little or no interest in learning English at this point in his career.

A few, like Gleyber Torres, see the value of learning a second language, and they pursue the task on their own with little or no prodding or supervision. Speaking to the New York Post earlier this week, Torres walked through his answers in English. Soon, he will run.

All of those long and boring bus rides as these youngsters plow their way through the minor leagues could – with the assistance of MLB-provided software – enable these kids to (someday) walk into a major league clubhouse on an equal plane with Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge simultaneously. 

The danger, of course, is that any type of discussion (like this) is riding on the third rail, and therefore subject to charges of racism and bias. If you must, then convict me. 

But I believe the game of baseball is bettered when I hear it from (so to speak) the horse’s mouth – and not through the filter of an interpreter – who by the way – is more often than not hired by the team the player is representing.

Following then is the original article that resonated with readers then – and I hope – even more so now.

Steve Contursi, Reflections On Baseball 3/4/2021

MLB continues to exist but not thrive without a common language. Teams and the league itself go out of their way to provide ESL (English as a Second Language) learning. But as might be expected, ballplayers find it more pressing to learn how to hit a darting slider that is no longer coming in on your hands.

When needed, teams provide interpreters to accompany players who are asked for an interview by the media. Not only is this cumbersome and distracting, but there’s also a feeling that critical points are missed when paraphrased by the interpreter.

MLB: Languages Competing With “Team”

MLB and its players are no different from the rest of us. We tend to associate with those we are most comfortable with. Having a common language within those groups is almost always a prerequisite.

The trouble is, of course, that MLB clubhouses tend to divide in the same way, creating “corners” where groups become isolated, not only by language differences but also by music, types of humor, religion, and so on.

The formation of these cliques is diametrically in opposition to the concept of “team”, and if nothing else, they create yet another challenge for managers and coaches to overcome.

Nearly all teams seek to meet the challenge by hiring coaches and other staff to accommodate non-English speaking players, but that’s like supplying methadone to heroin addicts, and doing so only defers the real problem.

MLB: ESL Is One Way But Not The Only Way

Traditionally, MLB, like all elements of our education, has focused on ESL as a solution that unifies communication. By definition, that is a one-way street, though, and it only addresses half of the problem.

If the remaining portion is to be addressed by MLB, then SSL (Spanish as a Second Language) needs to be given equal weight to ESL programs.

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Brian Dozier – MLB ESL Bilingual PioneerPioneer

Brian Dozier, who is now with the New York Mets, received this awakening in the winter of 2012, on the skinny streets of Margarita, Venezuela, which was when Dozier first felt like an outsider.

Suddenly, the tables were turned on Dozier, who struggled to place an order at a restaurant, ask for directions, and most significantly to communicate with his teammates.

In 2019, Dozier recounted his experience in a compelling story by Jesse Dougherty for the Washington Post. Dozier, who is now fluent in Spanish, reasoned at the time:

“It certainly is hard (to learn a new language). But for so long, it’s just been understood that Latin players would learn English. Why not also flip that expectation?”

This brings us to the main point, which is MLB doesn’t need a single common language – it needs two.

MLB And A Path To Bilingualism

My first thought was to have ESL and SSL attached as a requirement to be granted free agency. After all, anyone should be able to learn a second language over six years, even with the lowest of motivations.

The better sense of me realized, however, the player’s union (MLBPA) might take serious issue with a mainstay of their program challenged.

So, why not offer a bonus that is collectible any time before a player reaches free-agent status. Make it an offer major league minimum earning players “can’t refuse” – like $100,00 to be shared equally by MLB and the team.

Making The Case

The humorous sight, for example, of Gary Sanchez and Mashiro Tanaka conferencing on the mound to decide how to get a batter out, while not funny, should be enough for MLB and, in this case, the Yankees to band together to support universal bilingualism in baseball.

MLB ESL In Practice? Sanchez: "Yup, I got it. Let's go."
MLB ESL In Practice? Sanchez: “Yup, I got it. Let’s go.”

Tanaka: Kare ni supurittā o nagetai

Sanchez: Buena idea, mantén la bola rápida alta y ajustada.


Tanaka: I want to get him out with a splitter in the dirt.

Sanchez: Good idea, just make sure you keep that fastball high and tight.


A wild pitch or passed ball depending on the official scorer’s call, as Sanchez stays in while the pitch darts outside. Neither is at fault, lest for a communication barrier that results in changing the outcome of a game.

The example is only for dramatic purposes, and to be fair, and many say Tanaka knows far more English than he lets on. Sanchez continues to rely on an interpreter only because he feels his English is not yet up to par, and specific verb usages still confuse him.

Wanna lay a bet though that says Sanchez won’t try harder to get up to speed with a check for one-hundred-thousand dollars staring in his face?

Can MLB Multitask?

With all that MLB and each of its teams are contending with during these pandemic days, it’s reasonable time devoted to bilingualism might not reach the top of a prioritized to-do list.

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Gerrit Cole and Gary Sanchez – Anything to talk about? (NY Post)

Ironically though, this is precisely the right time for MLB, deep in a revenue losing season, to be thinking about ways to grow the sport of baseball.

Imagine, for instance, Gerrit Cole and Gary Sanchez “talking baseball” in the corner of the dugout (wearing masks, of course) – in Spanish! – and what there is to gain from that kind of communication.

As stated in the opening, MLB continues to exist with language barriers from team to team – but it is not maximizing its potential internally or with its fans.

Putting the focus on Spanish-speaking players to learn English is a must, but so is the reverse if the game is genuinely endeavored to grow the game.

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Author: stevecontursi

I am an amateur writer with a passion for baseball and all things Yankees and Mets.