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

Gary Sanchez "talking" with Masahiro Tanaka

MLB Editorial: Bilingualism is a rarity in baseball. Interpreters enable. All players should be encouraged to earn a bonus by learning ESL or SSL. 

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) need to be given equal weight to ESL programs.

Brian Dozier - MLB Bilingual Pioneer
Brian Dozier – MLB Bilingual Pioneer

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.

Sanchez: "Yup, I got it. Let's go."
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.

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