Inside the Game: Foreign players tackle new language, culture when chasing their MLB dreams


LOS ANGELES – Last spring, Los Angeles Magazine published a story on Yasiel Puig’s journey from Cuba to the Dodgers.

The harrowing tale featured shady characters, questionable agendas and plenty of frightening moments in illustrating what a player will put himself through to reach the Major Leagues.

Puig’s story, while unusual, gives a glimpse into some of the issues foreign players face not only in getting to the big leagues but also in transitioning to life in the United States.

While most players don’t have to face the sort of dangers Puig did to get to the big leagues, each still faces plenty of challenges, including the heartbreak of leaving family members behind, the struggles of learning a new language and the efforts to find a comfort zone within a new culture.

As Dodgers utility man Kiké Hernandez says: “This is more than just a game – we’re human beings. Think about how comfortable you can be when you’re in a place where you don’t speak the language and you don’t know what anyone else is saying around you. You never get that comfort zone of ‘hey this is where I am and I’m going to live my life’ like the rest of us. For some guys it’s not that easy because you need to depend on other people to get by.”

And with an always-healthy foreign presence in the sport – 26.5 percent of current big leaguers, from a record 17 countries, were born outside the U.S. – Major League Baseball will continue to have these issues to deal with.

Chasing your dream, but leaving loved ones behind

Alex Guerrero left his comfort zone when he signed with the Dodgers in 2013. Like Puig, Guerrero hails from Cuba, and like Puig, baseball became his life at a very young age.

Guerrero was only 10 years old when a scout noticed he had a strong pitching arm. The man told him to come to a tryout the next week. When the boy failed to show up (because, in his words, “I didn’t like playing that much.”), the scout persisted. He spoke to Guerrero’s mother so that she would make sure he went to the next tryout.

Alex GuerreroAlex Guerrero on coming to the U.S. from Cuba: “You come here blindly because you don't know how things are going to go, you don't know if you're going to be signed for a while or not.”

“My mom didn't force me to go, but she was encouraging, so I went,” Guerrero says in Spanish. “I got there and there were five scouts watching that day and they all watched me pitch. When they saw I could also swing, one of them told me, 'you're staying here.' From that moment on baseball became everything. From the moment I was 10 years old and played my first tournament, I never did anything else."

Guerrero became a star in Cuba, but he always had thoughts of coming to the U.S. He played in international tournaments in places like Canada, Netherlands and Japan, so he had an idea of “how things run in a capitalist nation.”

But there were complicating factors coming from Cuba that players from other countries didn’t face. While most foreign players get to go through big league tryouts, sign a contract and then make the move, Guerrero would have to defect first and then hope to sign a contract. And he would have to do it alone.

“You come here blindly because you don't know how things are going to go, you don't know if you're going to be signed for a while or not,” Guerrero says. “You wonder if you're good enough because it's a different level of baseball. I finally made the decision to come. Thankfully there are other Cubans who I played with who came here and were successful. It made me think, ‘if they could do it, why can't I?’

"Leaving the family is the most difficult part. I came by myself, all my family stayed back. I call them every day. They can't watch the games live, but we record them and send them there."

Guerrero is working to get his family to the U.S. and he’s looking forward to that day, saying it will help to have a close support group around him on a daily basis.

"I'm currently in the process of bringing them over,” he says. “As soon as I become a resident of the United States, my intention is to bring them all here. I'll get my papers in two or three months. I'll bring them and life will be more comfortable."

Juan Nicasio had a much different journey to the U.S. Unlike Guerrero, Nicasio didn’t grow up playing baseball, instead laboring on his father’s farm in the Dominican Republic. It was hard work, but he enjoyed it (he says he’ll go back there when he’s done playing), and says he never thought he’d be a major leaguer.

Juan NicasioJuan Nicasio left his family farm to play baseball in the U.S.: “It was tough during the first couple of years. I was 19 years old and I had never been away from my dad or my mom before."

"I was always talented but I hadn't developed it,” Nicasio says (though he speaks English, this interview was in Spanish). “I was very busy with my dad's farm. I didn't have time to practice. It was later that I realized that I could really play."

It wasn’t until he was 18 that Nicasio started practicing with a cousin, gained some attention from scouts and signed with the Colorado Rockies just a few days shy of his 20thbirthday.

Like Guerrero, Nicasio says the toughest part was leaving his family.

“They are all over there (in the Dominican Republic) but they can visit now,” Nicasio says. “It was tough during the first couple of years. I was 19 years old and I had never been away from my dad or my mom before. We always lived together up until then. So when I got here it was really difficult because you're far away. I would call my mom two or three times a day."

Communication is key – and a struggle

Leaving family is difficult, but there are a whole host of new problems to deal with once a player arrives, the language barrier being the toughest.

First, you have to be able to communicate with coaches and teammates.

"The first thing you have to learn when you get here is the baseball terminology,” says Guerrero. “I can say and understand most of them so when someone is talking about baseball, I don't understand everything, but I get the idea. That helps keep a good relationship with teammates. We talk about baseball every day so that's what I have learned and that helps me."

It’s a difficult transition for some players who might be more reserved or unsure of themselves. They don’t want to say the wrong thing, so they tend to remain as quiet and out of the way as possible. For more extroverted types, such as reliever Luis Avilan, it’s not so scary approaching his American teammates. He views mistakes as part of the learning process.

“Whenever you make a mistake they make fun of you but they also teach you so you know the next time,” says Avilan, a 26-year-old from Venezuela. “It may have been easier for me because I’m very outgoing.”

Kiké HernandezKiké Hernandez would like to see regular translators supplied for Hispanic players: “We take English classes and all that but you get guys from Asia coming in and they’re allowed to have translators. I don’t see why Spanish speakers can’t have the same thing.”

Players who have been around a little longer and are more comfortable with English view it as their duty to help their younger teammates.

Nicasio, in fact, views it as an obligation to help as other veterans helped him when he first came up. So does Hernandez, who considers himself fortunate to have grown up bilingual in Puerto Rico. He says he tries to be as helpful as possible. He also appreciates what teams do for their players, though he wishes big league franchises would do a bit more.

“I really think that MLB needs to do something to give Hispanics a translator because, yeah, we take English classes and all that but you get guys from Asia coming in and they’re allowed to have translators. I don’t see why Spanish speakers can’t have the same thing.”

Hernandez praises teams for providing regular English classes in the minor leagues, however, and stresses the importance of that opportunity.

“Guys think it’s annoying because they’re tired at the end of the day,” he says. “But in the long run I think they’re appreciative because they realize that speaking two languages is an advantage.

“It’s an advantage in more than just baseball but in life. You can go to the United States and speak English and you can go to Latin America and speak Spanish. You always have that edge of speaking two languages. It’s a lot more important than baseball, it’s a lifestyle.”