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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Monday, July 23, 2001
An Interview With Pedro Mart?nez
The game?s greatest pitcher talks about the struggles Latino players face when they leave home to play in the United States.
When you were starting out in the minor leagues, what was the most difficult part of coming to play in the United States?
Overcoming the odds of all the people saying I was too small to play in the big leagues.
What about the language barrier? How quickly did you learn English?
I wasn?t fluently speaking in English, but I was pretty much ahead of the pack because I had taken English classes in school, and also at the Dodgers? academy. So I understood pretty good what I was doing before I came over.
And after you came over, how did you improve that?
Doing the same things: studying, speaking to people, and trying not to be afraid ? and making a lot of mistakes. We still had English teachers when I came over to the states for the first time, so I took advantage of it, and then my pitching coach in the minor leagues would give me a couple of words daily, and I?d try to spell them. They were difficult words each day. Some of them were new, and some of them I knew. But he had to just make something up, anything.
Aside from the language, what other difficulties did you have because you weren?t from the United States?
Well, I was advised pretty good by my brother, who went through a lot of different things that I didn?t have to experience because of what he went through. But I think eating was also a big factor. The food is very different, and I didn?t adjust well in the first two years.
What sorts of things did Ram?n have to go through that you didn?t?
If we start counting, we?ll be here all day. But I had to go through my a lot of things on my own, too ? being misjudged a lot because of having a different culture. Also, having a brother in the big leagues, the expectations were very hard for me to overcome, because he was always great in the minor leagues and the big leagues. By the time he was starting in the big leagues, playing in the All-Star game, I was pitching in Great Falls my first year, and they were expecting almost the same from me. So it was hard to overcome all those things.
Can you give me an example of a way in which you were misjudged?
No. You don?t need to know those things.
How about the food? How was it different in the United States, and how did you deal with it?
We were used to rice, beans, vegetables, salads, that kind of stuff. Here, for your main food, you?d probably have a steak. We have a lot of seafood in our country, which is cooked differently, completely differently than it?s cooked over here. Also, I cannot stand to see any pink on my meat, and that?s something I had to adjust to. Because of the variety of food that was here, I didn?t understand that you could have the food cooked the same way as I was used to. Where I was, there weren?t too many Spanish-speaking people, so I couldn?t find the food cooked the way it should have been. And being so small made it more difficult.
Some guys take quite a bit longer to learn English when they first come over. How important do you think it is for the players to learn English quickly like you did?
It?s very important, first of all because it gives them an opportunity to express themselves, and at times that?s a big factor. If I wasn?t able to speak to people, I think it would have been a lot worse. But I was able to communicate and say, ?Hey, this bothers me,? or ?I?m feeling like this,? and somebody was there to listen to me. That was very important, because my brother wasn?t there for me all the time. There were times when I wanted to talk to my brother when I was on the road, and I didn?t know how to find the number to his hotel, and I might have been in some little town playing baseball, and it was very difficult. So I had to communicate with Guy Conti, my pitching coach, and I had a couple of teammates who were from the Dominican also. But it?s not the same as talking to somebody who really understands about life, not only on the field, but also off the field.
Do you think it?s important for teams to hire Latino coaches to help with some of these problems?
I don?t know. I don?t know about that. I would say it?s important to hire Latinos because if you have a lot of Latino players on the club, you want to help them develop sooner. But the system is there, we?re in America, and we?re the ones that I think have the necessity of learning English.
What kinds of things did the Dodgers do to help you?
They had a really good minor league system. They teach well, they find a way to teach you and make you feel more comfortable. They do pretty much everything. They used to help you with the housing ? I mean they?d help you find it, you do have to pay eventually. But they help you find it, they have people to go pick you up at the airport and stuff so you?re not on your own.
I heard that when you in Montr?al, you tried to learn French. Is that true?
I picked up a little bit, yeah. I don?t know as much French as I know English, not even close. But I just picked up a lot of words on the street, like from the security guards, the batboys who were there, they talked to me a lot. Those were my friends, those were the people I hung out with. So they taught me a little bit, and friends in Montr?al would give me words, and I would try to repeat them, and try to pick them up when I heard them somewhere else. I picked up a little bit, but not much. You have to practice a lot to be able to speak it properly.
I know you admire Juan Marichal very much. How much time have you been able to spend with him?
How much difference is there between what you went through, and what he experienced 30 years earlier?
From the earth to the sky. It?s just huge. At that time, from my understanding, they had to eat outside the restaurants where there were white people. I never had to go through that. I never had to come over to the States when nobody knew that the Dominican existed. What we are today, we owe to Marichal, Felipe [Alou], those guys that played the game before us. Because nobody knew where the Dominican was until those guys showed up in the United States to play baseball. I think for them to overcome not only the food and the language barrier, but overcoming discrimination and all of those things ? having to eat in different places, having to go to the back of the bus, not being able to talk to any of the guys off the field, and pretty much watching where you walk ? I imagine it had to be a lot more difficult than the things we?ve been through.
Eric Enders is a freelance writer and baseball historian in Cooperstown, New York. He is the founder of Triple E Productions, a baseball research and consulting company.
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