Alex Blandino heard the words every minor league player hopes to hear: “Pack your bags, son. You’ve been called up.”
And just like that, the smooth Mustangs shortstop was getting ready to hop a plane early the next morning and join his new team, the Dayton Dragons of the Class A Midwest League.
As news of his promotion trickled through the clubhouse, Blandino was approached one-by-one by teammates offering hands, hugs and congratulations. That’s when Argenis Aldazoro walked over to Blandino, and the two engaged in a lively conversation.
“He was telling me he wanted to get my (phone) number. He doesn’t have it yet,” Blandino said, smiling. “He just said that he’ll see me soon. We were just kind of saying our goodbyes.”
They told Blandino, a California native, of his call-up in English. But it’s not that easy for so many others.
Language barriers don’t exist for bilingual players like Blandino. But he’s the exception, not the rule. Blandino and those of his ilk are valuable in minor league clubhouses because they’re able to bridge language gaps and alleviate cultural boundaries.
Aldazoro, 21, is playing baseball some 3,500 miles from his home of Barinas, Venezuela. The sweet-swinging outfielder/first baseman is not without knowledge of English, with this being his second professional season. He can hold his own.
But like every prospect from Latin America, he was forced to adapt and learn on the fly.
Other Mustangs players, such as Venezuelans Soid Marquez and Jose Duarte, and Dominicans Jose Williams, Jefry Sierra, Wagner Gomez, and Aristides Aquino have been in the same boat. Each has picked up enough English to get by, but the barrier still exists.
For one player, slick infielder Alberti Chavez of Maracaibo, Venezuela, it’s still a work in progress. His English is minimal. It was the same for Jose Guzman, who was a part of the Mustangs’ pitching staff earlier this season.
The boundary is greater for some.
“Most of the Latin kids are expected to know English,” Mustangs manager Dick Schofield said. “And shame on me, because I’ve been in baseball for quite a while and I know very limited Spanish. And that’s just a lack of effort on my part.
“The kids want us to (speak) English to them -- not do the Spanglish thing where you’re going back and forth through a translator. But it can be a barrier when you’re really trying to explain something, and if you start rambling on like I am right now, you lose them. It’s got to be four, five, six, seven words that they understand -- and that’s it.”
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Imagine if the shoe was on the other foot. Imagine being sent by your employer to the Latin world, being pulled from your comfort zone to ply your trade. Would you overcome the cultural and ethnic differences? Would you conform to the conflicting dialect?
The language of baseball may be universal, but it ends on the field. And even then there are no guarantees.
“Eli Marrero, who is the (Reds’) Arizona League manager, we talked about it briefly and how hard it is for those kids,” Schofield said. “You don’t think of it, but if they threw these American kids to the Dominican Summer League, they’d be lost. The communication is huge.
“I never really realized that until a few years ago when I started in Rookie ball. There were some kids that didn’t speak a lick of English. And it was like, ‘What do I do?’ And then you’re using a kid who’s semi-bilingual (to translate), and you don’t even know what he’s saying. You hope he’s interpreting what you’re saying and translating it.
“You and I don’t look at it as a big deal because we don’t have to worry about it. If we did we’d be like, ‘Wow. We better learn Spanish real quick.’”
Communication is a major component of the catcher/pitcher relationship.
You’ve seen what happens when battery mates aren’t simpatico with a sign. If a catcher asks for a changeup and the pitcher throws a fastball, it can be ugly. But what about the spoken word?
“Really, the thing is you just have to meet in the middle,” said Mustangs catcher Garrett Boulware, a South Carolina native. “I have to learn a little Spanish and they have to learn a little English. When you’re in the middle of a game and everything is moving really quickly, it helps to know some Spanish, especially with a guy that doesn’t speak a lot of English. It helps because you can throw something out there and they’ll understand you.”
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Blandino’s father was born in Nicaragua and came to the United States when he was 15. When Blandino was growing up, he was made to speak Spanish almost exclusively. If not, his father would scarcely acknowledge him.
“It was something that he emphasized,” Blandino said. “A lot of times he wouldn’t respond to me if I spoke in English.”
When he arrived in Billings as a first-round draft pick out of Stanford, Blandino -- though fluent in Spanish -- was thrown off a bit by the different cadences with which players from varying spots on the Latin American map spoke.
He had to adjust, too.
“Dominican Spanish is a lot faster than the Spanish I speak at home,” Blandino said. “Venezuelan is a little slower and there is a lot more slang. Imagine learning proper English in school and then going to the south, like Louisiana or something. It’d be very different.
“Sometimes I’ll have to ask some of the Dominican guys to repeat themselves a little bit slower, but the more I’ve been hearing it the more I’ve been picking it up.”
Before he left town, Blandino was one of the Mustangs' most important players. And not just because of his exploits on the field, which were significant.
As the team’s only truly bilingual player when he was in Billings, the Latin players looked to him for help. And it’s gone a long way.
“A lot of guys are working through it,” Blandino said. “Aquino … last year people were saying he didn’t speak any English. But every day we come to the yard and he might ask me how to say a phrase in English, stuff like that. He picks up something more every day and he learns a little bit more. He’s pretty good at it now. He can definitely get around and communicate what he wants.
“But it’s something that’s tough. Especially with different dialects people have to learn. But I think overall a lot of the guys do a good job of learning the basics and learning what they have to in order to get through the day, especially in a baseball game.”