When the Orioles sign a young international prospect at 16 from the Dominican Republic or Venezuela, they surely dream of a day when that player will be on their major league team. Maybe even become a star player on a team that can win the World Series.
But these Latin American players must travel a long road before any of that can happen, and that entails more than developing their baseball skills. Most speak little or no English. And while there are plenty of Spanish-speaking coaches when they start out and even throughout their way through the minors, if these players can pick up English as a second language, it will help them in innumerable ways.
Last offseason, they hired Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, native Anaima Garcia to work with their Latin players. We are talking about more than 100 players. This is no small task. But Garcia - whose first name is pronounced “Ana-E-ma” and who came to the Orioles from the Major League Baseball commissioner’s office in the Dominican - has jumped in with gusto to take on the challenge.
She found that, after the baseball shutdown in March, there was more time to teach. And she found some very willing players as students, and some of them have made tremendous progress in a short amount of time.
“We started this summer with a new program, new methodology,” Garcia said during a Zoom interview this week. “First, I needed to build relationships with our players and needed to get to know them better. Wanted to learn about their dreams and what they liked and didn’t like. Then we developed some groups for me to work with them and we rolled out the program. We worked a little bit on how the distance learning was going to happen and what was expected of them.
“So a couple of months in, all of our players were diligently getting into the Zoom calls. Starting on their own, getting results and recording themselves to show us that they have acquired the knowledge. Right now we’re getting ready for our next learning module. Players keep calling to say, ‘When are we going to get started?’ They are really looking forward to getting to Sarasota next year and being able to communicate with the staff there.”
There were obstacles to overcome along the way.
“Some of our players have to go to a neighbor’s house just to get on their wifi and take their online class,” she said. “Many of our players prefer having a one-on-one interaction via Zoom and then studying on their own. The fact of trying to reach diverse learners with diverse learning skill sets and trying to bring that in through Zoom is difficult, but not impossible.
“As the weeks have passed, they feel much more comfortable. They are able to create their own Zoom calls and use online tools to create projects for their classes. We have to recognize those guys with their effort. At the end of the day they did it because they understood that it was good for their language learning. They were thrilled to improve this summer.”
Garcia tried to limit some meetings to no more than 12.
“Our players understand they are not passive learners in this process,” she said. “I want to hear you say something. Put it to practice, and the more you practice it, the better it will be for your language-acquisition process.”
Garcia said she found a real passion for this work during her time with the commissioner’s office in the Dominican. She did similar work helping teams and realized she wanted to more closely focus on this work with players. Improving their English will benefit players in their many hours at the field, but also in their many hours away from it.
“I think just being able to communicate is the biggest thing for them,” Garcia said. “Some of the players I worked with were scared just to say hello. ‘Don’t ask me to say anything beyond that.’ But besides being able to communicate with their coaches and understand what they are asking you to improve, it’s being able to order a meal. Being able to show that you respect people that are providing you with a service. I tell my players, ‘Life is full of opportunities. And if you show others respect, your doors will open. You don’t know where you will be tomorrow or what you will be doing.’
“But having that (improved) English is kind of like a Swiss Army knife. ‘OK, I have the English. I have values. I have these skills.’ It’s giving them all those tools. I try to teach them to think ahead. Don’t just look at now. We explore different opportunities of things they can do because they know English. It can be maybe even dating someone. It’s good for you to know how to express yourself properly and how to get by, not only with your peers but with your superiors. Making a good first impression. This can open doors for you down the road.
“This has helped our players become more confident. I tell them to become independent learners. This is all part of developing an integral baseball player. It is just more than baseball. If you’re going to get there, I want you to have all the tools. We see cases with the media, with how your handle your money, there are so many things that could keep you from getting where you want to be. It’s not just the baseball. It’s the Swiss Army knife. We want you to be ready.”
When Garcia noted how excited the players were to learn and how hard they worked, she felt a reward was in order. So she held an awards ceremony via Zoom.
“It was a fantastic event,” she said. “We needed to recognize our players. There were selflessly just ready to attack this season with learning the language they had. It was not just English, or the language they had been assigned. We decide to host something to recognize the players.”
Among players cited by Garcia were Wilkin Grullon, Carlos Sanchez, Michael Mantecon, Lians Beato, Emmanuel Gutierrez, Stiven Acevedo, Damian Valdez, Moises Ramirez, Ricardo Rivera, Albert Calderon, Roberto Martinez, Alejandro Mendez, Angel Vargas, Noelberth Romero, Ronnie Martínez and Jordany Vasquez.