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Two very important things to establish about Ozzie Guillen before the conversation gets spun too far out:
1. The fact that he says things in a predictably controversial or confrontational way doesn't mean his words can be dismissed.
2. The fact that he often sounds right doesn't mean he has the story completely nailed down.
As a case in point, consider Guillen's comments Sunday about the language barrier in baseball and the disparate experiences of Latino and Asian players. Ozzie's main argument is that the Asian players get preferential treatment in the form of interpreters who accompany them on their journey through pro ball in the United States but that Latinos are essentially left to figure things out on their own as they struggle with a language and culture they don't understand.
|Ozzie Guillen might not have factored in the size of the investments baseball makes in majors-ready players from Japan and Korea.|
And Guillen is right. He's just not absolutely right.
Where Guillen is chasing down some perceived racial inequity, he ought to be chasing the balance sheet. The simplest truth is that many of the Asian players who come to the U.S. proceed directly to the major leagues, the reason being that they are already established successes -- in Japan mostly, but sometimes Taiwan or Korea -- who are being lured to MLB with large amounts of cash.
Follow the money. When a team is investing that heavily in the success of a single player, no matter where he's from, that team generally is going to do whatever it can to smooth the path. If that includes an interpreter, so be it. (For the record: Several Japanese players through the years also have personally paid for interpreters, who often functioned as general assistants to the players.)
Baseball's scouting, recruitment and signing of Latino players is so much deeper and talent-diverse that the results are inarguably different. Most of those players are signed very young, very unproven and very green. They are shuttled off to scores of minor league venues across the U.S., where their experiences vary wildly and where they might receive some help assimilating to the American way of life or no help whatsoever.
So when Guillen says, "We bring a Japanese player and they are very good and they bring all these privileges to them. We bring a Dominican kid go to the minor leagues, good luck," he isn't far off from the truth. But he doesn't hit the bull's-eye, either.
Guillen's own White Sox organization, according to Scott Merkin at MLB.com, offers cultural assimilation classes for minor league players from other countries. Those aren't the same as English-intensive language classes, and certainly not the same as making sure there's a Latino on hand at every stop to translate for those who don't speak English. But it's also not nothing, and some English training is included. It's a step.
Again, that varies tremendously from organization to organization. Anyone who has spent time around minor league clubs knows this instinctively; you don't need a survey to verify it. Some teams invest heavily in the education and even language training of their prospects, and some don't bother. The first kind have Spanish-speaking coaches at almost every stop; as for the rest, they let time and promotion sort itself out.
|Mariano Rivera has spoken out about the need for both Latino players and U.S. media to work to overcome the language barrier.|
The great Yankees closer Mariano Rivera has spoken eloquently on this topic, and they are words Guillen could stand to hear again. Rivera has spent time over the years taking reporters (among others) to task for not bothering to learn rudimentary or conversational Spanish despite the fact that nearly 30 percent of the players in the major leagues speak Spanish as their primary language. But at the same time, Rivera puts the other half of the responsibility on the Spanish-speaking players to learn English, the chosen language of the country in which they are plying their trade.
It's not about interpreters, in Rivera's view. It is a little bit about making the world slightly smaller by learning some sentences, phrases, words. It is an ultimately helpful way of seeing the possibilities.
Ozzie being Ozzie, his Sunday comments almost immediately were sent into the dreaded spin zone. (The Associated Press, generally a stalwart of objective journalism, began one paragraph of its report on his comments, "In his latest rant .") If it's Guillen talking, you can expect sides to be chosen up quickly and as definitively as possible.
But the language issue isn't one that will give so easily to black-and-white conclusions. The Asian comparison, although it generated headlines, is inept because it doesn't apply equally at all. That's about franchise investment, nothing more.
The truth is that whole cadres of players who may or may not speak a single word of English are being paid to play in the minor league system. Frankly, it's remarkable that more MLB teams don't seed their farm systems with help -- not in the form of interpreters but in English teachers. That is development money well spent.
Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com and the author of "The Voodoo Wave," to be published next year by W.W. Norton. His book "Six Good Innings" was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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