A couple members of Major League Baseball’s old guard caught a wild hair the past few days, and found themselves in some hot water in the process.
First, Mike Schmidt, a Phillies legend and arguably the greatest third basemen to ever play the game, went on sports talk radio on Tuesday morning and gave his opinion of Philadelphia’s talented young Venezuelan outfielder Odubel Herrera. Herrera, he explained, was not the sort of player the organization could build around, because, you see, his English isn’t good enough. Schmidt explained: “I think he can’t be a guy who would sort of sit in a circle with four, five American players and talk about the game. Or try and learn about the game or discuss the inner workings of the game.”
Look, I’ve never played pro sports. I don’t know how this stuff works. But at least some of this strikes me as off. For instance:
Sitting In A Circle: Of course Herrera can sit in a circle with four or even five American players. There is no language related barrier that would keep him from circling up. When and where does this circle take place? Is this commonplace? Do they sew?
Talking About The Game: Nearly 30 percent of Major League players are from Latin America, a number that is steadily rising. That means your average Major League team has about 7.5 players from Latin America. So when you’re circling up with teammates to talk about the inner workings of the game, chances are extremely high that one or more members of your circle will be native Spanish speakers. You’ve gotta figure this out! You gotta figure out how to say “infield fly rule” in two languages. It’s so important to your team.
Look, I always liked Mike Schmidt, and he more or less promptly apologized, and I’m just going to assume he was freelancing on the radio and flew a bit too close to the sun. Let’s all move on, right?
Nope! Up in New York, long-time color Red Sox commentator and former just-okay Red Sox second baseman Jerry Remy found himself exploring a similar topic while broadcasting Tuesday night’s Sox-Yankees tilt. He became exercised when a pitching coach’s visit to the mound to star Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka included a translator. “I don’t think that should be legal,” Remy harrumphed and then proceeded to mutter insensibly about learning “baseball language” and how, “You break it down pretty easy between pitching coach and pitcher after a long period of time.” (Remy did tweet a standard-issue apology via Twitter on Tuesday morning: “I apologize to those who were offended by my comments during the telecast last night.”)
If I’m understanding correctly, and God knows I narrowly grasp any of this, Schmidt and Remy are fundamentally disagreeing. Schmidt is saying that you can’t sit in a circle and discuss baseball with anything less then a sterling command of the King’s English. Remy is saying you shouldn’t get to have a translator because “baseball language” is “pretty easy.” The common denominator seems to be that both men seem to feel uncomfortable accommodating non-native English-as-a-second-language speakers.
I don’t want to make too much of this nativist boomlet. And I’m not even going to dwell on this coming on the heels of the horrifying racial abuse directed towards Adam Jones in Boston earlier this season. Not every old man sticking his foot in his mouth has to result in a full-blown federal case. But to the extent that it is a piece with a certain national movement to prize English speaking above every other language in American venues, it serves as an apt demonstration of the self-negating lunacy of this kind of attitude.
Baseball has long been one of America’s greatest cultural exports, and its deep tentacles throughout Latin America and Asia make it the envy of even the behemoth NFL. Countries from South America to the Far East have nourished the game and sent great stars back, from Roberto Clemente to Ichiro Suzuki. International diversity has kept the game viable and growing, buttressing it globally even when its audience share Stateside has shrunk since the 1970’s.
If baseball does have a language, it is certainly a robust, crazy quilt of cross-cultural, multi-continental idioms spoken in dozens, if not hundreds, of different accents. This is something to celebrate and not to denigrate, and it doesn’t take a genius to see it. Let’s circle up and discuss.