In his longtime quest to improve his solid Spanish skills, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny annually makes a deal with one of his players. He vows to correct the player’s English if the player promises to correct his Spanish.
Without much fanfare, Matheny makes a difference and helps ease one of the biggest obstacles foreign players face when they adjust to life in the major leagues.
If you’ve noticed the dramatic improvement Cardinals ace Carlos Martinez has made with his English skills just one season after needing a translator to conduct postgame interviews, you’ve seen Matheny’s handiwork.
Considering that almost 30 percent of the players in the majors are foreign born — mostly from Latin America — the ability to speak Spanish is crucial for those who work in the baseball industry.
Fortunately for Matheny and the Cardinals, he has worked on his Spanish skills since high school in the late 1980s and, to a greater extent, since his college coach told him and his academic counselor in 1990 to start using his electives on Spanish courses at the University of Michigan.
Matheny also realized early on in his career that knowing Spanish wasn’t nearly enough to understand players from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Mexico and Panama.
He began learning about the culture in 1994 when the Brewers encouraged him to play winter ball in the Dominican Republic, where he got a glimpse of the numerous obstacles Dominican players overcome on their way to the majors.
“It was such an eye-opening experience,” Matheny said. “I even remember saying more American players need to go experience this to understand where these guys came from to understand the culture, to understand your teammates better.
“How am I going to communicate with a guy from two different worlds apart? Not that you’re ever going to completely empathize or you’re ever going to completely put yourself in their shoes, but you have a better understanding.”
Matheny gained a better appreciation for his Dominican teammates when the team bus drove into their impoverished neighborhoods to pick them up on the way to the winter ball games in 1994.
“You see some of the neighborhoods these guys came from and realize what they’ve had to overcome, how little they’ve been given to get where they are,” Matheny said. “I have huge respect for them. It really kicked in gear for me to learn Spanish a little bit better.
“They appreciated the fact that I was trying. I felt the Latin players whether it was the Dominican or Puerto Rico — I didn’t play in Venezuela or Mexico — they appreciated the fact that we came down there and had taken in their culture.”
A year later, Matheny immersed himself in the local culture while playing winter ball in Puerto Rico.
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Instead of living at a hotel full of English speakers, he rented a place in the local community where he needed to speak Spanish when he returned home or went shopping.
Matheny has made several trips back to Puerto Rico and the Dominican over the years, either with groups or individually, to visit some of his players.
The value of Matheny’s strong Spanish skills or cultural understanding was on full display during the first home series against the Diamondbacks. He granted an interview in Spanish that ran on the Cardinals’ Spanish broadcast on 880 AM.
The importance of cultural understanding was also on display Sunday when Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo set off Yadier Molina by flippantly using a curse word that is considered one of the worst insults in Latin American culture.
If Lovullo is to be taken at his word, he somehow assumed he was complimenting Molina’s ability to frame pitches while using a curse word Molina took literally.
Regardless of a player’s culture, Lovullo should never have used the word he used while describing Molina’s ability to frame pitches. He should be held to a higher standard.
His mistake was worse, though, because much can be lost in translation when dealing with different cultures. What can be explained away as a warped sense of a compliment in one culture can be fighting words in another.
That’s why it’s important to have managers who care enough to learn about the cultural differences. Matheny caught a major break in 1990 when his University of Michigan coach Bill Freehan, a former Detroit Tigers All-Star catcher, pulled him into his office before his sophomore season.
Freehan invited Matheny’s academic adviser into that meeting.
“I brought her in here because as of right now every one of your electives is going to be Spanish,” Matheny remembers Freehan telling him. “I see you getting a chance to play pro ball. One day I see you coaching too just from watching how you go about your business and what I’ve heard about you.”
That was the first time anybody told Matheny he had the potential to coach or manage in the majors. He embraced the Spanish classes even though he would have enjoyed easier electives.
When Matheny eventually became the first person in his family to receive a college degree, he earned one in sports management and communications with an emphasis in Spanish.
The Cardinals benefit greatly from Matheny’s ability to communicate with players such as Martinez in their native language. He has made the same deal with Yairo Munoz this season, but the entire organization benefits from his commitment.