Pitchers Anthony Ferrara and Seth Maness, infielder Starlin Rodriguez and outfielder Mike O'Neill…
Three Cardinals followed their normal routine, assembling in the executive conference room on the second floor of the team's Jupiter facility. It is a room that general manager John Mozeliak and his staff deploy during spring training, including perhaps to decide players' assignments and their futures.
The three youngsters share several common threads. Carlos Martinez, Ronny Gil and Starlin Rodriguez all hail from the Dominican Republic and were among the very brightest prospects on their team. What brought them together on this day and many others just like it was to attend an intensive English class.
The one-hour small-group sessions are conducted three times per week when the Cardinals are home and worked around their Florida State League road trips. In fact, comparable classes are held in each of the Cards minor league affiliate towns during the season.
Two of the three Palm Beach students recently started their second year in the States, while at the other end of the spectrum are teammates Luis De La Cruz and Richard Castillo (the latter since promoted to Springfield, joined by Martinez this week). De La Cruz and Castillo were excused from classes as they had already mastered basic English language skills in previous seasons.
Normally, the classes begin with the three players seated on one side of the large conference table across from private tutor Sandra Gomez. The Jupiter resident holds a degree in English and is contracted by an Indianapolis company called Language Training Center.
|Martinez, Gil, Rodriguez and Gomez|
On this day, the class was observed by LTC president Martin George and one of his specialists, Josh Cernero. Facilitating language training, LTC works with multiple Cardinals minor league clubs, four other MLB organizations and such diverse sports as Indy car racing, the LPGA and WWE.
While Gomez and each student had several textbooks at their elbows, including one supplied by LTC and another baseball-themed handbook provided by the Cardinals, the teacher really focused attention on conversational English. She passed out papers hand-penciled in block-letters to each of the three players to guide the discussion.
The approach deployed makes sense, but was initially a bit surprising to me. My expectations were shaped by my own college Spanish classes, but neither boring verb conjugations nor generic "See Spot run" recitations were on Gomez' agenda.
One of the basic rules of class was that distractions were to be minimized. Phones not only had to be turned off, they had to be turned into the instructor for the duration of the session. One of Gomez' main objectives is to maintain the full attention of her students.
As Rodriguez handed over his smart phone, Gomez gently teased the quiet second baseman, asking him if he had spent the previous late night texting with his girlfriend back home. He sheepishly nodded yes.
Unwittingly, I became the recipient of the day's first lesson. As I re-introduced myself to each of the players, Gomez stopped me as I shook hands with Rodriguez, whom I called "Starlin."
"His name is Stah-lin," the instructor corrected, using the same pronunciation as the surname of the late Russian dictator. Now, I know the "r" is silent!
The class began with a recap of five important words, around which the players were asked to provide supporting phrases. They are the five "W's" - where, when, whom, who and what. As one might imagine, distinguishing between how to deploy "whom" and "who" proved to be most challenging.
As the most advanced English speaker of the three due to his 2011 studies at Quad Cities, Martinez usually led the way. However, if the others tried to simply parrot Carlos, the instructor challenged them to develop their own unique response. Of course, she assisted as needed.
I was very surprised at how much English Martinez had learned in the last 14 months. In March 2011, I was probably the first member of the US media to interview Martinez in what was his initial minor league spring training camp in the States.
At that point, the hard-throwing but slight-of-build right-hander knew no English whatsoever, as far as I could tell. Manager Johnny Rodriguez had served as translator that day. While Martinez may still not be able to handle an interview alone, he has since mastered a number of elements of basic conversation and seems confident in his speech. That should serve him well in his new stop as Spanish is considerably less prevalent in Southwest Missouri compared to South Florida.
With the goal being to teach the young men phrases needed in their everyday lives as baseball players employed in the US, the next subjects on Gomez' docket were especially appropriate.
As she touched one of her body parts, the three were asked to identify it in English. After all, an injured player would receive better treatment if he could do more than point to what ails him.
Another segment of the session was taken right out of the Cardinals handbook. Gomez pointed to graphics of various items of baseball-related equipment, again challenging her students to identify them in English.
I found myself wanting to help Gomez, who knows her English and Spanish, but less baseball. "Chest protector" was one of my contributions to the dialogue. Alas, "stirrups" are now pretty much obsolete as Cardinals minor leaguers are no longer required to wear them as part of their uniform.
Through the course of the drills, a bit about each player's background became known.
Gil was the class clown, exceptionally good-natured and bubbly. When asked what he liked to eat, the shortstop did not mimic the others by saying, "chicken and rice." Instead, he simply exclaimed, "I eat everything!" Gil grinned widely, looking to us for approval as hearty laughs ensued.
Asking about families led to Martinez explaining his personal background. The situation had delayed the start of his professional career by one year, as his origin and even his name itself came under investigation.
"I live with my grandfather and uncle," the man formerly known as Carlos Matias explained. "I never knew my father and my mother is dead," Martinez stated quietly.
Another common thread was that Gil spent a year under suspension after he was found to have assumed the identity of another, Grabiel Hernandez, who was 2 1/2 years younger. Still, the Cardinals stuck with Gil, enamored with his potential.
The players' faces lit up when Gomez asked each to identify his favorite player. Not surprisingly, they all selected Dominicans that play the same position as do they. For Martinez, the answer was completely expected. After all, he has been compared to future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez by many others as well. Gil likes the Marlins' Jose Reyes best while Rodriguez named Yankees star Robinson Cano as his favorite.
In each case, Gomez did not allow the player to simply reply with a name. They had to use a sentence, such as "My favorite player is Pedro Martinez."
Many new questions were designed to build off the prior answer. For example, in this case, the instructor followed with, "Carlos, why is Pedro Martinez your favorite player?"
As the class neared its close, I was asked to speak briefly to the three. I reminded them that they have considerable baseball skills and are among the brightest prospects in the Cardinals system. I challenged them to practice English with each other and their teammates, taking this mastery as seriously as their baseball.
After all, among the players then at Palm Beach, these three have as good of a chance as any of someday reaching St. Louis. The organization is clearly investing in them. This is one element of how they can respond in kind to prove they will be ready when called upon. In addition, these skills should serve them far beyond their baseball-playing days.
Coming next: Go behind the scenes of a group English session for ten younger prospects currently in Extended Spring Training camp in Jupiter, Fla., including video, exclusively for subscibers.
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Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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