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Latin American baseball players train hard to build English skills

Reporting from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. — In a stuffy meeting room of a budget hotel, 10 young men in jeans and polo shirts slump into faux-leather chairs around a worn brown conference table.

Most of them are 14 hours into a work day that started before dawn, so their eyelids are setting faster than the late-spring sun. But the small, energetic lady standing at the head of the table makes no concession to fatigue.

With a routine that is part pedagogy, part performance art, Lynette Nadal begins drumming the table loudly while shouting the alphabet in a sing-song cadence, three letters at a time. Instantly the men, minor league ballplayers from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico, join in, dancing in their chairs and pounding the table in a staccato beat while repeating the letters back to her.

Welcome to the Florida Marlins’ first week of introductory English, an exercise nearly as important as batting practice and fielding drills for any Latin American prospect hoping to make his mark in the major leagues.

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“For nearly all the players who make it to the big leagues, there’s such a strong correlation between their educational level, how well they speak English and their accomplishments on the big league level,” says Nadal, who has been teaching baseball players for more than 20 years.

For years, many major league clubs offered little more than rudimentary English lessons to players in their Latin American training academies. The classes focused on baseball terms the minor leaguers would need for the game. Players were on their own when it came to learning how to hail a cab, order lunch or simply say hello in English.

But as baseball’s’ investment in Latin America has grown — teams spent an estimated $102 million on signing bonuses for players from the region in 2010 — so has the desire to protect that investment. Teams learned the hard way that spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to sign and develop a teenager, only to have him wash out in the minor leagues because he feels isolated or can’t figure out the menu at Burger King, didn’t make sense.

Nearly 24% of the players on major league rosters on the opening day of the 2011 season were born in Latin America. So were about nearly half of those on minor league rosters.

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Educators and baseball people say giving players a firmer grasp of English allows them to communicate better with coaches and teammates, instills confidence, improves critical thinking and makes them better players and representatives of the club.

“It’s crucial,” says Milton Jamail, coordinator of Latin American cultural and educational programming for the Tampa Bay Rays. “We could get them to learn the baseball stuff and they would be fine on the field. But the biggest transition for every organization is what they do off the field — all these basic things that we assume everybody knows how to do but you’re doing them in another language, in another culture.”

Six years ago, the Cleveland Indians and New York Mets established a program with a private school in Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic, that instructs players in core academic subjects as well as teaching them English. That way young men — many of whom quit school before the eighth grade to practice baseball — can earn high school and even college diplomas.

In March, Sandy Alderson, head of a blue-ribbon committee created by baseball Commissioner Bud Selig to reform the sport’s operations in Latin America and now general manager of the New York Mets, told baseball officials in the Dominican Republic that advanced educational programs would soon be mandatory at every major league team’s developmental academy.

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In emphasizing language and learning, ball clubs are following a path that Nadal, a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan, began blazing two decades ago.

“If part of the philosophy of education is educating the whole player, then players are going to be stronger players,” says Nadal, who wrote and self-published a textbook on the subject. “Because of their educational experience, they start using critical thinking skills. They’re able to use logic and reasoning in terms of the decision-making that they have to do spontaneously on the field and in the game.

“They have a keener sense of attention during meetings. They actually start note-taking. And that’s when the coaches are really blown away.”

Nadal was teaching French and Spanish in the Palm Beach School District in 1990 when a friend learned that the Montreal Expos, who trained near her home each spring, were looking for someone to help their Latin ballplayers learn English.

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Nadal worked all night to create a lesson plan, then presented it to the Expos the next morning. Club officials hired her on the spot. She then talked her way into a meeting with the Atlanta Braves, who became her second client.

Since then, Nadal, a language professor at Northwood University in West Palm Beach, has been a teacher or advisor for half the 30 big league teams. Her book, “Speaking of Baseball,” has become the industry’s education bible.

“I can’t imagine my life without baseball,” she says.

Nadal is running a bit behind schedule when she pulls her gray Honda Odyssey minivan, the one with the Florida vanity plates that read “ESL PROF,” into the parking lot of a DoubleTree hotel in the shadow of Interstate 95. Inside, 45 minor leaguers taking part in the St. Louis Cardinals’ extended spring training gather for their first English class of the new year.

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Nadal has taught many of the players before, so most greet her with a warm hug as they file into the conference room. “How is my favorite pelotero?” she asks each one.

She has reached an estimated 20,000 peloteros — or ballplayers — through her courses over the years. For many, she has been more than a teacher.

“She’s also like a mother to us. All of us,” says Kansas City Royals pitcher Bruce Chen.

Chen, originally signed by the Braves, has spent 13 summers pitching in the major leagues. But before that he was a frightened, homesick teenager from Panama who broke down in the back of Nadal’s class in West Palm Beach, crying uncontrollably.

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She took him home and helped him phone his family in Panama. Without her, Chen says, he never would have made it through that first spring.

“It was some tough times,” says Chen, who speaks eloquent, unaccented English. “I wasn’t pitching very well. And my family was not there. I couldn’t go cry to my teammates. So she was the one I could talk to.”

Chen can’t remember what Nadal told him that night but says it doesn’t matter.

“The most important thing was that she was there. She understood how hard it is,” he says. “I’m not the only one she helped. She helped a lot of guys.”

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Nadal, a round-faced woman with wavy, shoulder-length hair and piercing eyes, combines classroom English lessons with cultural-immersion trips to grocery stores, restaurants, churches and shopping malls. She works primarily in Florida during spring training for major league clubs and also makes frequent visits to the Dominican Republic, where she oversees some teams’ educational programs and advises on others.

For teenage ballplayers who are in the U.S. for the first time, Nadal teaches an etiquette class in which they learn how to hold a knife and fork and carry on a conversation. Then she invites them home for dinner to give them an idea how Americans live.

“Originally, these players looked at me as their big sister because I was not a lot older than some of them. Now they look at me as their second mom,” says Nadal, who is in her 50s.

Although some baseball teams use computer-based language programs such as Rosetta Stone to bridge the language gap, many player development officials say software is no substitute for the personal touch.

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Moises Rodriguez, the Cardinals’ director of international operations, recalls dropping a Latin American player off at a Florida hotel a few months ago. “I said goodbye to him in the lobby and when he was walking back to the elevator, he asked me, ‘What do I do? Do I just hit the button?’

“It’s a challenge trying to acclimate them or trying to prepare them for that cultural stuff,” Rodriguez said. “She can relate to what they have possibly gone through before they entered the classroom or the field. That’s valuable.”

The commissioner’s office, working through Alderson’s committee, wants clubs to establish mandatory education programs in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, though it has set no deadlines or minimum standards. Some would also like to see baseball set up a free high school-completion program for players who have been released.

“As an industry, there is a moral obligation to offer the kids more than just baseball instruction,” said Rodriguez, who is pushing the Cardinals to pay for a trade-school education for players who are released. “How do you help out the kid that gave his effort for two, three years [but] just doesn’t have enough talent to make it?”

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Nadal is guardedly optimistic.

“Nothing happens quickly in baseball,” she says. “In the future, not so terribly far away, I think we’re going to actually see education happen in a different way. I would love to see an education center, a whole school, for baseball players.”

For now, she’ll have to be content standing in a hotel conference room, trying to reach one player at a time.

Vamos!,” she shouts, slapping the table in front of her. “C’mon, repeat after me: AAA, BBB, CCC! You can do it!”

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com


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