For Latin players to excel, Orioles' training must, too


No one ever thinks of Frank Robinson as a quitter, but he actually resigned as manager of a Mexican League team in 1978 -- after losing 12 pounds the first month, drinking soft drink after soft drink and finding the language barrier too much to bear.

The California Angels fired him as hitting coach during that period, yet that's not what Robinson remembers most. "The walls literally started to close in on me," he recalls, referring to the hours he spent alone in his hotel room, flies buzzing around his head.

Robinson, then 42, was homesick despite previously managing seven years in Puerto Rico. Imagine how difficult it must be for young Latin players making the journey in reverse. Jose Mesa signed at 15, Juan Bell at 16, Luis Mercedes at 18. All three are from the Dominican Republic. All three now play for the Orioles.

Given the vast difference in cultures, no one should be surprised to learn of problems along the way. Yet it was big news when Bell fought with a teammate on the day Rochester won its division last year. And it was big news when Mercedes threw his helmet at an opposing player's face last month.

The incidents can be attributed at least in part to immaturity, but there are deeper questions to consider. The Orioles and other major-league clubs are starting to ease the transition for Latin players. But they're still only scratching the surface of the work that needs to be done.

Plain and simple, it would be a waste if an exciting talent like Mercedes never realized his potential, simply because he could not bridge the gap between cultures and adapt to the so-called American way.

"You can always do more," Orioles president Larry Lucchino says, and Robinson, his assistant general manager, agrees. In fact, Robinson is pushing the club to broaden its tutelage of young Latin players, both in spring training and during the season.

"My thought is, you set up a program in spring training, when you have young minor-league kids with time on their hands," he says. "At least twice a week you hold classes, teaching them everything from learning to speak English to opening bank accounts to renting apartments to ordering food in restaurants.

"Then, when they leave there, you don't just let it go. That's when you have someone at each level in the community to continue teaching these kids -- not only educating them, but giving them support if they have a problem.

"If we would have had this in place when Luis Mercedes came into the organization and when Juan Bell came over from the HTC Dodgers, I think there's a good chance their problems could have been avoided. You're not only making them better players. You're making them better people."

Robinson's plan isn't original, but for the Orioles it's the logical next step. The club began aggressively pursuing Latins and other minorities after late owner Edward Bennett Williams cited the "deadly illness" of racism overtaking the organization in November 1987. Now it must succeed in making a Luis Mercedes as comfortable as a Ben McDonald.

The process begins in the low minors, where the Orioles now employ two English tutors, not to mention a Venezuelan (Gus Gil) as manager at Bluefield and a former resident of Panama (Ed Napoleon) as manager at Sarasota and in the Instructional League.

That's a start. The Orioles, however, had no one at Rochester to communicate properly with Mercedes when he grew confused over paycheck deductions resulting from a preseason loan. The matter has since been clarified, but Mercedes' angry response led to his first suspension.

Now that Mercedes is with the major-league club, he can converse in Spanish with five teammates, not to mention bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks and trainer Richie Bancells. That, too, is encouraging, but compared to some other organizations -- most notably Texas -- the Orioles still need to make up ground.

It's no wonder the Rangers' major-league roster includes five Puerto Ricans from their system (Ruben Sierra, Juan Gonzalez, Jose Guzman, Jose Hernandez, Ivan Rodriguez). Bullpen coach Orlando Gomez not only served as a minor-league manager, he was the Puerto Rican scout who signed Sierra and Guzman.

The Rangers use scouts and instructors of other Hispanic origin to assist players throughout their system; their rookie-ball manager is Cuban, their Latin American coordinator Dominican. Assistant GM Sandy Johnson, the man behind all this, grew up in East Los Angeles idolizing Mexican-American boxers.

A study conducted by major-league baseball revealed that Latins comprised 13 percent of all managers, scouts, coaches and instructors last year. The Orioles' figure this season is approximately 17 percent. The Rangers, according to Johnson, are "getting close to 20-30 percent."

"You've got to have a father figure type of guy, someone they really respect, someone who probably knows their family back home -- the same identity scouts in the states have," Johnson says. "It's a feeling of togetherness in the organization.

"The phone is good, but the phone is not the same as going to a Jack-in-the-Box at 1 in the morning and talking to the scout who signed you,in your language. A lot of them support their families in their own countries. They carry a helluva load. They need to talk to somebody. Somebody they respect and love."

Robinson, of course, shares that idea. The Orioles' plan, he says, "has been discussed and discussed and discussed, but it's still in the preliminary stages. We haven't made a commitment to it. But we're looking at it strongly. I feel we'll be able to put it in place, if not this spring, at least by the time we get into the new complex [in '93]."

Robinson is so passionate about this issue, he says club officials should learn basic Spanish so that "the burden is not thrown all on the [Latin] players' shoulders." The goal would not be to abandon English. The goal would simply be to bridge the gap.

A minor sacrifice, one would think, for a Luis Mercedes.

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