Coaches translate to comfort

The Baltimore Sun

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- On a recent afternoon at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada approached his new infield and third base coach, Juan Samuel, and told him about their chance meeting more than 20 years ago.

Tejada spoke about how when he was a young boy - "around 7 or 8 years old" - Samuel came to his hometown of Bani, Dominican Republic, with a group of Latin American major league stars to play an exhibition game for charity. Samuel had made many goodwill trips to his native country over his career, but the one that Tejada spoke of stood out.

Samuel thought about that day and recalled stepping out of a car in full uniform, with baseball bag in hand, and immediately being surrounded by a throng of Dominican children.

Somewhere in that crowd stood Tejada, who coaxed Samuel into giving him one of his batting gloves.

"Alfredo Griffin was my favorite player because he was a shortstop. Juan Samuel played second base and center field, but I always liked him, too," Tejada said. "He had a great career and not only did he play good baseball, he was a great gentleman."

These days, Tejada and Samuel spend mornings and early afternoons together under the hot sun at Orioles camp, working on fielding and base-running drills while speaking in Spanish about everything baseball.

Manager Sam Perlozzo hired Samuel and Sam Mejias, the Orioles' first base coach who is also Dominican, this offseason to round out his coaching staff after bench coach Lee Elia resigned and Rick Dempsey accepted a broadcasting job.

The two were hired because Perlozzo, who developed friendships with both in previous coaching stops, said they were high-quality people and coaches who would make the Orioles a better team. It was a bonus that their presence could make the Orioles' clubhouse more comfortable for some of the Latin American players.

With the death of Caribbean-born bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks in December 2005, the Orioles lost not only a beloved and well-respected teacher, but also the only Spanish speaker on their coaching staff.

"It's nice to have a Latin presence on your club, but not just to have one," said Perlozzo, who coached Samuel when he played for the New York Mets in 1989 and worked with Mejias on Lou Piniella's staffs in Cincinnati and Seattle. "You need to have good ones. I didn't want somebody unless they were good. These guys are great character guys. It's always good to have a mix of coaches that represent everybody on your team. I think every manager in the major leagues tries to do that."

Latino presence

More than 23 percent of the players on 2006 major league Opening Day 25-man rosters and disabled lists were from Latin American countries. The Orioles' 25-man roster on Opening Day last year included 10 Latino players.

More than ever, baseball organizations are recognizing the importance of surrounding Latino players with coaches who share a common language and culture. Heading into this season, about two-thirds of major league teams have at least one Latino on their coaching staff.

"I think that it is very important," said Mets executive vice president Omar Minaya, baseball's first Latino general manager. "Sometimes, some of the [Latino] players struggle to communicate and to adapt to the culture. One thing about coaches is they are the eyes and ears of the clubhouse. They are the ones that have a really close rapport with the players."

St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is bilingual, but he also has Jose Oquendo, a Puerto Rico native, on his coaching staff.

"Our No. 1 criteria for coaches is coaching ability," La Russa said. "But there are so many Latin players that are part of an organization or a major league club that it makes a lot of sense to have a presence on a club where they can communicate exactly what they are thinking. A great majority of [Latino players] speak English. But there is just an uncertainty about when something important is being communicated."

Samuel said "baseball language" - such as where to throw and catch the ball - often comes easily to most Latin American players, but "other communication points gets lost."

"If you are going to put so much money into a program and sign Latin free agents, why not hire somebody just to follow up on those things?" he said. "You speak their language and make them more comfortable. It's like a comfort zone kind of thing, like they have one of their own. A lot of the times, you'll be talking to some of these kids in English and they'll be shaking their heads. They are probably ashamed to admit that they don't understand, because they don't want to be looked at as dumb or stupid."

Mejias agreed, saying the relationship extends off the field as well.

"It's like, 'I got this personal problem. I want to get it taken care of. How can you help me?' " he said. "Sometimes they feel comfortable talking to somebody with their own language. As a coach, I am in the middle of things, and you have to make sure things go right. I will never get a player in trouble, and I will never break the trust that the manager has put on me."

Often this spring, Perlozzo has addressed a player or group of Orioles and then Samuel or Mejias has repeated the message in Spanish.

Samuel, 46, played parts of 16 seasons in the majors, spent seven seasons as a coach with the Detroit Tigers and then managed the Mets' Double-A affiliate last year. Mejias, 54, played parts of six seasons in the majors and spent the past seven seasons as manager of the Philadelphia Phillies' Dominican Summer League team.

"Even with the guys that speak pretty good English, they enjoy Juan or Mejias talking to them in Spanish," Perlozzo said. "They ask for it, and you want your players to be in a comfort zone."

Not a big deal

The Orioles have eight Latino players on their 40-man roster, but only five - Dominicans Tejada and Daniel Cabrera, Venezuelans Melvin Mora and Ramon Hernandez and Cuban Danys Baez - are expected to be on the Opening Day roster.

Several Orioles said too much was made about the absence of a Spanish-speaking coach last season. Jay Gibbons, a California native, called the factor "overblown," pointing out that most of the club's Latinos speak English well. Mora, Tejada and Cabrera echoed Gibbons' opinion.

"Everybody here speaks English, so I don't know what is the reason people talk about how we need Spanish people to communicate with the Latins," Mora said. "Assuming the coaches work hard, it doesn't matter. I don't care if they speak Japanese, Spanish, Chinese."

Added Cabrera: "The more people you have that speak your language, that is good. But I'd be comfortable, anyway."

Tejada said he is happy Samuel and Mejias are on the Orioles' coaching staff for one reason only.

"It's good to have them here not because they speak Spanish, but because they are great coaches," he said. " They know how to work with our players. We need coaches like them. They work hard, and they know how to treat people, too."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Dan Connolly contributed to this article.

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