International language of baseball unites Orioles' clubhouse

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Dominican slugger Nelson Cruz sat at his new locker a few weeks ago and surveyed the Orioles' spring training clubhouse.

In one corner, Taiwanese pitcher Wei-Yin Chen was huddled with his interpreter. On the other side of the room, South Korean star Suk-min Yoon was playing pingpong. Right beside Cruz was Cuban outfielder Henry Urrutia, soaking in the experience of a marquee Latin American player who has not forgotten what it was like to be a stranger in a strange new land.

The Orioles have developed a distinctly international flavor during the Dan Duquette era. There are five languages spoken in the clubhouse, and there were — at one time or another this spring — 20 players in major league camp who were not born in the United States. The majority of those players still come from the more traditional Latin American hotbeds of baseball talent, but the Orioles recently have made a big impression on the Pacific Rim.

If that might figure to create a multidimensional communication gap in the dugout and on the field, Cruz said he immediately felt comfortable among his new teammates and wasn't surprised at how easily everyone on this culturally diverse roster interacted at the Ed Smith Stadium training complex.

"Baseball," he said, "is a language you don't have to speak."

Of course, the Orioles aren't the only team that has gone global — they were actually late to this party. But after former Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail expanded the club's international scouting effort with the signing of Japanese star Koji Uehara in 2009, Duquette jumped in feet first and took the team's Asian outreach to a new level.

Now, the Orioles are pursuing players in every corner of the baseball-playing world and capped a seemingly listless offseason with four free-agent signings that illustrated their enhanced commitment to mining the global talent market.

They signed Yoon soon after the start of spring training, and then gave Dominican starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez a four-year, $50 million contract and Cruz a one-year, $8 million deal. If that wasn't enough, Duquette took a chance on two-time American League Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana, who is trying to come back from extensive shoulder surgery.

Santana, whose arrival was a big thrill for fellow Venezuelan left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez, said he could feel a positive cross-cultural vibe the moment he walked into the clubhouse, partly because of the prominent display of international flags that show how many countries are represented in camp.

"I was walking by and saw all the flags," Santana said. "That's pretty cool. That tells you how global baseball is. To have different guys from different countries and different cultures is always good. You talk and you have fun and you learn."

Jimenez, who spent the first seven years of his major league career with the Colorado Rockies and Cleveland Indians, acknowledged that every team has an international presence, but he marveled at the number of nationalities that he saw represented when he arrived in the Orioles' clubhouse for the first time.

"I've been in three different clubhouses, but this one has more different people from different countries," he said. "In Colorado, we had people from Japan and Venezuela. Right now, we have people from Korea, Taiwan, Venezuela, Dominican, everywhere. It's different. It's a very different clubhouse, but it's something nice because you get to know a lot about different countries. And we're all here for the same reason — to represent the Baltimore Orioles and win a championship, and that's going to make your country proud."

'Everyone's like family'

There is an adjustment period for every player who shows up in a new clubhouse, but most of the Orioles' international players have spent significant time playing in the United States. The exception is Yoon, who just made the jump from the Korea Baseball Organization, but he said through an interpreter that it didn't take long to feel comfortable with the Orioles.

"Everyone is very welcoming, and everyone gets along in this clubhouse," he said. "Everyone's like family here, so the transition has been easy."

Chen arrived two years ago in spring training with the Orioles, and he said this year that his experience then was similar. He already had spent significant time outside Taiwan as a foreign player in Japan, but he said there was never this level of international diversity in that country.

"I was playing in Japan, but in Japan — on each team — there are maybe three, four, five foreign players," he said through an interpreter. "I think this is a pretty special situation where you get to meet players all over the world. We get a chance to learn their language and culture, so I think this is a very special experience. Everyone is getting along, so I really like it."

Since the majority of the international players in camp speak Spanish as their primary language, it might be fair to assume that they interact largely with one another. Though that's logical and probably true to a great extent, Rodriguez said Chen is one of the pitchers who has helped him the most this spring.

"It's good to play with other guys from other countries, especially places that speak Spanish, because I can learn more baseball from other guys," Rodriguez said. "Chen is really good. He tells me all the time how to pitch. And [Miguel] Gonzalez, [Chris] Tillman, they help me all the time. That's pretty fun for me."

Because interpreters generally aren't allowed on the field during workouts, Rodriguez seconds Cruz's comment about the unspoken language of baseball.

"We watch," Rodriguez said. "We use, like, body language. We use that, and it's good."

New approach, new success

Manager Buck Showalter emphasizes team chemistry, and he is in a continuous team-building mode. He takes a tremendous amount of pride in the way the Orioles came together during the surprising 2012 playoff run and the way they held it together to stay in contention until late in the 2013 season.

So it meant a lot to him to hear that both Chen and Yoon never felt uncomfortable in their new surroundings. It wasn't an accident.

"It's no reflection on me," Showalter said. "It has something to do with the people in our locker room. There's no hazing. We talk about it all the time. One of the greatest things that ever happened in my experience was going to Venezuela, going to Mexico, going to the Dominican, going to Puerto Rico, going to South Korea. I've been to Japan. Those first four countries for the Caribbean World Series — and all of my travels — made me realize we're not on this Earth alone. We're not the only people who can play baseball."

It wasn't so much that the Orioles suddenly realized that over the past few years. It was more a practical solution that Duquette applied to the club's lack of organizational depth.

The franchise had languished at or near the bottom of the AL East standings for 14 straight years, and yet failed to parlay their favorable draft position into an adequate talent pipeline. The recent emphasis on international player development has helped, but the current makeup of the team might be more the result of an unintended benefit of the Orioles' enhanced global reach.

When Duquette announced the signing of Jimenez and later Cruz, he acknowledged a direct link between the the club's success finding well-priced players overseas and the ability to surrender this year's top draft picks to sign two players who had received qualifying offers from their former clubs.

"The expansion of our scouting on the international market and the additions of Carlos Diaz, the first baseman we picked up from Mexico City, and Jomar Reyes, the top Dominican third baseman that we signed, I think that helps us continue to build the quality of the talent depth within our minor league system," Duquette said. "So there's other avenues in signing and bringing players into the organization other than just the draft.

"Now, do we want to be giving up all our draft picks every year? No, that's not something we want to be doing long-term. But we made a conscious choice to do that this year to put the resources into our pitching staff with the core. We thought that was the right choice to make. Are we going to continue to be aggressive on international scouting? Yes we are."

Many languages, one baseball

It would be easy to assume that the guy who faces the biggest challenge from such a wide array of nationalities would be catcher Matt Wieters, who will have to communicate with a 2014 pitching staff that could present a number of linguistic challenges.

Wieters isn't worried.

"The good thing is, I think, that baseball is an international language, and all the experience I've ever had with guys from different countries is they still speak 'baseball' English," Wieters said, "so they understand baseball in English, which makes it easy from that standpoint."

The other factor that makes a multilingual battery more manageable is the fact that the players who sign as free agents out of the higher international leagues are generally veterans with established credentials in their home countries.

"They've played for a long time, and they've had success for a long time, so they know what their strengths are, and they know what they need to do," he said. "It's really a matter of getting their tempo in the right place. It's as simple as slowing them down or a 'Let's go' to get them motivated kind of thing. And that's really, with most of the international players I've dealt with, that's really all you've got to do. They've had success, and they know what they need to do to have success."

The relationships don't end at the clubhouse door. Despite the cultural divisions, the players socialize together on the road and do their best to overcome their inability to engage in complex conversation.

"Oh yeah, you may be talking about two different subjects, but that's fine as long as everybody is willing to have fun with it," Wieters said. "That's where I think people can get in trouble, when they end up taking things too seriously instead of, 'We're different. We're going to have fun with it and try to get on the same page.'"

International alley

The international flag display that adorns the main hallway in the spring clubhouse actually features 11 flags, though really there are only nine different countries represented on the wall. Showalter also included a Maryland state flag and the flag of Greece, which reflects the common heritage of outfielder Nick Markakis and principal owner Peter G. Angelos, though both of them were born in the United States. “I wasn’t taking any chances,’’ Showalter said.

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