International language of baseball unites Orioles' clubhouse

Club has emphasized signing foreign players under Dan Duquette, and Buck Showalter has built team chemistry despite language barrier

March 27, 2014|By Peter Schmuck, The Baltimore Sun

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."

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