(TNS) — Salvador Perez breezed into the Royals interview room on a recent homestand and joked easily with the team’s communications director as he waited for Ned Yost to finish his postgame news conference.
Perez, the team’s All-Star catcher, teased a reporter for referring to Yost as “coach” — not manager or skipper — climbed onto his seat on the dais, accepted one question in Spanish then turned to face the contingent of media waiting to speak with him in the bowels of Kauffman Stadium.
In a thick accent, Perez rehashed a hard-fought at-bat against Boston Red Sox reliever Robby Scott, poked fun at himself for regularly swinging at pitches outside the zone and beamed with pride when asked about the bat he’d shown off to his teammates after hitting his first career grand slam.
“I think I’m going to use it (the next game),” he said. “What do you guys think?”
On Opening Day this year, a record 259 players on 25-man rosters and inactive lists were born outside the United States — 229 in Latin American countries.
Perez, from Venezuela, is one of nine players on the current Royals roster whose native language is Spanish. That’s more than one-third of the team, some of whom are reluctant to speak directly to American media.
But Perez isn’t one of them. He doesn’t want to rely on a translator who might inadvertently misrepresent his message.
“I can defend myself,” he told The Star in Spanish after that June 21 news conference, using a colloquialism to say he prefers to speak for himself.
But for every Perez, there are dozens of players who seek help from trained coaches and media professionals to express themselves.
Last season, Major League Baseball and the Players Association implemented what was commonly known as the Spanish language translators program in order to open an avenue for Latino players to speak their minds without worrying about appearing out of their element. Former Royal Carlos Beltran was at the forefront of the movement, inspired by younger players who struggle to give interviews in English like he did at the beginning of his career nearly 20 years ago.
Taking advantage of a loophole in the rule, the Royals have a translator in coach Pedro Grifol who is not professionally trained to interpret responses verbatim. While pieces of their interviews have been lost in translation, players still endorse Grifol’s approach.
“Sometimes in the heat of the moment you say things,” former Royals designated hitter Kendrys Morales told The Star in Spanish. “But it’s usually better to not express everything you think because it could be misinterpreted.
“It’s better for everyone (when a coach protects you) because the weight of your words only reflects on you.”
Throughout Dayton Moore’s tenure as general manager, the Royals organization has been at the forefront of international development, building a state-of-the-art training facility in the Dominican Republic and investing in English lessons from the time the players arrive at the academy. All 30 clubs run similar programs on the Caribbean island.
But it’s different relying on a secondary language to communicate, particularly under media scrutiny. So when a player in the Royals clubhouse feels too overwhelmed to use English in front of a crowd of reporters, there’s Grifol, the Royals’ Cuban-American catching coach.
He played nine seasons in the minor leagues, serving as the de facto interpreter for his Latino teammates, then became a farm director and scout for the Seattle Mariners. Two seasons after joining the Royals organization as a hitting coach in 2013, Grifol became their semi-official interpreter. He took on translation duties on top of his coaching.
And in 2016, when the league and the MLB Players Association rolled out what they called the bilingual media coordinator program, requiring teams to staff a full-time media professional trained in translation, Grifol was allowed to retain his hybrid role.
“We wanted it to be someone from our team,” Morales said when the Toronto Blue Jays came to Kansas City in late June.
The union didn’t want to accept that, Morales said. But players made a case for him.
The organization argued Grifol had been crucial in giving a voice to Latino players like pitchers Yordano Ventura and Johnny Cueto throughout their run to the World Series championship. The Royals weren’t willing to compromise that mechanism — or risk a possible disruption of clubhouse chemistry by bringing an outsider into the room.
The MLB Commissioner’s Office yielded to the Royals, under the agreement the organization would not receive a $65,000 subsidy like other clubs that agreed to install a translator under program guidelines.
The Royals went about business as usual.
Grifol acknowledges his translations aren’t literal.
The process can often resemble a game of telephone relay: An English-speaking reporter asks the translator, instead of the player, a question. The translator communicates with the player in Spanish, then delivers a response to media in English within seconds.
It requires immense concentration. In the midst of it, certain points of conversation can get lost.
Instead of translating word for word what a player says, Grifol interprets the response. When Grifol passes on an answer, he usually begins with “he said” and sums up the remainder of the message in the third person.
“I can’t translate word for word. That’s almost impossible for me,” said Grifol, a son of Cuban immigrants who grew up in Miami, learned English in school and spoke Spanish at home. “I don’t have that quick of a vocabulary in Spanish to be able to go word for word. ... Especially when you have guys who answer a question with 50 or 60 words without breathing.”
Such was the case when Soler, from Cuba, was reactivated from the disabled list in May.
Reporter: “How closely has he been following the ballclub?”
Soler (in Spanish): “How closely have I followed it? I’ve followed it plenty. How couldn’t I follow it?”
Grifol: “He’s followed the club, pretty much.”
With those challenges in mind, the Commissioner’s Office and the MLBPA created a vetting process for translators that includes lessons, tests and a final simulation in which the job candidate is placed in a postgame interview setting and asked to translate for a member of the MLB office.
Virtually every club partook in the process, whether they had a translator they’d relied on for years or if they were bringing in a new face. It made the participating club eligible for a stipend.
But Kansas City chose not to take part.
“Five years prior to MLB introducing this, we felt like we had already established that it was important to do this and had somebody in place,” Royals assistant general manager Scott Sharp said. “We didn’t feel it was fair to then penalize the organization. If we were searching for a translator/coach or somebody to fill the role MLB has scripted, Pedro’s resume would be the first one on the stack. We already hired the No. 1 guy, and all of a sudden they were asking us to hire someone else. It didn’t feel like that was appropriate.”
Grifol and Arizona Diamondbacks strength coach/translator Ariel Prieto are the only teams exempt from the rule. They appear by name in the league’s collective-bargaining agreement, in a grandfather clause that excuses them from the testing all other 28 translators had to go through. If the Royals and Diamondbacks want to hire a new translator, that person would have to be trained.
In the Royals’ case, the team was happy with the work Grifol had done interpreting for their Latino players, who agreed their viewpoints came across clearly.
Grifol’s philosophy is to convey an interpretation as close to the player’s response as he can manage — and, to a certain extent, protect him at all cost.
The Royals encourage foreign-born players to give interviews in English on their own. The organization makes sure that the moment they enter the Dominican academy, they’re provided with a breadth of experiences intended to acclimate them to life in the United States.
Among those are English classes through Rosetta Stone software and supplemental material.
But it’s one thing to learn a language nearly 3,000 miles away, in a remote Dominican town where Spanish is still the primary language. It’s another thing to be immersed in English right off a plane in Arizona.
It can be isolating.
Picture a teenage Perez, arguably the most boisterous Royal on the current roster, quietly observing his American rookie league teammates and struggling to express himself.
“It was hard every day. People make fun of you,” Perez said. “You start laughing because you don’t understand what they’re saying. Or they’d say something to you and you wouldn’t know what to say because, how could you if you don’t know what they’re saying?”
It took Perez three years to feel comfortable around the English language, enough that he could begin speaking it in broken phrases.
At 27 years old, nearly 11 years removed from signing his first professional contract in 2006, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Perez can smoothly navigate the critical waters of professional sports media without a translator.
He’s unapologetic about his command of the English language now. He might use the wrong verb tense in his answers or, on rare occasion, fail to understand what’s been asked of him.
To Perez, that’s part of the fun.
“Sometimes you’ll feel bad if you pronounce something incorrectly — well, I don’t feel bad since I don’t care what people think of how well I do saying something,” Perez said. “(...) I still screw up but I don’t stop (trying to speak English).”
That’s not the case with every Latino player. Some of them distance themselves from the media for fear of embarrassment.
“There were coaches in the past who were translating and other times there weren’t any translation opportunities at all,” said Tony Clark, the executive director of the MLBPA. “Other times, and more often than not, players shied away from engaging the media all together. And it’s unfortunate, in a lot of ways, that has been the case and inevitably what led to support (of the program). Because the story the guys have to tell is significant.”
With a translator in the clubhouse, a new image of the previously silenced player can emerge.
The deal was struck to foster a mutually beneficial relationship. Latino players would be able to surpass the language barrier and project their messages through the media, and MLB would have more personalities to promote.
“The players are the face of the brand,” said Paul Mifsud, vice president and deputy general counsel of labor relations and player programs at the commissioner’s office. “How they present themselves is how baseball presents itself. We owe it to them and our fans to really capture the voice of our players as accurately as possible.”
It was no secret: Cueto and other Latino players in the Royals clubhouse in 2015 were a riot to be around.
Cueto, especially, had a sense of humor that transcended any issues he might have had communicating in English.
It translated well in his interviews, so even if a few words were missed in the game of telephone between reporters, Grifol and Cueto, his personality shone.
But after winning Game 5 of the 2015 American League Division Series, Cueto was not only at his best on the mound having allowed only two hits and a pair of runs in an eight-inning performance. He was on fire in his postgame interview too.
“That’s where you see the real Johnny Cueto,” Cueto said in Spanish to Grifol. “After everything people said about me, I was very focused. I told my teammates I would show up for this game to win it and, thanks to God, I succeeded.”
What Grifol relayed to the Fox reporter on the field was a little less animated.
“Games like this is where you see Johnny Cueto, the real Johnny Cueto, come out,” Grifol said. “He told his teammates today that he was going to show up today and that he was going to get this done.”
Cueto had acknowledged that his uninspiring four-run, six-inning performance in the second game of the series put a chip on his shoulder. He called out the naysayers who criticized the Royals trading for someone who went 4-7 with a 4.76 ERA in 13 late-season starts.
It seemed important to Cueto in that moment that he get his point across. He couldn’t.
It’s hard to provide a verbatim translation without the benefit of listening to tape — but it can be harder still to provide one when a translator isn’t trained in keeping up with the speed of an interview.
“There have been cases where you hear people say, ‘Well, he didn’t say that.’ And, you know, he did, in a way,” Grifol said. “There’s time where it’s going to be very similar and there’s times where it’s not going to be the same. But it’s going to send the same message. That’s my job.”
Until all 30 teams follow the same policy, instances like Cueto’s could crop up.
That’s why the union fought to get the Royals to follow the lead of the other 28 clubs and hire a full-time translator. The commissioner’s office decided not to force the issue because the players were happy with Grifol.
In the end, Clark wanted most to make sure non-English speakers were afforded the best possible chance to have their voices heard.
“This is an opportunity for guys, as they continue to learn and develop and get comfortable with their English,” Clark said, “to be able to lean on someone who can articulate exactly what they want to articulate in their native language.”