Venture inside the Mariners clubhouse at any given time, and the sights rarely change. The team's two Latin American middle infielders...
ARLINGTON, Texas — Venture inside the Mariners clubhouse at any given time, and the sights rarely change.
The team’s two Latin American middle infielders, Yuniesky Betancourt and Jose Lopez, usually will be watching television, or playing video games together. Some of the younger, American relief pitchers, like Brandon Morrow, Sean Green and Mark Lowe, will be seated and engaged in conversation.
Farther down the room, Japanese center fielder Ichiro will be stretching by himself. A few lockers away, Japanese catcher Kenji Johjima can usually be found sitting alone and reading a magazine. Richie Sexson will be on the other side of the room, often hanging out with Willie Bloomquist and Jamie Burke.
Korean relief pitcher Cha Seung Baek, usually by himself, will glance around the room listening to a sea of languages he vaguely understands.
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In a sport rapidly going global, no team has compiled a roster from so many corners of the planet. With players from 10 countries and territories, speaking five native tongues and a multitude of regional dialects, the Mariners have been hailed for looking beyond a player’s birthplace and judging them strictly on talent alone.
And with that infusion from Cuba, Venezuela, Japan, Australia, Curacao, the Dominican Republic, Korea, Puerto Rico and Canada, come challenges other teams won’t always face. The Mariners have met some of those head on, whether it’s employing interpreters, hiring trainers and coaches from other countries, or holding language and cultural acclimatization classes for their youngest prospects.
But with this early season Mariners collapse, there have been increased questions about the togetherness in their clubhouse. And as the Mariners drift toward irrelevance, owners of the worst record in the American League after a 12-inning 4-3 victory over the Texas Rangers on Wednesday, it’s fair to ask whether some of the linguistic and cultural barriers are making it more of a challenge to mold this unit into a team.
Those who put the team together and play on it say that’s not the case.
“There are always unique circumstances on every roster, international or not,” Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi said. “These are all human beings. They have different perceptions of reality. They’ve got different approaches to life. So, any club that is not as international, or doesn’t have as much diversity as we do, that thinks they’re off the hook, they’re nuts.
“For us to think we have more than another club, that’s not really true either. It’s different in that we have different cultures. But generally speaking, when they walk through the door to play, those go away.”
There have been vague suggestions in recent years that the clubhouse’s language barriers might be a little too formidable. Not-so-subtle hints of a lack of “vocal leadership” or any one player who can bridge all corners of the room.
The situation arose again this week when there was talk that the starting pitchers were having trouble “getting on the same page” with catcher Johjima, now in his third season since arriving from Japan. Johjima has worked hard to overcome the language barrier and to learn the subtleties of the American brand of baseball.
Jarrod Washburn was the first to suggest he and Johjima were out of sync, though he later downplayed the seriousness and insisted he wasn’t blaming the catcher. Erik Bedard has also gotten signals crossed with Johjima, mainly because the pitcher employs a different set of signs than those the catcher is used to.
During postgame interviews a few nights ago, Johjima was asked why Bedard had struggled so much on the mound that particular contest.
“What did he tell you?” Johjima asked, periodically glancing in Bedard’s direction as the pitcher huddled in conversation with Felix Hernandez off in the distance.
Occasionally, the pitchers would look over at Johjima as he was talking, something the catcher clearly took notice of.
Language, communication and different baseball cultures are usually the first things that come to mind when any differences between Johjima and the hitters are brought up. But Johjima insists his language skills have improved to the point where communication should no longer be an issue.
“I don’t think it’s a language barrier because I understand what he [the pitcher] is trying to say and I think he understands what I am trying to say,” he said. “We go through game plans before the game during our meetings so we make everything clear before the game. Before we get to the bullpen. What I try to do is I try to go with a game plan. And I try to go with what he wants to pitch to me.”
Johjima says he simply tries to help a pitcher win every night. If a pitcher wants to deviate from the game plan: “It will depend on the pitcher. Because if a pitch is not working like it was in the ‘pen, we’ll have to go with a different pitch, obviously. So, we’ll have to think about our best pitch in a certain situation. But that will vary because it will depend on how we adjust to each situation.”
Bavasi suggested such problems are just plain old baseball and have little to do with language or culture.
“What develops on any club, diverse or not, is that when you’re winning, there are no issues,” he said. “When you’re losing, there are plenty of issues. And they’re all personality based. They are not culturally based.”
That said, differences in language or culture could make it easier to scapegoat Johjima for a season gone bad. After all, he isn’t sitting at a table playing cards with a half-dozen pals before each game.
The Mariners do have several players who tend to mingle among the other clubhouse groups.
J.J. Putz hangs around a variety of teammates, as do Raul Ibanez and Venezuelan-born Carlos Silva, who speaks English and is married to an American woman. But Ichiro is more of an island, despite some increased efforts since last year to mingle with his teammates.
Miguel Cairo hangs primarily with Betancourt and Lopez, though his English is good enough and he’s been around the game for so long that he can easily move around the room. Cairo has played on playoff teams with the New York Yankees and said on-field performance is often what ultimately shapes togetherness of a clubhouse.
“It’s not about what you do with teammates on the outside,” he said. “It’s how you become a team between the lines.”
Cairo doesn’t see himself as a translator, or facilitator for Betancourt and Lopez in clubhouse conversations.
“Everybody in here is together,” he said. “That’s not a problem. It’s out there [on the field] that we have to do more.”
Puerto Rico native Jose Vidro played for some fairly diverse Montreal and Washington teams for years.
“There are challenges,” he said. “Obviously, I see Yuni [Betancourt] still learning the language and he sometimes wants to make sure everything he says in a meeting or around us is understood. And he’ll come to us to make sure everybody understands.”
The Mariners give language and cultural training to all their entry-level minor-leaguers from Latin America, both at spring training and throughout the season. A big reason is so they can understand what coaches are telling them, as well as fit into the clubhouse environment.
Asian players aren’t given such classes.
But the Mariners do employ two Japanese interpreters, one each for Johjima and Ichiro. They also have a media relations specialist who acts as a Spanish interpreter at home games, a Cuban-born coach, Eddie Rodriguez, and a Japanese assistant trainer.
Vidro says the clubhouse differences make it a more interesting place.
“In a way, this makes you a better human being because you learn a lot,” he said. “You’re playing a sport that you like and at the same time, you’re learning a lot about different countries, different religions and all that stuff.
“But one thing’s for sure, there can only be one group.”
One group is what the Mariners, at least publicly, continue to insist they are.
They say they’ve been living as that same group throughout the season, never wavering in the face of on-field turmoil. But even if that’s the case, that the team’s natural differences aren’t really a factor, it raises an uncomfortable truth the Mariners will have to face sooner or later.
The fact that, as together as they say they are, this group is dying one ugly death.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org