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English Classes Foster Player Growth

Carol Walker and Michael De La Cruz

It’s game day and, from a room in Cooley Law School Stadium, home of the Lansing Lugnuts (Low A; Midwest League), voices can be heard singing “Take Me Out to The Ballgame” hours before first pitch. Upon further inspection, it’s the voice of teacher Carol Walker and several Latino ballplayers who are her students. She tries to find activities to engage the players and make it fun for them to learn not only English, but also American culture and aspects like banking, contracts, and things relevant to baseball. It’s why she chooses songs like “Take Me Out to The Ballgame.”

“I have picture books for ‘Take Me Out to The Ballgame’ and ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ which we sing together as much as we can,” Walker said. “It really helps them because those are songs they hear every day and they pick up on it really quickly.”

Walker has been involved in Minor League Baseball as a host family for the past 18 seasons, and teaching for the past 11. In working with the Lugnuts and their parent club, the Toronto Blue Jays, she is just one of many teachers around the country who work to help players learn English and assimilate to their new environments. Teams like the Blue Jays, Houston Astros, New York Yankees, and Texas Rangers have had these programs in place for years.

The Yankees program was the vision of Gary Denbo, the vice president of player development, who wanted a program to be developed to help focus on life skills. That’s where Joe Perez comes in. He is a retired educator who was hired by the Yankees in February to become their education coordinator.

“We combine units on life skills and try to develop the vocabulary that they will need in those specific areas such as travel, finance, being a good teammate, understanding American culture, and the differences between the different areas around the country where they may play,” Perez said. “Our philosophy is to develop the classes to focus on the player.”

The Yankees start classes in their Dominican Academy with over 100 players, who take classes four days a week from April to August, and continue to be offered to classes all the way up to Triple-A.

With a multitude of educational programs out there, teams usually mix and match what works best for their players. Most have one-on-one classes and include some kind of software. Paul Kruger, the assistant director of player development for the Rangers, said the team uses Rosetta Stone and Duolingo.

“We do a lot of research to see what is available and find ways to tailor that to the players,” Kruger said. “These tools are helpful but we have found the best way to learn is immersion and it helps them to hear it. We start with the top 100 verbs and question words with the philosophy to start small and then work our way up together.”

Kruger said the Rangers also focus on teaching their coaching staff some Spanish to communicate with the players. “We can’t put all of this on the players. We have to do our part too,” Kruger said. “We offer Rosetta Stone and classes to our coaches. When the players see them making that kind of effort, they get more comfortable and it’s easier to build trust.”

While these tools are helpful, every team agreed that teachers are a huge part of the player’s success and that finding the right people is important.

“We ask for leads from local schools and colleges for not only teachers who have taught a second language but also people who care,” Perez said. “Players can sometimes struggle and don’t want to make a mistake when they are learning a new language. When teachers show they care about the players themselves, they open up more and make great strides in learning.”

A lead is how the Blue Jays popped up on Walker’s caller ID one day over a decade ago.

“Jeff Calhoun was the general manager at the time and I didn’t know he knew I was a teacher,” Walker said. “The next thing I knew, the Blue Jays called me. I didn’t know about the program and said I was interested since I had just retired from teaching full-time. They sent me some materials and the list of who my students were and the rest is history.”

Walker has worked with many players in the Blue Jays system and some of them have gone on to the Majors. She said she loves teaching and that most players are hungry to learn.

“I’ve had some players who want to learn and just eat it up. Nestor Molina loved flash cards and wanted to know as much as he could so he could teach his mom English too. He was a wonderful student,” Walker said. “I always find ways to make it interesting for them whether it’s a song or a game or even a class where I have a dental hygienist talk to them about dental care. They love it.”

Walker said she hopes she’s not just teaching the players language, but also valuable information to enhance their lives.

“Some players might make the big leagues and some won’t, but they can use English for life,” Walker said. “It can help them with contracts, with travel, with adjusting to the United States, and also if they wanted to start businesses when they get home to Latin America. Juan Cruz stayed in touch since I taught him and he liked trucks so he started a construction business in the Dominican Republic.”

In addition, Walker absolutely loves seeing the players she taught go on to succeed both on and off the field.

“One big thing every year is the broadcaster does player interviews with everyone in English. We practice and answer the questions in Spanish before translating them into English,” Walker said. “Whenever I hear them being interviewed for the radio and hear them speak, it fills my heart and I’m so thrilled for them. It’s satisfying and thrilling and it’s the best job a teacher could ask for.”

In addition to Walker, Kruger, and Perez, another former teacher working in the majors is Doris Gonzalez, who works for the Astros as the supervisor of player acculturation and language development. She started as a teacher for the Astros in 2006 and made the transition to the United States which gives her insight in how to help the players.

“I’m from Honduras and Spanish is my first language,” Gonzalez said. “In 2011, I proposed the team create this position and put me in charge of the program. We have created and continue to develop the program in hopes to continue helping as many players assimilate and learn as possible.”

Gonzalez said the transition to full-time and focusing on the many assorted player needs was tough at first, but that seeing players succeed makes it worth it, especially when working with the team’s various teachers.

“Teachers are my backbone. If I didn’t have them, everything would unravel and fall apart. Sometimes it can be difficult, especially with the teams’ schedules but we work hard to develop them as well as the players.”

With the growth of these programs, Gonzalez paired up with front office members from the Pittsburgh Pirates, Colorado Rockies, and Detroit Tigers to help build these programs. It has led to brainstorming and reaching out to other teams to create its very own meeting at the Winter Meetings for the past few years, something she never thought would happen.

“We started the Education Coordinators Meeting two years ago. We had 11 people the first year and then 15 people last year,” Gonzalez said. “It felt great to have our own meeting and have team support for these programs and knowing we’re doing our best to help the players and continue their education. These programs are important to give them the tools to succeed.”

And as the players get on the bus to leave for a road trip, Walker said she sees those tools in action.

“Sometimes they are anxious when they leave but I always tell them they can do it and to use their best English. They always try their hardest and what teacher could ask for more than that.”

Image of Carol Walker and Michael De La Cruz, taken in 2015, courtesy of Jesse Goldberg-Strassler. 

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