By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) I took seven years of Spanish between grade school and high school. As studies have shown, it’s easier on average for children to acquire a second language than it is for adults. After seven years of childhood Spanish language study, I’m not fluent but can stumble awkwardly through a conversation enough to make decent chit-chat with a native speaker. Doing it into a microphone would have me sprinting away.
Moving away from home to a country that not only speaks a language I don’t t but also is hostile toward those who can’t assimilate the minute they step on the new soil is something I can’t fathom. I’m an American and native English speaker — every other country loves me and has shown it by bending over backward to modify its tourism to cater to speakers of this language of class, love and freedom, this mish-mash of Greek, Latin, French, Germanic and whatever food and furniture terms weave deemed stealable from other places.
A lot of non-American speakers come here for business, pleasure or to avoid murder, and we haven’t extended much the same courtesy of being warm. A few are professional baseball players (more than a quarter of MLB actually) who are cool so long as they’re playing baseball and not making us hear them talk.
Except we want them to talk to us. Athletes being interviewed in the workplace is part of our cultural fabric and as enriching as realty television. We crave clichés that fit snugly into our love of sports mythologies. Athletes humbly talking about honor, love of the game and how they just couldn’t do it all without these great fans — all is then right in the world. But it needs to be tight, crisp. No stuttering, no incessant “ums” or “uhs” and for the love of God, no interpreters or broken English. That completely destroys the whole pandering experience of a sideline reporter asking mundane questions, prompting (not French) vanilla answers about dreaming about this moment when an athlete was a kid and on a travel team in Florida or starving without shoes. I mean, do these guys not watch Derek Jeter?
“Jeter has mastered the art of the boring interview, saying nothing and just enough all at once,” wrote Joe DeLessio a few months ago. “Talking to Jeter will produce a usable pull quote, but it won’t likely produce anything interesting. That’s harder to than it sounds: Say too little, and you risk irritating the very press corps that might otherwise build you up. Say too much, with too little consideration for every word, and controversy is bound to follow. But Jeter’s somewhere in between, speaking in perfectly dull Jeterian sound bites.”
See? It’s not that hard. Especially when these foreigners have all that money, because money equals cognitive phonic skills.
It’s pretty easy to think so ignorantly like that. Them being different equals us being uncomfortable. Fit into our safe zone — perfect English (“perfect” being the kind where native speakers can be grammatically incorrect, type homophones wrong constantly and communicate in single letters and emojis) and at least speaking like us because you chose not to look American.
The almost automatic response by a loud group that I hope is a continuously decreasing in number is the guy speaking up at the end of the bar and looking around for approval when outraged that the person on the TV that has spent about a tenth of his life in the United States speaks funny. Or that guy’s nonsocial equivalent, social media. It happened in 2012 after Melky Cabrera was named All-Star Game MVP. It happened last year and again this year when Yoenis Cespedes won the Home Run Derby.
Performances of the national anthem that most Americans don’t know all the words to should be done by American-looking people only, and commercials for stuff contributing to our obesity problem better damn well have a patriotic song done entirely in English. This is all nothing new, but such responses still each time make me want to quixotically fight the whole ignorant world, but I was stopped this year by Jose Abreu.
“When I heard the national anthem it hit me,” Abreu said through White Sox spokesperson Lou Hernandez. “I love the anthem. When I learn English, I’m going to sing it.”
The American national anthem brought Abreu to tears, a solidification of a dream shared by athletes of all languages to “make it.” Playing in his first All-Star Game, well-deserved after leading all of baseball in home runs at the break, he afterward perfectly encapsulated what we’ve seen out of the quiet Rookie of the Year candidate with the very loud bat. So appreciative is he for his situation that he wants to perform the Star-Spangled Banner someday. I’m actually jealous because a while ago I had this idea to perform the anthem at a sporting event and write about the experience, but Drew Magary beat me to it. Twice. Maybe Abreu and I could do a duet someday (nudge nudge wink wink, Brooks Boyer).
Abreu has been a consummate professional since arriving on the South Side, with a steady business-like coolness to him that is just as fun to watch as his former Cuban teammate Yasiel Puig’s childlike exuberant approach to being a pro ballplayer is. Just like clubhouses have white, African-American and Asian players on both sides of the personality spectrum. The most bothersome things about Abreu and Puig should be their jersey numbers, 79 and 66, respectively. I can’t seem to not wince at those crooked numbers.
But the language he speaks means little to nothing about Abreu or any other player or his game. It never did for Ichiro, who speaks English to teammates but often not the media, just as several athletes in America do trying to avoid responses being misunderstood on either side and thus resulting in the player being embarrassed. It’s a similar comfortability issue native English speakers have with their own language in foreign countries that so few of us actually travel to. Most subscribers to the Church of Baseball use the game itself and not postgame interviews as the shared “language,” which is good because the “speak English, dang it” mentality is not going to catch on there no matter how hard anybody fights social evolution.
Abreu’s play has me a bit more comfortable that things are looking up for the future of the White Sox. His All-Star emotions and desire to perform his new home’s anthem someday have me comfortable about a lot more.
You can follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe.