Latin American Confidential
ESPN The Mag posed questions to 100 foreign-born Latin American ballplayers. Here's what they had to say.
This story appears in the April 4, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
WHICH CURRENT LATINO PLAYER DO YOU ADMIRE THE MOST?
Opposing players love Albert Pujols about as much as Cardinals fans do. With 34.5 percent of the vote, he easily outdistances runner-up Omar Vizquel (12.8 percent). Although colleagues marvel at Pujols' talent, many pick him because he grinds like a utility infielder. "He's the best hitter I've ever seen," says a multiple-time All-Star, "but he's responsible about getting his work in."
HAVE YOU EVER FELT PRESSURE TO LIE ABOUT YOUR AGE?
The vast majority (81.6 percent) said no, with many citing increased Homeland Security scrutiny and previous busts of Latino players as making their decision easier. "You just can't get away with that stuff now," says a vet who once fudged his age. Others, though, gave voice poignantly to the pressure that still exists. "People have to remember it's not just the player involved," a veteran pitcher says. "I know honest guys who would have never lied, but their mom begged them to. In that case, I'd have lied too."
WHICH AMERICAN TALKS THE MOST TRASH IN SPANISH?
Allow this Venezuelan hurler to give his version of a story we heard a lot: "One time I heard someone talking trash in Spanish. I turned around, expecting to see a Dominican, and there was Nate McLouth. It's unbelievable." McLouth, a six-year vet with 517 hits and a career .252 batting average, took 30.8 percent of the vote to outdistance Ichiro (11.5 percent). "He's not an American," says a former Mariners teammate, "but Ichiro belongs on this list. He knows a lot of Spanish words -- and all of the bad ones."
DOES FAME MAKE YOU A TARGET FOR CRIMINALS IN YOUR NATIVE COUNTRY?
Almost two-thirds (64.7 percent) say yes, with several acknowledging they'd already been a mark for kidnappings or other violent crimes. "I'd love to have an Escalade or a Hummer, but I can't," says one pitcher who recently made it to the bigs. "I'd immediately become a target." Maybe that's why, when asked a follow-up -- WHEN YOU RETIRE, WILL YOU LIVE IN THE U.S. OR YOUR NATIVE COUNTRY? -- 52 percent say they'll stay here.
WHICH TEAM SCOUTS LATIN AMERICA THE BEST?
Every franchise was named at least once. "Hard to name just one," says a Dominican player in his mid-20s. "I always felt like they were all keeping an eye on us." Ultimately, the Dodgers (19.7 percent) came out ahead of the Yankees (9.5 percent) and Rangers (8.3 percent). "The Dodgers were pioneers," says another Dominican position player. "I remember how important their academy was when I was a kid. Everybody wanted to grow up and be a Dodger."
ARE PERFORMANCE-ENHANCING DRUGS EASIER TO GET IN LATIN AMERICA OR THE UNITED STATES?
This one isn't close: 84.3 percent of Latin-born players pick their native lands. "It's a joke," says a Dominican pitcher. "You can get whatever you want, whenever you want it." Put even more simply, by a perennial All-Star: "Less rules, less control, more PEDs." Those who pick the U.S. echo the sentiment. Says another Dominican pitcher: "As kids, we didn't even think about steroids until we saw the American stars all doing it."
DURING GAMES, DO YOU EVER FEEL AS IF THE LANGUAGE BARRIER IS A PROBLEM?
Last year, we asked all MLBers the same question, and just 9 percent said yes. This year, asking only Latinos, 45.5 percent confess they do. "The biggest problem is learning English," says one catcher. "Every single day it's an issue." Players enjoyed our follow-up query: DO PLAYERS EVER USE THAT LANGUAGE BARRIER TO AVOID THE MEDIA? Almost half (46.8 percent) say yes, often with a smile. "I've seen guys tell reporters they don't understand, and leave the clubhouse," says a 10-year vet, laughing. "Then you see them at the bar trying to pick up girls, speaking English for hours."
MOST IMPORTANT LATINO PLAYER EVER?
This question elicits 24 names, but one sticks out: Roberto Clemente, with 38.3 percent of the vote. (Pedro Martinez, with 15 percent, was a distant second.) Most players mention Clemente's historic arc -- first Hispanic MVP, first Hispanic Hall of Fame inductee -- before quickly getting to the main reason. "He was a role model for Latino baseball," says one Venezuelan, "but he was also a role model for the whole world. He died exactly the way he lived: trying to make this a better place."
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