Hear me out.
This question came to me a few weeks ago, after reading this piece from the Wall Street Journal on Ichiro Suzuki’s impressive Spanish skills. After 14 years in the MLB, the Japanese superstar has picked up quite a bit the league’s second most popular native tongue. While he often speaks in Spanish to make jokes or talk trash– the article ends, «Understanding that he had just been called ‘ugly,’ an amused Ichiro smiled and responded in Spanish. What he said was inappropriate for print even in an English publication»–, his efforts with the language have had a a big effect on Latin American players.
Ichiro has become a favorite among the league’s Spanish-speaking community, as fellow players ask him for autographs an memorabilia. According to the article, «At the 2004 All-Star game in Houston, the seven participating Venezuelan players lined up for a commemorative photo. But eight players appeared in the shot when Ichiro was summoned over and asked to stand right in the middle.»
More than the funny anecdotes about players being caught off guard with Ichiro’s language ability, one quote in particular stuck out to me:
«I feel a bond with them,» [Ichiro] said. «We’re all foreigners in a strange land. We’ve come over here and had to cope with some of the same trials and tribulations. When I throw a little Spanish out at them, they really seem to appreciate it and it seems to strengthen that bond.
That Ichiro specifically looks to connect with his «fellow foreigners» is hard to dismiss, especially when he uses a translator to communicate with the English-speaking media (granted, for much more formal communications than what he normally does in Spanish). Ichiro goes on to mention that «we don’t really have curse words in Japanese, so I like the fact that the Western languages allow me to say things that I otherwise can’t.» For someone who’s become known for his expletive-filled pep talks, being able to express himself in this way is no small matter.
Baseball has served as a space where Latin American and Japanese communities can forge connections independent of the presumed U.S.-based colonial center. The recent lifting of restrictions on Cuban athletes working internationally, along with NPB’s now allowing teams to carry four instead of only two foreign players, has caused an influx in Latin American players playing in Japan. While Latin American players are often cheaper to sign then those from the U.S., it is also widely thought that Latin American players adapt better and complain less than their North American counterparts.
In the U.S., out of the 224 foreign-born players that appeared on 2014 MLB Opening Day rosters— 26% of the league–, only 9 were from Japan, with only four more players combined representing two other Asian countries- South Korea and Taiwan. On the other hand, 192 players came from Spanish-speaking countries, a figure that includes Puerto Rico but does not account for Spanish-speaking players born in the continental U.S. While much has been written about the frictions between North American and Latin American players within MLB clubhouses, it shouldn’t be surprising that a fellow outsider decided to pick up Spanish.
As we know from the many immigrant groups in the U.S. that maintain their native languages, living and working here does not necessarily mean the English will become one’s main form of communication. We’ve seen before how this translates to the diamond. In fact, the precedent for Ichiro may have been set by Masanori Murakami, the first ever Japanese player in the MLB, who in 1964 famously signed with the San Francisco Giants without being able to read the contract. Interestingly enough, this happened right around the time of the ascension of the Latin American ballplayer, as Zoilo Versalles became the first ever Latin American to win the AL MVP in 1965, followed by Puerto Rican Roberto Clemente winning the NL MVP in 1966.
Of course, none of this actually makes Ichiro a Latin American player. But in a time when immigration, globalization and technology are blurring the borders once understood to surround Latin American, why not add Ichiro to the list? As Nestor García Canclini wrote, «La condición actual de América Latina desborda su territorio». If Los Angeles, New York and Miami can now understood by many as Latin American cites, why not Tokyo?
I know it’s a stretch. But if by chance we could designate Ichiro as a Latin American player, it would be hard to argue against calling him one of the best of all time. Proof of his unique talent, of his 10 most statistically similar players in MLB history, seven had retired by 1962, and only one stepped foot on a diamond this decade. And that’s without counting his nine years playing in Japan, where he collected almost 1,300 of his over 4,000 hits combined between the MLB and NPB.
Whether or not Ichiro could claim membership to the 4,000-hit club alongside Pete Rose and Ty Cobb became a hot topic last year. Rose, while touting Ichiro’s Hall of Fame credentials, refused his admission to one of the most exclusive lists in North American sports. Cobb, though not around anymore to share his opinion, was never known for his cultural sensitivity. Resistance to Ichiro’s place on this symbolic-but-largely-arbitrary list shows the difficulties of one of the game’s all time greats to ever be full accepted by the U.S. public and media.
His exclusion by some leads us to another legendary Latin American player who spent part of his playing days on the outside looking in. Cuban Minnie Miñoso racked up 4,703 hits in his professional career… if you include the minors, the Cuban League, the Negro League and the Mexican League. Miñoso would later become famous for playing in an MLB game in six different decades. While racism certainly robbed him of many more «official» hits, the MLB failed to make up for that fact by inducting him into the Hall of Fame.
Miñoso’s story is testament to how difficult it can be for foreign athletes to be granted access into the U.S. imaginary. However, sometimes baseball can provide a space where «fellow foreigners» can forge communities through shared experiences. And if one were forced to choose between being on the side of Minnie Miñoso or with likes of Rose and Cobb, then there’s no wonder that Ichiro is learning Spanish.