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Don’t speak English? Doesn’t matter if you use baseball’s sign language

Here’s a guest podcast from my Big Show colleague Nina Porzucki

He may not speak English fluently, but Koji Uehara doesn’t need English to be fluent in the language of baseball.

It’s as easy as: A, B, C. Or, rather make that: one, two, three.

“One finger is a fast ball; sometimes that index finger’ll get swirled, that’ll mean a two seam fastball; sometimes there’ll be a sharp knifing motion, that means cut fastball. Then there’s two fingers, usely a curveball or breaking ball, three fingers means…” said Dirk Hayburst, a retired Major League Baseball pitcher who is fluent in the language of baseball.

Hayburst can go on and on. Maybe it’s not so easy after all.

All those swirling fingers and knifing motions are the way catchers speak to him. In fact, Hayhurst pitched many, many games in the minor leagues to a catcher who hardly spoke a word of English.

“We just broke camp from spring training and we’re driving the team bus and he’s sitting on the bus reading a book called English for Dummies,” Hayhurst recalled.

On the field, though, he was certainly no dummy.

“You spend one week throwing to this guy and he knows what to do,” Hayhurst said.

A pitcher and catcher learn from one another just by flashing a series of ones, twos and threes. But it goes beyond mere hand gestures, says Hayhurst. Speaking the language of baseball also means knowing the unwritten rules of the game. Rule number one: you don’t peek. That means the batter can never look back at the catcher to look at signs.

But if a batter did steal the signs — when Hayhurst was pitching to his Spanish-speaking catcher, language wasn’t an issue.

“My catcher, who doesn’t speak a lick of English outside of these baseball rules, said, ‘He peeking! He peeking!’ And my next pitch was high and tight and I put this guy in his place,” Hayhurst says. “I don’t think he read that in the English for Dummies book.”

When you want to nail someone, Hayhurst says, the sign is an over-turned palm with the thumb gesturing angrily.

So what are the origins of the baseball signs?

“The basis for signs and signals and sign-stealing pretty much go back to the American Civil War,” said Paul Dickson, author of The Hidden Language of Baseball.

Baseball was played before the Civil War, but coded hand signals became a common tool for soldiers on the battlefield trying to communicate with one another. Coded signs and signals were used by both the Confederate and Union armies. After the war, those coded signs were carried from the battlefield to the ballfield. The jump from soldiers in battle to men on a field isn’t a hard leap to make, says Dickson.

“The manager, who is the field general, is in uniform and he’s directing, the first and third base coach are the first lieutenants, the catcher is the sargeant directing the men in the field [and] the pitcher and catcher are the battery,” Dickson said.

Signs were not only meant to communicate with allies but to confuse the enemy who was actively trying to break the code. Just as the unwritten peeking rule is universa,l so it seems is the act of decoding the opposing team’s signs. And throwing “deeks,” or decoy signs — that’s part of the game, too.

“You have to disguise your signs. You’ve got your poker face out there in front of the world,” said Joe Vavra, a third base coach for the Minnesota Twins

Vavra has a pretty good poker face, and a good memory. While he’s throwing out deeks, he also has to remember the real signs for each player on the team as well as teach them the signs.

“We’ll go over them, we’ll go over them, we’ll go over them,” Vavra said.

As for teaching the players who don’t speak English. Who needs it? Vavra just mimes the movements for the players who aren’t completely comfortable in English.

“I can show them the actions and they understand,” Vavra said.

Still not every play in baseball can be reduced to a tap on the forehead or a brush of the arm. Language is sometimes necessary, like during a mound visit when players and the coach come together to discuss strategy. What happens when everyone speaks a different language? Hayhurst says yes, sometimes, you just have to bring the interpreter to the mound. But even then the situation is not quite clearcut.

“The interpreter will speak and the shortstop will try to reinterate what the interpreter is trying to reiterate from the coach to the second baseman who speaks really only fluent Japanese,” Hayhurst said. “And the funny thing is, is whether the Japanese second baseman understands or not, he will be bowing his head over and over again, which confuses the American coach because that’s a sign that [the Japanese player] understands.”

But the Japanese player may just be bowing his head as a sign of respect toward the coach.

“So it can be a recipe for disaster, it really can,” Hayhurst said.

Still, oddly enough, he says more often than not miscommunication has nothing to do with a player’s native tongue. In fact, according to Hayhurst, when two players do not speak the same native language they can actually be more attentive and careful when reading the signs.

“I’ve seen guys mess up signs who speak the same language way more than I see problems with guys who grew up 3,000 miles away from each other,” Hayhurst said.

So this weekend, when you’re watching the series, be on the lookout for the verbal and the nonverbal signs. There’s a whole lot language going on.


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A Bilingual Baseball Moment Sparks Twitter Rage

Pedro Gomez interviews Yoenis Cespedes

Pedro Gomez interviews Yoenis Cespedes

A post from my Big Show colleague Jason Margolis

Baseball fans last week were treated to the Major League All-Star Game and Home Run Derby. Cuban-born Yoenis Cespedes with the Oakland A’s won that contest.

The 27-year-old Cuban defected in 2011 to the Dominican Republic to become a Major League Baseball player.

Shortly after winning the contest, Cespedes was interviewed by ESPN’s Pedro Gomez, who switched between English and Spanish for both question and answer.

Not an easy thing to do on live television.

But, Gomez was blasted by many on Twitter for speaking Spanish.


This was not the first time that Gomez has switched between Spanish and English during a television interview. Gomez, who was was born and raised in Miami and is the son of Cuban refugees, grew up speaking both languages.

His talent is more and more in demand these days. According to Major League Baseball, on opening day this year 28 percent of baseball players were foreign born, and almost all of those were from Spanish-speaking countries.

Host Marco Werman spoke with Gomez, who is a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America and has covered more than 15 World Series. Gomez defended foreign-born ballplayers who conduct their interviews in Spanish with ESPN.

“If we are able to do something like this, where we can hear their voice and then just do a quick translation for it, I’ve heard from so many people saying: What exactly is the harm?” said Gomez.

“To expect somebody who has been here 18 months or 24 months to already be able to conduct an interview in front of millions of people in a language that’s not theirs, I’d like to know if any of these people (critics of bilingual interviews) moved to Germany, in two years would they have German mastered? And I believe that the answer would be no.”

Gomez wasn’t the only Spanish speaker getting some blowback at the baseball festivities this week. During the All-Star Game on Tuesday, Grammy Award winning singer Marc Anthony sang “God Bless America.” Many people on Twitter criticized the choice of Anthony to sing this iconic American song. Anthony was born and raised in New York and is Puerto Rican.

In June, an 11-year-old Mexican-American boy born and raised in Texas sang the Star-Spangled Banner at Game 3 of the NBA Finals in San Antonio while dressed in his mariachi uniform. He too was the victim of anger and racist remarks on the internet for not being “American enough.”

In a show of support, the San Antonio Spurs invited the boy, Sebastien De La Cruz, for an encore performance in Game 4.

And while it’s tempting to say these incidents reflect a new mood in the United States, they don’t.

In 1968, a young Jose Feliciano, a virtuoso guitarist and singer born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York City, sang the national anthem at the 1968 World Series in Detroit. Feliciano, who is blind, walked onto the field with his guide dog and guitar, then played a version with a Latin jazz twist.

Felicino was booed and roundly criticized for this, then banned from many American radio stations for several years sending his career into a nosedive.

Many years later, Feliciano wrote this in a blog post about his anthem rendition:

“I played it slowly and meaningfully, feeling the vastness of the stadium and the presence of so many people. But before I had finished my performance I could feel the discontent within the waves of cheers and applause that spurred on the first pitch — though I didn’t know what it was about.

Soon afterwards I found out a great controversy was exploding across the country because I had chosen to alter my rendition of the national anthem to better portray my feelings of gratitude. Veterans, I was being told, had thrown their shoes at the television as I sang; others questioned my right to stay in the United States and still others just attributed it to the times, feeling sad for the state of our country. But thankfully, there were many who understood the depth and breadth of my interpretation. Those, young and old, who weren’t jaded by the negativity that surrounded anything new or different. Yes, it was different but I promise you — it was sincere.”

45 years later, Feliciano’s version is widely considered one of the greatest, most memorable renditions of “The Star Spangled Banner” ever recorded.

Feliciano has reprised his rendition many times since, including recently at the Major League Playoffs in San Francisco last year.



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