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Originally published March 26, 2011 at 6:24 PM | Page modified March 27, 2011 at 7:49 PM

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Jerry Brewer

The Spanish lessons begin

In late February, Jerry Brewer approached Felix Hernandez and several other Spanish-speaking Mariners with an idea. It's an experiment, really.

Seattle Times staff columnist

His lips are moving. My head is spinning.

In rapid-fire Spanish, Felix Hernandez whizzes words past my comprehension. I'm disoriented, embarrassed, scared. Helpless. It feels like he's throwing his 96-mph fastballs at my ears, six at a time. For once, the roles are reversed. An unfamiliar language intimidates me. And Hernandez displays a confidence he usually reserves for the mound.

This is a simple first lesson. Homework, Hernandez calls it. In late February, I approached him and several other Spanish-speaking Mariners with an idea. It's an experiment, really.

The task: Learn to speak and comprehend Spanish to study whether it deepens the relationship between a journalist and Latin baseball players. During the 2011 season, I'm starting the process of growing from a novice who once earned A's in high-school and college Spanish classes to an actual functional communicator en Español.

"I'll tell you this: If somebody wants to learn Spanish like you, it's going to be harder than learning English," Hernandez teases. "It's different. Hope you're ready."

As an initial challenge, he answers a question for me in Spanish. Simple query: What are your personal goals this season?

Simple answer, too. For him, at least.

Yo tengo que proseguir la meta. La meta es de mantenerme saludable. Es mi unica meta todos los años porque con esa meta yo voy a hacer muchas cosas buenas. Voy a hacer muchas cosas buenas. Y otra que quiero decir es que va por el mismo numero del año pasado. El mismo pitcher que el año pasado. Sera la misma persona y quiero ayudarme el equipo en el juego. Uh, OK?

When Hernandez finishes, I nod nervously at the Mariners' ace pitcher and walk away. No goodbye. No thank you. The confusion has seeped into my manners.

It takes me a month to figure out what the hell he said.

• Yo tengo que proseguir la meta. La meta es de mantenerme saludable.

• I have to pursue the goal. The goal is to keep myself healthy.

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Last season, more than one in four major-leaguers, 27.7 percent, were born outside of the United States. When the official rosters are set this week, you should expect a similar percentage for the 2011 season.

Latin players represent an overwhelming majority of Major League Baseball's international flavor. They come from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Curacao, Panama, Colombia and Nicaragua. Over the past decade, an influx of Asian talent — mostly from Korea, Taiwan and Japan — has added diversity to the league. But if an American reporter wants to have the biggest impact in breaking down a language barrier, he must learn Spanish.

Four years ago, I went to a journalism convention and listened to Hispanic reporters lead a seminar and declare it foolish for media properties to cover baseball without a Spanish-speaking reporter on staff. They were right. A bilingual journalist could own a major-league clubhouse instead of drifting aimlessly among factions. I was inspired.

So inspired that it took four years to get off my arrogant butt and make a sincere effort.

Why now? Before a game late last season, I surveyed the Mariners clubhouse and noticed the cliques. Everyone on the team speaks English well enough to communicate on at least a basic level. But the Latin players mostly hang out together. The American players have their own factions, whether they're divided by positions or regional roots or personalities. And Ichiro, the team's Japanese star, is often in his own world. Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Sweeney aren't around to keep him engaged anymore. Catcher Kenji Johjima is playing baseball in Japan again, and he's not around to relate.

It's not that the Mariners don't get along. They just don't understand each other always, and by nature, baseball can be a segmented game.

Hernandez is still an impressionable star, though. He'll turn 25 on April 8. He's young and animated and open-minded. There's still an opening to get beneath the surface with him, but the window is closing. He won his first Cy Young Award last season. He is about to become the most revered pitcher in baseball, and when that happens, he'll be more guarded because fame requires it.

Hernandez already has a solid rapport with the media, but those relationships can be deeper. And learning to speak the Venezuelan ace's language might help.

"When you learn, you'll feel a new freedom," said Mariners catcher Miguel Olivo, who is from the Dominican Republic. "You'll be able to relax and have better communication. If you can go back and forth, you'll get better information. It will be a real conversation, not just an interview. For me, I feel better when I can have a conversation with somebody and make me feel more important to their life."

• Es mi unica meta todos los años porque con esa meta yo voy a hacer muchas cosas buenas. Voy a hacer muchas cosas buenas.

• That's my one goal every year, because with this goal I will do a lot of good things. I'm going to do a lot of good things.

During spring training a couple of years ago, I asked former Mariners second baseman Jose Lopez a question. He had played winter ball to work on his game, so I wondered, "Jose, did you work on the areas you needed to during winter ball?"

Lopez heard "you needed" and thought I was asking a question about Yuni Betancourt, the team's shortstop at the time.

"Aw, Yuni is a great player," Lopez replied. "I think he's going to have a great year."

I decided not to clarify my question. These translation malfunctions are common. The Mariners now have a system in place to teach their minor-leaguers English, mostly through Rosetta Stone. But many of their current major-leaguers, including Hernandez, learned English by talking to teammates in the clubhouse.

"Coming from Venezuela as a teenager, I didn't know nothing about English at all," said Hernandez, who is now in his seventh season with the Mariners. "Not even to say hi. When you come to a different country, and it's not your language, it's tough. But I learned English in about 2 ½ years. I paid a lot of attention to the conversation. I was like, 'Oh.' And I started to realize this word comes with this word, and that word goes with that word."

A former Mariners employee, Gillian Hagamen, used to serve as Hernandez's translator and helped him greatly with his English. Former pitching coach Rafael Chaves did, too. Hernandez has come a long way.

"At first, I was like, 'What did he say? What did he ask?' " Hernandez said. "I was in limbo. I was like, 'Nooooooo, I don't know nothing.' I was like, 'Whoa! Whoa!' It was tough.

"Now, sometimes, I'm a little uncomfortable, but not a lot. Sometimes, I've got to listen carefully and say, 'Can you say that again?' Sometimes, I don't really realize what you're talking about. Sometimes. But right now, I'm OK."

Hernandez's ultimate goal: "I want to be, like, perfect, perfect with English. It's going to happen."

My goal? Wait, pardon me. Mi meta? Perfecto, perfecto también.

I know a little Spanish. Un poco. I'm about to get a taste of what Hernandez and many other Latin players experience when they come to our country.

It might take several years to be perfect, perfect, but for this season, I'd like to complete a full interview in Spanish. Most important, though, I want to have consistent communication with the Mariners' Latin players — Hernandez, Olivo, Gold Glove center fielder Franklin Gutierrez and talented young prospect Michael Pineda the most prominent among them — in their language.

To revise an ol' sports cliché, we'll take it one sentence at a time.

"It'll open your eyes, man," said outfielder Greg Halman, a native of the Netherlands who is one of the Mariners' best prospects. Halman speaks five languages, including Spanish, which he learned to relate to his teammates better.

"Americans know they live in the best country in the world," Halman added. "I guess they don't feel like they have to learn other languages. But it's important, especially in baseball. You can communicate without it. The game has a universal language, but if you do it that way, there's a barrier. You're limiting yourself. It just becomes a relationship that's on the surface if you can't communicate completely. I didn't want that anymore. I'm around so many Latin players. I thought to myself, 'How can I not learn Spanish?' "

Sweeney, who played with the Mariners in 2009 and 2010, had the same thoughts as a young player. Like Halman, he learned Spanish by speaking it in the clubhouse. Sweeney says it helped him become a better leader.

"When you can speak someone's language, you have the ability to communicate to their heart," says Sweeney, who even learned some Japanese words to build a rapport with Ichiro. "That's when you become brothers. And then, after a home run, you're embracing guys. And if they need a kick in the butt, you can give them a kick in the butt. Instead of wandering among five different cliques, you can bring people together."

He tells a story of why it was all worth it. On Sept. 18, 2009, Ichiro hit a memorable walk-off home run against Mariano Rivera in a 3-2 Mariners victory over the New York Yankees. Sweeney hit a double on the at-bat before Ichiro's game-winning blast. The ninth-inning heroics helped Hernandez, who had pitched a marvelous game, get a victory instead of a loss.

In the celebration afterward, Sweeney and Hernandez embraced. But it was more meaningful than a random expression of happiness. The two had a long, deep conversation just a few days earlier. Sweeney was able to keep the ace focused and committed, even though the Mariners weren't scoring many runs for him. And now, that pep talk produced results.

"I remember picking Felix up, and it's a moment I'll never forget," Sweeney says. "And it started with us just talking to each other as men. I'm not sure if that happens if I didn't know Spanish."

• Y otra que quiero decir es que va por el mismo numero del año pasado. El mismo pitcher que el año pasado. Sera la misma persona y quiero ayudarme el equipo en el juego

• And another thing I want to add is that I want to have the same numbers as last year, be the same pitcher as last year, be the same person and I want to help my team in the game."

Oh, so King Felix simply wants to stay healthy, be the same pitcher and person he was a year ago and be a good teammate. His goals can be that simple because he's on top of his game.

It only took me a month and the assistance of former Times sportswriter Jose Miguel Romero to comprehend such an ordinary quote. But I felt like I won the Pulitzer.

Surely, Hernandez will give me an A for this homework. But over the next few months, the challenge will become greater, and I need to find a good tutor to make the progress I desire.

"If you want to learn, you're going to learn," Hernandez says. "I think you can do it. But you will have to work at it."

It's too important not to try hard.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer

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About Jerry Brewer

Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports.
jbrewer@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2277

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