George Rose, the New York Yankees' liaison for all things Japan, handed out yellow boxes containing Living Language kits to all four Japanese players in the Yankees' camp this week. The idea is to assist the players in their efforts to learn English, a task as challenging as throwing or hitting a baseball.
But with a reverse purpose in mind, Rose also handed out two other boxes to a pair of Yankees catchers, Brian McCann and Francisco Cervelli, each of whom requested a kit that would help them learn a little Japanese.
Yankees camp is turning into a language lab.
"I like to talk too much, and I want my teammates to know what I mean," said Cervelli, a Venezuelan whose native language is Spanish. "We can't have a translator on the mound when I go out to talk, so I need to learn how to get my message to them."
Good communication is vital in team sports, and in baseball, three languages dominate: English, Spanish and Japanese.
Most of the Japanese players have their own interpreters. Still, it is incumbent upon Japanese players to try to learn a little English, and the newly acquired right-hander Masahiro Tanaka is adding to his English vocabulary, noun by noun and verb by verb.
Tanaka recently listed his six pitches in English, and a few days ago, after a workout, he walked past a reporter and said, "Finished" — always a welcome word for a player when it comes to conditioning drills.
Usually, when there are Japanese players on a team, the English- and Spanish-speaking players will pick up a few words of Japanese, too. But it is quite another thing for a player to ask to study Japanese. McCann said his plan is to work on it in the team hotel during road trips.
"I just think it's important to learn a few words to talk to my pitchers," he said.
Tanaka was happy to learn that his catchers were at least making an effort.
"I feel happy about that, because it shows they are thinking about me," he said through an interpreter. "The communication between me and my catchers is very important."
Mound conversations between a pitcher and a catcher who do not share a common language can be awkward, but understanding is usually achieved, especially since many baseball words are universal. Curveball is "curve" in Japanese and "curva" in Spanish. Bullpen is "bullpen" in all three languages.
Ichiro Suzuki, who is essentially fluent in English, said he never studied the language beyond middle school in Japan. But he gradually learned to speak it after arriving in the U.S. as a rookie in 2001. So he will not be using the learning kit.
Hideki Matsui, a former Yankee, arrived in New York in 2003, and today, he can handle a casual conversation in English — as long as it is not too far advanced. His English may not be on the major league level, but it is at Class AAA.
"It was hard when I first came," he said in English at Yankees camp. "I didn't have time to learn, because I had to focus on baseball."
Matsui, who still lives in New York four years after he left the Yankees, has hired an English teacher and takes lessons a couple of times a week for two or three hours at a time.
Cervelli had a more enjoyable method for learning English. When he arrived in the U.S. to play for the Gulf Coast Yankees in 2005, he met and began to date an American woman.
"We went out for two years, and that's how I learned English," he said.
Cervelli has already picked up some Japanese words. He figured out quickly after the first time he caught Tanaka in spring training and was interviewed by many Japanese reporters that he might have some marketing opportunities in Japan if he makes the team.
So, when his interview for this article, which was conducted in English, concluded, Cervelli smiled and said, "Arigato," which is Japanese for thank you.
There will be a vocabulary quiz next week.