In his years as a minor-league catcher, Josue Peley remembers watching some of his Latin American teammates struggle mightily with the language barrier. New arrivals from the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Venezuela would often keep to themselves – afraid of letting on that they couldn’t understand the manager, or their teammates. Some avoided restaurants because they couldn’t read the menus.
“You see a lot of things,” Peley said. “We had guys who weren’t even eating because they didn’t speak English. They were too shy. But it’s not their fault.”
Peley became the unofficial translator for the teams he played on. Now, in an unexpected move, the 28-year-old journeyman catcher is getting his shot at translating in the big leagues.
On Saturday, Peley will begin work as the official translator for the Toronto Blue Jays. The new job comes after Major League Baseball handed down an edict this spring that all 30 teams must begin staffing full-time Spanish translators, not only to help players with media, but to assist with communications inside the clubhouse.
Though major-league teams have employed interpreters for Korean and Japanese recruits before, often as a condition of their contracts, similar assistance for Latin American players has been overlooked. Because Hispanic ballplayers have been around the league for more than a century, the job of translating often fell to a nearby player or coach who could help out in a pinch.
But MLB has decided to get serious about providing assistance to the hundreds of Hispanic players in its ranks. Each club must now employ a translator who travels with the team. That led the Blue Jays to Peley.
Born in Venezuela, he moved to Montreal as a boy, and struggled to learn English and French in school. Eventually he became fluent in both and went on to play college ball in the United States, before being drafted by the Washington Nationals in 2005. After bouncing around the minors for six years in the Pittsburgh Pirates and Boston Red Sox organizations, Peley played the past four seasons for the independent-league Quebec Capitales.
It was with the Capitales that Peley’s translation skills came to the fore. When the team entered into groundbreaking negotiations with the Cuban Baseball Federation to sign players from the country, Capitales president Michel Laplante took the catcher to Havana to help him negotiate the deal. The talks were sensitive, and the accuracy of Peley’s translations was paramount, so that simple misunderstandings didn’t scuttle the talks.
The story of Peley’s high-stakes translating in Cuba eventually made its way to the Blue Jays, and assistant general manager Andrew Tinnish, a former teammate of Laplante’s.
“When this position came up, I called Michel,” Tinnish said. “This is a position where, unless someone has a lot of experience in this type of area, you might get nervous, you might feel some pressure. But Josue’s been in that type of environment in Cuba translating, so he’s been in those high-pressure situations where he’s had to get the point across accurately. So he certainly fit.”
But the Blue Jays wanted more than a translator; they also wanted a guy who could pitch in during workouts, throwing batting practice and possibly catching in the bullpen when needed. When offered the job, Peley promptly retired as a player in order to take on the new role.
“It’s a dream come true,” Peley said. “I know there’s a lot of people out there that would kill to do whatever I’m about to do this summer, so I won’t take it for granted. My goal for now is just to learn and be there to try to help the team, and help whoever needs me around.”
In the past, the Blue Jays relied on third-base coach Luis Rivera to sometimes double as a translator for Spanish-speaking players, as he did last year when pitcher Miguel Castro made the opening day roster and required help. Under the new league-wide initiative, though, MLB is contributing $65,000 (U.S.) as a subsidy to each club, to help staff the positions, which will be paid from the pool of funds collected when teams are penalized for going over international signing bonus limits.
Baseball knowledge is key to translating properly, Peley said, since there are many phrases that don’t make sense if you convert them directly into another language. “When a guy says, ‘Well I was trying to move the runner, but I didn’t get the pitch I wanted,’ I can understand that easily,” he said. “But if tomorrow morning you sent me to NASA and you told me to translate from one astronaut to another, I would not be good at it.”
Miscommunications can be painful for young players. When Laplante, the Capitales president, was drafted by Pittsburgh in 1992, he spoke very little English. His teammates on the Pirates’ farm team dubbed him Frenchie, a name the pitcher wore with pride. But when Laplante found himself struggling late in a game, his manager stormed out to the mound to find out why he wasn’t hitting the inside of the plate, as he was asked to do. “He said to me, ‘Frenchie! When’s the last time you threw inside?’” Laplante recalls. “I paused, I looked at the sky, I looked at him. And I said: ‘Olympic Stadium.’ Because when I was with the Canadian team, we used to play in [Montreal’s] Olympic Stadium. There’s a roof, and I pitched inside there.”
Back in the clubhouse, with the players laughing at his quip, the manager called Laplante into his office and shut the door. “He gave me a beer, and said, ‘I’ve been in this game 35 years and I’ve never heard such a thing.’ He said, ‘Do you understand what we’re telling you? Or are you making fun of us?’ But you don’t want to look stupid – so you always pretend that you understand.”
Tinnish figures Peley’s knowledge of French will be an added benefit when the Jays head to Montreal for preseason games at Olympic Stadium where he can relay quotes from players to local reporters in French, which is a nice perk for the Blue Jays.
“We’re unique compared to every other club, because we have such a large French-speaking population in our country who follow the team, and French speaking media who also follow the team,” Tinnish said. “Certainly the fact that [Peley] is trilingual doesn’t hurt.”
The decision to retire was difficult, Peley said, but it allowed him into the big leagues in a way he never could have imagined. “When you’re done as a player, it’s sad. But I’m going to stay around the game. I couldn’t ask for better,” he said. “I told my dad: ‘The front door [to MLB] is closed, but they opened the back door to me.’”Report Typo/Error
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