State College Spikes teaching Latin players English

Imagine you are on the verge of realizing a childhood dream, but to fulfill it you must travel to a far off land, leave behind family, friends and the only culture you’ve ever known.

That’s the reality for several international players on the State College Spikes.

“It was very difficult,” said shortstop Cesar Valera, a native of Venezuela, with Milene Martinez translating. “The tradition and the culture is not the same here … so it was very hard to adjust at first.”

With those adjustments in mind, the St. Louis Cardinals — the Spikes’ major league affiliate — have begun providing English language classes for the Spikes’ international players.

Martinez was hired by the Cardinals to teach when the Spikes aren’t on the road. The class consists of Valera, Victor DeLeon (Dominican Republic), Willy Paulino (Dominican Republic), Jhonny Polanco (Nicaragua) and Ronald Castillo (Dominican Republic). Friday’s meeting was the group’s third.

It’s part of an initiative the Cardinals hope will help international players acclimate to new surroundings. The goal is to give players the tools to have basic conversations with teammates, order food at restaurants and tell training staff where and how much something hurts.

“You try to get done as much as you can,” Martinez said of the curriculum. “We also have long periods where they’re on the road and we can’t do the classes. That’s why I really tell them they have to do the homework.”

The Spikes’ game against Batavia on Friday was the 19th scheduled game in as many days. Though rain suspended one game and postponed another, fitting homework into days packed with practices, weight lifting and other duties isn’t easy.

“It’s a fact that the language is a major factor in order to move forward,” said Spikes’ hitting coach Ramon “Smokey” Ortiz, a native of Venezuela. “If you’re a catcher you have to know how to communicate with the pitcher when he can’t throw the ball over the plate.”

That dilemma is reversed for Luke Voit, a 22-year-old catcher from Wildwood, Mo., but he’s getting used to communicating with pitchers such as DeLeon and Polanco.

“I’m kind of catching on, but it’s been awhile since I took Spanish in high school,” said Voit, a 22nd-round draft pick in 2013.

Hand signals bridge some of the gap. Valera fills in the rest. The 21-year-old shortstop’s English is good enough to translate for pitchers and catchers, but he feels more comfortable doing interviews with a translator.

Valera leads the team in hits (22), but with his translating duties he’s also become a leader on the field.

In addition to the English classes, Spikes’ manager Oliver Marmol also encourages his players to learn each other’s cultures. “I encourage them a good bit, and actually they do a good job on their own,” Marmol said. “The American guys will work on their Spanish … so it’s a good interaction and it builds good chemistry.”

Tuesday’s game against Williamsport was Mason Katz’s first at home game as a Spike, and Valera wasted no time welcoming him to the team. The Harahan, La. native was a fourth-round pick and joined the team after competing in the College World Series with LSU.

“Cesar is trying to teach me some Venezuelan swag, but it doesn’t work for me because I don’t have that in me,” Katz said.

Tuesday was the first day major league teams could sign international players. St. Louis signed center fielder Carlos Talavera (16, from Venezuela), shortstop Hector Linares (16, from the Dominican Republic), right-handed pitcher Sandy Alcantara (17, Dominican Republic) and lefty Kerrion Bennett (17, Nicaragua).