Former Seattle Mariners President and CEO Kevin Mather made a number of abhorrent remarks while addressing the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club earlier this month. Mather’s statements belittling the ability of the Mariners’ foreign-born players to speak English were particularly xenophobic, and they also revealed his ignorance and arrogance.
Despite promoting concepts like diversity and multiculturalism, Major League Baseball has long struggled to make non-English-speaking players feel welcome and comfortable in major league clubhouses. It wasn’t until relatively recently — during the 2016 season — that the league began requiring all 30 clubs to employ a Spanish-speaking interpreter. And even then, the new rule only came about thanks to Carlos Beltrán championing the issue and taking it upon himself to organize with the MLBPA in pushing MLB to employ more Spanish language interpreters.
Before 2016, MLB teams were accustomed to employing a translator to assist Japanese and Korean players, but Spanish interpreters, on the other hand, were often makeshift. A dedicated, full-time Spanish-English interpreter wasn’t considered necessary, in part, because there are bilingual players and personnel on every MLB team. If an interpreter was needed for an interview, one of the aforementioned players or coaches would have to help out.
The movement to persuade the league to require all teams to employ a Spanish interpreter was sparked by Beltrán’s frustration following a 2014 Yankees-Red Sox game. That night, Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda was infamously ejected after taking the mound in the second inning with a visible swatch of pine tar applied to his neck. After the game, Pineda, who hails from the Dominican Republic and was still learning English at the time, struggled to provide adequate answers to reporters’ questions about the incident.
Beltrán, a native of Puerto Rico and the Yankees’ DH in that game, saw Pineda’s discomfort and couldn’t help but recall how hard it was for him to learn English and communicate at the start of his own career, when he was coming up through the Royals organization.
Nearly 30 percent of MLB players are Latino. Why did it take so long for the league to provide Spanish-speaking players with resources to communicate with the media, team personnel, teammates and fans? Isn’t it also in a team’s best interest if players can adequately communicate with one another and understand what’s expected of them? Wouldn’t that—dare I say—help teams win?
Mather’s comments at the Bellevue Rotary Club breakfast sank to a particularly low point when he brought up Japanese pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, who was on the Mariners from 2012 to 2017 and is currently employed by the team as a special assignment coach. When asked about what ESL learning opportunities and support the Mariners offer foreign-born players, Mather complained about having to pay Iwakuma’s interpreter.
“When he was a player, we’d pay Iwakuma X, but we’d also have to pay $75,000 a year to have an interpreter with him,” Mather said. “His English suddenly got better, his English got better when we told him that! For the older players from the Far East, we have an interpreter that travels with them.”
Let that sink in for a moment. Iwakuma is currently employed by the Mariners, so at the time Mather made those comments, he was Iwakuma’s boss. Also, Iwakuma was great for the Mariners! A well-liked player who connected with the Seattle fanbase, he compiled a 63-39 record while pitching for Seattle, pitched a no-hitter for the club and finished third in the 2013 Cy Young Award voting. So, why does Mather express annoyance that he had to compensate Iwakuma’s translator, rather than acknowledge Iwakuma’s contributions to the Mariners organization?
A number of Yankees, both recently and in the past, have spoken publicly about how tough it is to learn English while acclimating to an unfamiliar country and experiencing pressure to perform on the field. One of the Mariners’ top prospects, 20-year-old Julio Rodríguez, is Dominican-born and going through this process as well, even hosting a show on the Mariners’ YouTube channel. Mather insulted his English anyway.
Luis Severino explained how difficult it is to pick up a new language as an adult after being asked about Mather’s embarrassing diatribe:
"I mean I wish everybody does it but it's not easy coming to a new country"— Yankees Videos (@snyyankees) February 22, 2021
- Luis Severino on Mariners' president Kevin Mather's comments that all baseball players should be bilingual pic.twitter.com/baD8HOZ8d6
During his Hall of Fame induction speech in 2019, Mariano Rivera talked about his time in the minor leagues playing for the Yankees High-A affiliate in Greensboro, NC. Few people in Greensboro spoke Spanish, and Mo recalled how he would go to bed crying on some nights because he couldn’t communicate with his teammates.
Mo's story about how he learned English from his teammates is awesome. pic.twitter.com/CqvYyjejbv— MLB (@MLB) July 21, 2019
“I made one of the biggest decisions and the greatest decision I’ve made,” Rivera said. “I talked to a few of my teammates...I asked them, ‘Guys, please I need to learn English.’”
Rivera, the greatest closer of all time, said mustering up the courage in the minors to ask a teammate to help him practice his English is the best decision he ever made. As well as one of the biggest decisions he’s ever made. Why was Rivera so intimidated to ask for help? Think about that the next time MLB touts its inclusion efforts and hiring initiatives to promote diversity.