Anna Bolton first met members of the Cleveland Indians’ World Series roster in 2010 when she was a teacher in Dominican Republic. She was 23, and teaching English and American Culture at the Indians’ Dominican Academy. Her job was to give teenage prospects, 16- and 17-year-old boys, a crash course about the U.S. before they started their American careers. Some of her students were third baseman José Ramírez, pitcher Danny Salazar, and minor league shortstop Erik González.
Now when Bolton works with Ramírez, she is one of the official team interpreters hired for the Major League Baseball Spanish-language translator program. The joint-mandate between MLB and the players' union provides full-time Spanish interpreters to all 30 teams, regardless of how many Spanish speakers are on the team. Obliquely mentioned in articles as "said through interpreter," these 30 men and women aren’t high-profile members of the front office, but they have one of the most interesting and grueling jobs in the sport. As the Indians take the World Series stage, Bolton’s job, to make sure these players are understood, becomes even more critical.
The need for full-time interpreters within Major League Baseball has existed since the league started recruiting straight from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and other Spanish-speaking countries. Orlando Cepeda wrote about the spring training clubhouse that had a welcome sign reading “Speak English. You’re in America" and about coaches who tried to stop players from speaking Spanish in locker rooms in the 60s. While today's teams have become more welcoming to Latinx players, the inability to express themselves means players are still misrepresented or misquoted. This very season, Carlos Gómez said he was misquoted by a Houston reporter as saying, "I not really do much for this team. The fans be angry."
The new initiative was spurred by Carlos Beltrán (then with the New York Yankees) after he saw his teammate Michael Pineda struggle to explain in English to a room of reporters why he used pine tar last year. Their Japanese teammates had official interpreters but Spanish-speaking teammates had to rely on their coaches and teammates who had other responsibilities. With the push from a big-name player like Beltrán, the initiative was formalized for the 2016 season. Having Spanish interpreters is not a cure-all, but it’s a much-needed first step. After all, Latinx players represent nearly a third of all MLB players, and having them understand and be understood is critical to the future of the sport.
It will be people like Bolton and Diego Ettedgui, the Venezuelan-born Phillies translator, who will push MLB into the future. As part of the mandate, interpreters must be available for pre- and post-game interviews and accompany the team on road games. They may interpret press questions or stand by a player’s side as a supportive silent presence as the player explains themselves in English. But it also means the fluent speakers must adapt to different dialects, and learn the difference between a Cuban acere and a Dominican chan (both mean "friend").
“They get happy and they get comfortable when they see you understand their lingo,” Ettedgui, who works closely with fellow Venezuelan and All-Star Odubel Herrera, told Fusion. “I don’t want my job to keep them from learning English…But at the same time I don’t want them to think that because I’m encouraging them to speak English that [makes it seem like], ‘Well this guy is lazy and he doesn’t want to help me.’”
Bolton told Fusion that teaching is really at the heart of the job. In those first three months she worked with Ramírez in 2010, she taught him things like how to go to the bank. Now, years later, Bolton, who also worked as an elementary school teacher before being hired by Cleveland, can see her students’ success. “Being a teacher before really helped because they know that I care about them,” Bolton said. “All those guys were in my class. It’s a blessing that this is who I’m working with.”
A regular MLB season is 162 games, and when you are the only Spanish interpreter for a ball club, this means no weekends, no nights off for evening games, and few vacation days, in addition to their other job responsibilities. Bolton, for example, is the team’s Player Engagement Coordinator. “It’s been a grind,” Bolton said of the Indians’ season, which could end as soon as Sunday.
MLB interpreters must also navigate the tricky balance between being the players' advocate and the team's employee. Bolton said managing cultural differences between Latinx players and an American organization can be a struggle. “Being somebody’s voice is a huge responsibility,” she said. “Getting more from those guys helps people understand the influence that the Latin culture is having on baseball.”
The new program has had hiccups. Certain teams seemed more prepared to have full-time interpreters by Opening Day than others. When the Chicago Cubs, who are competing against Cleveland in this World Series, introduced closing pitcher Aroldis Chapman to Chicago media in July, they became an example of what happens when interpreting goes poorly.
As a player who received a 30-game suspension after domestic violence allegations against his girlfriend, reporters asked probing questions about Chapman's character. With quality assurance coach Henry Blanco interpreting, neither a reporter’s questions about the team’s expectations for him as a Cub and Chapman’s answers were verbatim answers. Interpreting on the spot means you often don’t have time to ask someone to repeat their words. You have to be focused and prepared, and it’s clear by watching the interview that Blanco, for whatever reason, wasn’t.
After the incident, Chapman requested and received a full-time interpreter, Mateo Moreno, who will assist him during the World Series. (Fusion reached out to the Chicago Cubs to speak with its current interpreter but did not receive a response.)
Bolton continues to work closely with Ramírez, who drove in a run and doubled in Game 1 of the World Series, but there are still limits to her involvement in a sport plagued by superstitions.
“You don’t want to jinx anything,” Bolton said. “If I know I need to go onto the field to interpret for José after a game, I won’t go to the dugout too early because it’ll be like, ‘Anna thinks we won already.’” So, on August 19, Bolton watched the bottom of the ninth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays from a hallway off the dugout. The Indians were down 2-1, but showing faith in her ex-pupil-now-colleague meant deciding to take off her dry-clean-only sweater before his next at-bat in anticipation of a Gatorade shower celebration on the field.
“I told the video guys, ‘I’m taking this off before José goes back because I know he’s going to do something big.’ Then [Ramírez] hits the home run to tie it up,” she recalled. Then Tyler Naquin hit a walk-off home run to beat Toronto.
Bolton sprinted down the hallway to catch Ramírez in the on-field celebrations for interviews. Off-camera, she narrowly managed to escape being dunked with the celebratory baptism-by-cooler for Ramírez, but not for long. “[Ramírez] put his arms around me and I thought he was celebrating but then he grabs me really strong and Francisco Lindor came over with a cooler of water and dumped it all over me,” she said.
“Bienvenida al equipo,” Lindor said: “Welcome to the team.” On-camera, she would interpret the TV interview for Ramírez about his game-tying home run—just as soaked as Ramírez was. Like a winning ballplayer.
Correction: The interpreter for the Chicago Cubs was incorrectly reported. His name is Mateo Moreno.
Monica Torres is a journalist from Tampa, Fl., living in Brooklyn, N.Y. She has previously written for The Hairpin and The Feminist Wire.