Sunday, January 20, 2013

Welcome Change

Let's turn back the clock to June 22, 1981. The MLB season was on hold that spring. As summer began, the starving baseball press descended on a brand new ballpark in Tulsa, Oklahoma. While most AA debuts fly under the radar, everybody was excited to see the ninth overall draft pick pitch in his first professional game. Fifteen years after playing for the Toei Flyers, Texas Rangers skipper Don Zimmer was among an entourage of important people from the big club. With the dirt of Yale still fresh in his spikes, Ron Darling took the mound for the hometown Drillers. The sellout capacity was 8,000 and the stadium was overflowing with fans.

Counting down the hours and daydreaming about the Cactus League? Maybe this is a better example: With the opening of camp inching ever closer for pitchers and catchers, imagine Phoenix Municipal Stadium filled with the faithful for a spring training game. As the ache for baseball becomes unbearable, one can almost feel the sunbeams, smell the hot dogs, hear the roar, and taste the contents of a big frosty cup. In the depths of winter, it's nice to think about an 8,000 seat facility bursting at the seams with fans of the Oakland A's and their worthy opponents.

Can you picture one of those big crowds in your head?

Now, imagine that every single person packed into the grandstands represents a different syllable in the English language.

By way of contrast, think about taking somebody special to a sold out performance of Damn Yankees in a beautiful small theater. The Pearson Auditorium at the Pendleton Center for the Arts is an intimate space in an almost century old building that once housed the Umatilla County Library. Alternately, there is the Kerrytown Concert House located in a historic section of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Or, the St. Germaine Stage at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Each one of those venues seats an absolute maximum of 110.

They seem like pretty nice places to take a date, right?

Now, imagine that every single person ushered to their chair represents a different syllable in the Japanese language.

As a baseball player, remembering every face in a packed house of over 8,000 is impossible. Even if the bleachers are filled with the exact same people night after night over a long season. As a performance artist, your odds of remembering every face in a regular crowd of 110 might be a little bit better, but still pretty long. You are supposed to be working, not studying everyone in attendance.

Let's say for the sake of argument that every face is etched in your memory after a season. Would you also know enough about each one of those people to understand exactly how they all fit together in the community? Sorting out and recalling increasingly familiar sounds is just one step toward understanding a language. Connections and relationships are also important to the formation of spoken words. A "sexy and cool" GM like Billy Beane would say, "It's a process."

It's an embarrassment to the sport when old fashioned executives with limited monolingual vocabularies discuss timetables for learning English. In condescending tones, these ignorant men in their dusty suits imply that adopting a second language is both easy and fast. Some press conferences called to introduce overseas players have been almost comical in their bumbling tin-eared way. After witnessing years of such cringe-worthy attitudes, it's nice to celebrate the latest step on the march of progress.

At last, a proposed rule change will allow an interpreter to accompany a pitching coach or manager to the mound. Not just when a guy is injured on the field. Not just when a guy is on the bench. Not just when a guy is in a post-game press conference. For foreign talents, one of the last communication barriers in the game could be banished by 2014. Another petty-minded way of doing things in Major League Baseball will finally ride off into the sunset.

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