Learning more than baseball

Classes helping several Grand Junction Rockies speak, understand English

Eight members of the Grand Junction Rockies listen to Mandy Robinson during an English class before a recent home game. The Spanish-speaking players are attending classes to help them assimilate more quickly into the culture of America as they progress in their baseball careers.

Attending English classes before nearly every home game has helped Helmis Rodriguez learn to speak and understand English with more confidence.

Helmis Rodriguez can say something now he couldn’t say only a few months ago.

“I believe in my team.”

It’s not that Rodriguez, a left-handed relief pitcher for the Grand Junction Rockies, didn’t believe in his teammates earlier this summer. He couldn’t speak English.

The 19-year-old from Coloncito, Venezuela, is attending English classes along with several teammates from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela before nearly every home game this season, so they can adapt to life in the United States.

Sitting in the open area of the press box, the players meet with Mandy Robinson, a certified English as a Second Language instructor, for about an hour.

“I’m just trying to provide the basics, so they can handle everyday interaction,” Robinson said. “Going to the store, ordering food, going to the doctor, things like that. It seems like they get a good bit of practice with their host families. It’s really great; I’ve seen a lot of improvement in the short time they’ve been here.”

Each lesson, Robinson has a topic. After she talks to them about the previous night’s game or recent road trip, they go over vowels or consonants, recognizing them and pronouncing them correctly. From there, the lesson can go anywhere.

One day, it was food. Robinson started off by handing out tacos and quesadillas that she had picked up at a local food truck. She offered them salsa, but all of the players shook their heads no.

“Too spicy,” Rodriguez said.

That sparked a conversation about spicy and sweet, and the players called out foods for each category. Then it was on to fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains ...

Some words tripped up the players, as they struggled with English pronunciation of certain letters, mainly V and Y.

“Show me your teeth,” Robinson said. “Vuh, vuh, vuh….”

The players had some fun with it, and soon “vuh” became the sound of race cars, intermingled with laughter.

Robinson encourages the players to speak only English in class, but when they’re stuck, she’s OK with them helping each other understand in Spanish, then trying it in English.

“I definitely try to encourage English only,” she said. “A lot of times they don’t all understand what I’m saying, so they clarify it for each other.

“Sometimes I think they rely on it a little more than I would like, but you know, they’re surrounded by English all day, and that’s hard. It’s exhausting. I try not to be too strict. I don’t want them to hate me and hate English.”

The Rockies are serious about helping the Latin American players in the organization learn English. The club opened its new facility in Boca Chica, D.R., earlier this year, which includes classrooms.

There, they’ll get a jump-start on learning English before they go to spring training or Grand Junction, usually their first stop after playing in the Dominican Summer League.

Pitcher Carlos Estevez is allowed to skip Robinson’s class, because he learned English as a teenager by watching television.

“HBO, Warner Brothers, all those channels,” said Estevez, who is from Santo Domingo, D.R. “I was like 14, but after that, I went to high school in West Virginia on a scholarship, and I got my English better there.”

He and Miguel Dilone, who is from Santiago, D.R., encourage their teammates to learn and speak English.

“I’ve been in the States before, and I know it’s really hard to understand the language, and sometimes they’re going to feel bad (about their limited vocabulary),” said Estevez, who often translates for his teammates.

“I just try to make them, ‘Try it with the English, say it in English.’ They ask me stuff, and I tell them in English and have them say it. I tell them, ‘Just try it. You’re going to get it.’ “

Rodriguez is starting to get it.

“I want to learn. I want to learn the ... conversation?” he said in English, checking with Estevez to make sure he was using the correct word. “Conversation with people, different people, all the guys.”

Rodriguez said talking with his host family every day has helped him expand his English vocabulary.

Now, he said, he feels confident going to a grocery store or restaurant by himself.

“I can buy (things) only ... only? ... alone,” Rodriguez said.

Catcher Jairo Rosario knew little English when he came to the United States, but he is improving. His older brother, Colorado Rockies catcher Wilin Rosario, encourages him to learn, and the classes help.

“We’re learning little stuff, like to (fend for) ourself in the States,” he said through Estevez.

Rosario understands English, but he sometimes is a little hesitant to speak it, which is normal, Dilone said.

“You feel kind of shy when you don’t know the English here,” said Dilone, who took English classes in high school in the Dominican Republic. “Almost everybody here speaks English.”

Former GJ catcher Jose Briceno, who is from Maracaibo, Venezuela, learned English last year during spring training.

“I’m talking every day with my teammates, my coaches,” Briceno said before leaving Grand Junction for Class A Asheville earlier this month. “I don’t care if I’m wrong, I’m trying to learn. I speak, speak, speak, so everybody tells me, ‘Don’t say that, say this.’ I want to learn.”

Dilone and Estevez both said knowing English has helped their confidence on and off the field.

“If I don’t have English, I’d feel like most of the guys, ‘Can you walk with me to McDonald’s to get something?’ It’s really good to know English,” Estevez said. “I feel relief knowing that I know English, because I can go everywhere alone and know what I’m doing and understand everything.”


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