Taking their new field for one of the first times as members of the Buies Creek Astros, a group of ballplayers spoke only in Spanish.
Some of the eight Latin American players on the team are reluctant to try English, manager Omar Lopez said. A few are willing.
But all are facing a challenge this year – not only becoming accustomed to America but to Buies Creek, a town of 2,942 people with a 3 percent Latino population.
“That’s one of the biggest challenges for Latin American players when they step in this country,” he said, addressing the effort to assimilate in Buies Creek. “My job is to put everybody together in helping each other, trying to know they’re different but at the same time in the same boat.
“We have to play baseball.”
The Astros (6-1), a Class A Advanced affiliate of the Houston Astros, will play in Buies Creek for the next two years, sharing Campbell University’s Jim Perry Stadium with the Fighting Camels.
The newest Carolina League team opened its season against Winston-Salem on April 6 and played its first home game against Myrtle Beach Tuesday. The team’s permanent home will be in Fayetteville, with the new stadium set for completion by 2019.
In the meantime, Lopez, who is bilingual, said the unifying element in Buies Creek is baseball.
Lopez is a former Manager of the Year of professional baseball in Venezuela, a native country to a majority of Latino pro baseball players in America.
From 1947, the year Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier, to 2016, the percentage of Latino pro baseball players rose from 0.7 percent to 27.4.
Latino baseball players are the second-largest demographic in pro baseball, according to a study from Society for American Baseball Research. From 1947, the year Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier, to 2016, the percentage of Latino players rose from 0.7 percent to 27.4.
English classes are offered across Minor League Baseball to aid foreign players.
In Buies Creek, English-speaking players offer rides and advice to their teammates from the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Venezuela.
For Lopez, the town and its surrounding areas have just enough to keep the 20-something-year-old players out of trouble and also engaged: movie theaters, restaurants, parks.
Astros pitcher Franklin Perez, 20, of Velencia, Venezuela, previously played in Lancaster, Calif. – the Astros were previously in the California League and arrived in North Carolina as part of a realignment.
One thing remains constant, he said.
“Baseball is the same everywhere,” said Perez in Spanish.
His translator, Lopez added, “The only thing he needs to do is learn and be a good citizen. He said he feels blessed and first of all wants to thank God for being here in his short age. He said he feels privileged to be here.”
Lopez said Spanish-speaking players and coaches have asked him how he came to know English so well without taking classes.
Watching movies is his hobby, and he said he has a hard-drive on his home computer that contains 6,000 films. .
His learning process is to watch a movie three times: once with English subtitles, once with Spanish subtitles and lastly without any captions.
Lopez knows his Spanish-speaking players will make due.
“They understand more than they speak,” Lopez said. “They’ll find a way.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan