I am going to end the week the
way I started it, with a column about former Timber Rattlers catcher Carlos
This Flashback Friday goes back to an article by Chuck Carlson from The Appleton Post-Crescent from the 1999 season.
Carlson did a series of articles that year that were run under the title The Game of Their Lives. The series was described as: The Post-Crescent's look at the trials and triumphs of the Timber Rattlers' Hispanic players.
In this story, Carlson writes about Maldonado, a four year veteran of the Seattle system, and Alan Zambrano, who played Little League against Maldonado in Venezuela.
Talking the Talk
Maldonado helps Zambrano handle the language barrier
Maldonado understands only too well what Alan Zambrano is going through.
That's because, two years ago, Maldonado was going through exactly the same thing.
Young and alone without even a passing acquaintance with the language everyone else speaks, he faced the same requirements as the other players on his team: Produce on the baseball diamond or go home.
"I didn't feel that was a very good year for me," the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers catcher said. "I was far away from home, and I was thinking about home all the time."
Home for Maldonado is Maracaibo, Venezuela. So it is for Zambrano as well.
The two 20-year-olds grew up playing against each other in the Venezuelan Little League, and both were signed by the Seattle Mariners by scout Omer Munoz Sr., the father of the Rattlers hitting coach.
"He lived 10, 15 minutes away from me," Maldonado said of Zambrano. "He'd come over to my house for dinner, and I'd come over to his. We've gotten to be pretty good friends."
Now Zambrano, in just his first full season playing baseball in the U.S., is relying on Maldonado, in his fourth year in the Mariners organization, for so many different things.
"He's really important to me," Zambrano said through his interpreter, Maldonado.
"I'm kind of his big brother because I've been doing this for a while," Maldonado said. "When we go out to eat, I know what he likes. He doesn't even look at the menu."
They're so close, in fact, that rarely is one seen without the other.
For Zambrano, it's a day-to-day chore to balance baseball and living, though it helps that he lives with Maldonado in the Appleton home of Brad and Darlene Heller.
The Hellers rarely see the players because of their schedules. But when they do get together, everyone tries to help Zambrano with his English.
"He's struggling with English, but he's trying," Darlene Heller said. "He has Carlos to help, and Brad speaks very little."
Maldonado can sympathize with that, too.
Two years ago, the then 18-year-old Maldonado couldn't speak English, except for rudimentary words that would allow him to communicate on the baseball field.
But by watching and listening and asking questions about the language, Maldonado's English today is superb. And he hopes Zambrano can learn a lesson from him.
"Everybody tries to help him," Maldonado said. "He wants to learn, but he's afraid. I was, too. I didn't want to say something wrong."
Zambrano, an infielder who was signed by the Mariners six months after Maldonado, spent 48 games last season at Class A short-season Everett, Wash.
He showed steady enough progress in spring training this year until he started to lose weight because he wasn't eating properly.
Eventually he dropped 10 pounds and was forced to sit out three games before he started to gain it back.
And while coached were told one of the reasons he wasn't eating was because he was sending his paycheck back to his family in Venezuela, Zambrano denied it.
"There just wasn't any place to eat around the hotel," he said.
"He also won't eat vegetables," Maldonado said with a smile.
Still, the Rattlers coaching staff keeps a particularly close eye on Zambrano and how he's adjusting.
Munoz, the Rattlers hitting coach and surrogate father to most of the Latin American players, said it takes a while for those players to adapt to America and its unusual ways.
"It takes a year or two for them to show what they can do," said Munoz, a Venezuela native who banged around the minors to 10 years with three organizations before settling in Oshkosh. "It happened to me when I first got here. It's a real culture shock. But if you have the right frame of mind, you'll do fine."
Major-league teams are doing their best to help Latin players adapt to America. But it's not easy.
Every Latin player is required to take a English course in spring training, but Maldonado was one of those who chose not to take it.
"I knew what I had to do and what I had to say," he said. "I just started picking it up."
And while that may work for some players, Maldonado cautioned that it may not work for others.
Asked if Zambrano could develop that ability, Maldonado just shrugged.
If Zambrano is still anxious about playing baseball in America, he can look to his friend as an example of someone who has taken an unsettling situation and made the bset of it.
Poised and confident and no longer intimidated by America, Maldonado, in his third season with the Rattlers is having his best season as a pro.
And, because he remains one of the bright catching prospects in the organization, he could be earning a promotion.
That would leave Zambrano essentially on his own, even though he has developed friendships with other Latin players on the team.
Then again, that's the purpose of the minors. Sink or swim on your own.
Maldonado has learned that. Now it's Zambrano's turn.
Alan Zambrano played in 90 games for the Timber Rattlers in 1999. He hit .202 with five homers and 30 RBI. He also committed 14 errors in 83 games at second base for the Rattlers. His baseball-reference.com page notes that Zambrano was injured in 2000. He never played another game as a professional after the 1999 season.
Maldonado - as noted in Monday's column - is still going strong in the Washington Nationals organization.
RECENT FLASHBACK FRIDAYS:
Internet Broadcasts of 1998