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Leadership, Language, Latinos, and Mike Schmidt

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Mike Schmidt’s ignorance is an opportunity for us to examine how the game has changed for the better in the last 30 years, through the contributions of international players.

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I bet Mike Schmidt has a lot of good and useful insights to convey about Major League Baseball and the people who play it. You don’t hit 548 homers, win 10 Gold Gloves, get elected to the Hall of Fame, and become the best third baseman in Major League history without at least some level of awareness. Unfortunately, none of that was in evidence yesterday when Schmidt decided to tell the world that you couldn’t build around Odubel Herrera.

Not because Odubel Herrera is struggling with a OBP below .300, or stopped walking, or is striking out too much, or has suddenly stopped stealing bases, mind you. Schmidt thinks Herrera can’t be the kind of player you can build a team around because of where he’s from and his first language:

“First of all, it’s a language barrier. Because of that, I think he can’t be a guy that would sort of sit in a circle with four, five American players and talk about the game. Or try and learn about the game or discuss the inner workings of the game. Or come over to a guy and say, ‘Man, you gotta run that ball out.’ Just can’t be — because of the language barrier — that kind of a player.”

Schmidt then doubled down in a non-apology that blamed the media for reporting what he said the way that he said it, and re-emphasized Schmidt’s belief that Herrera’s English-language skills were holding him back:

So, not only did Schmidt not know on his own that there was anything wrong with his answer, but you’re the problem for interpreting his racist answer as racist, and Herrera is still not leadership material because Herrera’s English isn’t up to Schmidt’s presumably high standards for the Queen’s Engish.

Well, here’s some plain English: Mike Schmidt’s opinion, about Odubel Herrera specifically and Latino ballplayers in general, is horseshit.

Herrera’s only in his third season after being plucked from A-ball in the Rule 5 draft and handed the keys to center field. He presumably didn’t anticipate this meteoric a rise and presumably has had to play catch-up to teammates who were groomed as prospects. Now, I don’t know if Herrera is the kind of player you build around or not. He may not be the kind of player who guys look to to lead a club for any number of reasons. But one thing is for sure: It has nothing to do with his country of origin or the language he speaks.

As of the start of the 2017 season, in excess of 40 percent of the league’s players are Latino and the overwhelming majority of those players speak Spanish as their first language. Indeed, a massive part of the Phillies’ rebuild is centered around Latino players. In addition to Herrera, the Phils have big plans for Maikel Franco, Vince Velasquez, Cesar Hernandez, Hector Neris, and Jorge Alfaro. Indeed, shouldn’t a leader in the Phillies’ clubhouse be a guy who can come in to a group of 4-5 Latino players and talk about the inner workings of the game? And why does Schmidt assume these discussions are only happening in English?

It’s because, I’m guessing, when Schmidt was coming up, he rarely played with Latino players. Indeed, from Schmidt’s debut year in 1972 to Manny Trillo’s promotion to the starting lineup in 1979, only two Latino players managed to get more than 250 plate appearances for the Phillies (Willie Montanez, twice, and Cesar Tovar). Clearly, as he was refining his game, Schmidt never saw Latino players working together to refine theirs. Now, Schmidt did play with a number of Latinos later in his career, including Trillo, Ivan De Jesus, Juan Samuel, and Steve Jeltz, but he presumably wasn’t privy to their conversations, what with not knowing Spanish.

I guarantee you, however, that those conversations happened. Latino players have always talked about the game, exchanged ideas and tips, supported each other, and called each other to account. It’s just that the Mike Schmidts of baseball haven’t found joining those conversations important enough to become bilingual, leaving the onus on the Latino players to adapt.

But do you know who it is important to? The Phillies. Pete Mackanin has made it a point to learn Spanish so that he can be a part of those important conversations with his best young players. He has made it a point of emphasis to reach across that language barrier because baseball doesn’t belong to the United States. It’s an international game, filled with guys who speak English and Spanish and Japanese and Korean and Chinese and German and God knows what else.

And those guys are able to lead, to varying degrees, based not on how much English they know, but on their actual leadership skills. Guys like Miguel Cabrera, Ichiro Suzuki, and Dustin Pedroia became leaders of championship-caliber teams not because of what language they spoke, but primarily because they let their performance and their demeanor speak for them.

Will Herrera join them? Well, that has more to do with whether he starts getting on base than how quickly he learns English. And whether Schmidt’s insight is welcome will have more to do with whether he realizes how much the game has changed in the 28 years since he retired than in his bigoted notions of what it takes to be a leader a club can build around in the 21st century.