When Blue Jays rookie Vladimir Guerrero Jr. strides into the frame in the opening moments of his first American Express commercial, a dilemma quickly presents itself onscreen.
The 20-year-old baseball star was born in Montreal but grew up speaking Spanish in the Dominican Republic, and doesn’t use English in public. Fans greeting him in the ad are Canadian, and don’t figure to speak Guerrero’s language.
But then they greet him.
“Hola,” says one fan.
“Que lo que,” says another.
A raw beginner could learn “hola” within minutes of downloading a language app. But if you use “que lo que,” you’ve probably been speaking with Dominicans, and the detail highlights trends long developing at the nexus of baseball, marketing and multiculturalism.
In fronting a national ad campaign before mastering English, Guerrero is defying sports marketing orthodoxy. And the short conversations in the commercial, along with MLB’s evolving attitude toward Spanish, suggest contemporary stars from various backgrounds can bore big holes in previously solid language barriers.
Players like Guerrero recognize the importance of learning English as they adjust to Toronto, but the city is also picking up Spanish as it welcomes its new star.
“Every day I’m improving a little more,” Guerrero said in a recent interview. “I’m learning more words, trying to learn the basics well and (eventually) talk to the press in English.”
Guerrero was interviewed for this article in Spanish but he often speaks English to teammates and Jays employees. The team behind the American Express ad thought it was more important to portray Guerrero at his most relaxed, which meant letting him speak Spanish on camera. They even had native speakers of Dominican Spanish revise the scripts.
“Taking a video like this and doing the video in Spanish, to us it just highlights the diversity of Canada,” said Lauren Dineen-Duarte, Amex Canada’s director of public affairs and communications. “For us, it was a no-brainer to remain authentic to him. Speaking in Spanish highlights who he is … We really focused on making sure it was as authentic as possible.”
That approach contrasts sharply with the treatment earlier generations of Spanish-speaking Caribbean baseball stars received from mainstream media. After Puerto Rico’s Roberto Clemente drove in the winning run in the 1961 all-star game, press reports cruelly lampooned his heavily-accented English.
“I Get Heet, I Feel Good,” read one headline, as recounted in Clemente, a 2006 biography by David Maraniss.
The intervening decades have seen a steady increase in the proportion of Latin American major-league players — 25 per cent of the players on opening-day rosters were born in Spanish-speaking countries and territories, according to MLB.
And as University of Illinois sports history professor Adrian Burgos points out, current players can use social media as both a direct link to fans and leverage to make marketing deals. Guerrero has nearly 600,000 followers on Instagram, where Amex released the first two installments of its campaign earlier this month, and teammate Lourdes Gurriel Jr. boasts nearly 81,000. Both men post mostly in Spanish but neither seems alienated from local fans, and Burgos says potential sponsors have clued in.
“There’s an audience there that’s already built in, so how do (sponsors) translate that into what (they) want to get?” said Burgos, author of three books on race, culture and baseball. “The talent of these guys, and their ability to dip into new markets (is impressive). Vlad Jr.’s smile needs no translation. The joy with which they play and the seriousness with which they pursue being good — that’s marketable.”
Guerrero debuted with the Blue Jays three years after MLB mandated that its teams employ translators to help Spanish-speaking players with interviews and day-to-day business. Before that rule, bilingual players like Jose Bautista often volunteered to translate for teammates who spoke little English.
Guerrero and Gurriel both speak some English but conduct English-language interviews through translator Hector Lebron. Teammate Teoscar Hernandez deals with the media in English, but spoke only Spanish when he signed with the Houston Astros as a teenager. He counsels younger players to make learning English part of their daily routine.
“It’s a lot better to learn English,” Hernandez said. “You have to do interviews. You have to do a lot of commercials. I tell them to learn the little things, the things you need most.”
These days even Cleveland outfielder Yasiel Puig, a Cuban who spoke no English when he reached the majors in 2013, addresses post-game media scrums in his second language.
But increasingly, English-speaking players and potential sponsors are sharpening their Spanish. Burgos cites the Amex campaign as proof, and points to players like Houston’s Alex Bregman and Hunter Pence of the Texas Rangers as native English speakers who have learned Spanish to become better teammates.
“It’s fascinating, the generational change we’re witnessing,” Burgos said. “Que lo que — there’s nothing more Dominican than that.”
Beyond the clubhouse, Spanish has seeped into mainstream baseball conversations.
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Thanks to the Gurriel brothers and their Piña Power T-shirts, more English speakers know how to say “pineapple” in Spanish. In Atlanta, Ronald Acuña Jr.’s rise to fame has taught non-Spanish-speakers that accents matter — “n” and “ñ” make different sounds. And in Toronto, Guerrero has introduced fans to Dominican idioms like “greña” and “plakata.”
While locals work to expand their Spanish vocabulary, Guerrero Jr. says he’ll keep bolstering his English.
“Every day you try to learn a few little things,” he said. “I’m trying to learn as quickly as possible so I can talk to fans.”
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