On Being Able To Speak

There were so many concerning and reprehensible elements to Kevin Mather’s address to the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club — given earlier this month, but unearthed, in YouTube form, by commenters on Lookout Landing yesterday — that it would be beyond the scope of a single post to adequately address them all. Mather, still the President and CEO of the Mariners at this writing and even after the Seattle Times reported his history of alleged workplace harassment in 2018, managed in the course of 45 minutes to offend on a multitude of different levels, none of which were mentioned specifically in his apology statement. Here, though, I will specifically address the element of his speech that I have the most knowledge and experience with — the one that, as a result, was the most infuriating to me. In the course of his question period, Mather, twice and entirely unprompted, denigrated his players’ ability to speak English.

The video has since been deleted from the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club’s channel, where it was originally updated, but it has been uploaded elsewhere; Lookout Landing also posted a full transcript here. The quotes below are pulled from the Lookout Landing transcript. First, Mather was asked by one of the members of the Club to “tell [them] about Julio Rodríguez.” Mather’s answer began like this:

Julio Rodríguez has got a personality bigger than all of you combined. He is loud, his English is not tremendous.

Later, another member asked about what support the Mariners offered to players who don’t speak English as their first language. Mather described the improvement in such supports over the last 20 years, before deciding to illustrate his point with this example:

As far as Korea, Japan, Taiwan, those players are typically older. They don’t come over as 16- or 18-year-olds, they come over as 28, 30, 32 year olds. We typically…it frustrates me…For instance, we just re-hired Iwakuma, he was a pitcher with us for a number of years. Wonderful human being, his English was terrible. He wanted to get back into the game, he came to us, we quite frankly want him as our Asian scout, interpreter, what’s going on with the Japanese league. He’s coming to spring training. And I’m going to say, I’m tired of paying his interpreter. When he was a player, we’d pay Iwakuma X, but we’d also have to pay $75,000 a year to have an interpreter with him. His English suddenly got better, his English got better when we told him that! For the older players from the Far East, we have an interpreter that travels with them. For the younger Dominicans, Venezuelans, Caribbean players, we really invest in them at a young age before they get here. Good question! It’s important.

In my very first post here at FanGraphs, almost two years ago, I wrote about how Ichiro was othered by media coverage. At the beginning of his career, certainly, when there was widespread belief that a Japanese position player would never succeed in the major leagues, when he seemed an easy target to some people for tired, stupid jokes about how Asians look, how Asians don’t know English, how their names are hard to pronounce. But even when Ichiro was Ichiro in North America, his foreignness was emphasized. His use of an interpreter when he addressed the media, which he continued throughout his career, was itself interpreted as laziness, or pride, or both. It didn’t matter that Ichiro did, in fact, speak English, or that he also picked up Spanish. It didn’t matter that he had already explained in detail why he chose to speak Japanese in public-facing interactions. The determination, for some, had been made from the time he made his way to the major leagues, from the time he opened his mouth and spoke words that they didn’t understand: he was different, in a way that would always qualify whatever other value they perceived in him.

That’s how Mather invoked the ability to speak English in his responses. Rodríguez has a great personality, but his English “isn’t tremendous.” Iwakuma is a wonderful human being, but his English is “terrible.” Not only that, but the labor of his interpreter isn’t worth even $75,000 in a season — and, Mather implies, his use of an interpreter was borne out of laziness. All he needed for his English to supposedly “get better” was a threat from Mather: Shape up, or you’ll have to fend for yourself

Mather drew a contrast in his response to the question about how the Mariners support their non-American players. On one level, there were the kids — the ones signed as teenagers in South America and the Caribbean, the ones in whom they “invest at a young age.” Then there were the older players — the ones coming over from their established careers in the “Far East,” the ones who require interpreters. Rodríguez is an example of the former group; Iwakuma was an example of the latter. But they didn’t matter, these categorizations Mather slotted the two players into. It didn’t matter that Rodríguez came up through the Mariners’ system of English instruction as a teenager, the one that Mather ostensibly has power over, nor that he confidently conducts interviews — and his YouTube series on the Mariners’ channel — in English. It didn’t matter that Iwakuma came to the United States as a fully adult man, raised speaking and fluent in a language utterly dissimilar to English, and that he connected to local fans nonetheless, becoming a favorite of the Mariners community while still drawing the love of his many fans back in Japan. Both were defined, in Mather’s speech, by what he perceived to be a deficiency.

It never matters; that’s the trap. It never matters how “good at English” you actually are. As long as you speak it in a way that marks you as “different,” then that is what certain people will hear when you speak. In their heads, in the way they talk about you with others, that will always hang just behind any other good they choose to see in you. When these people are the ones who have power over you — over your employment, over your ability to move freely — the effects can be devastating.

And the trap closes the other direction, too. I am second-generation Vietnamese-Canadian, but I grew up speaking only English — a choice that was borne out of concern for how a kid whose first language was Vietnamese would be treated in the education system. And so I reaped the benefits of speaking English as my first language. I was never mocked for having an accent or mixing up words, as many of my friends were; I wasn’t pulled out of class or socially isolated. Being considered as having advanced skill in English benefitted me in countless ways throughout my time in school.

And yet, because of the choice that was presented, because this option was the one that was chosen, I can hardly talk to many members of own family. Aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents: the family connections and histories that enrich one’s life are incredibly difficult for me to access. I can communicate only haltingly, every syllable heavy with the shame of mispronunciation and misunderstanding. It is an incredible, painful loss — knowing what you need to say, but not being able to speak.

Per 2019 U.S. Census data, 22.0% of Americans reported speaking a language other than English at home; 62.4% of those people also reported speaking English “very well.” Bilingualism is not only a growing reality in major league baseball, it’s a growing reality of our society. Millions of people, both in and outside of North America, watch and enjoy major league baseball without speaking English as their first language. Often, major league baseball is a supplemental viewing experience to other national baseball traditions, whose primary languages are also not English. It is a joy and a privilege to see players able to connect with both fans who speak their native languages and with fans who speak English — whether they choose to do so through an interpreter or not. The game of baseball does not have, and does not need to have, an official language.

That the president and CEO of a major league baseball team does not understand this — that he felt empowered by his environment to openly denigrate stars of his organization on the basis of their perceived lack of skill at English — is deeply concerning. That Mather claimed, in his apology, that his statements were not representative of the organization of which he is president and CEO — that they were a “terrible lapse of judgement” — is ridiculous. Mather clearly didn’t see that there was anything wrong with what he was saying; otherwise, he wouldn’t have said it at an event where he was a guest, wouldn’t have allowed the Zoom call to be recorded and posted to YouTube. And what this implies about the powerful people who make up his peer group doesn’t bode well for MLB’s efforts to appear committed to a diverse, sustainable game going into the future. It has only been five years since MLB, largely thanks to the efforts of Carlos Beltrán, implemented its mandatory Spanish translator program. If this is what is being said about established players in 2021, what is said and done about the people deemed more expendable?

Julio Rodríguez, for his part, isn’t buying it. Neither should we.

RJ is the dilettante-in-residence at FanGraphs. Previous work can be found at Baseball Prospectus, VICE Sports, and The Hardball Times.

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Rob Sheppard
3 years ago

Fire Kevin Mather. I’m ashamed to be a Mariner’s fan

Jason Bmember
3 years ago
Reply to  Rob Sheppard

“Fire Mather” box: checked.