British playwright George Bernard Shaw will forever be remembered for quipping, “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.”
We’ve all had fun with that quote.
But what about the common language in the dugout of a losing major league baseball team?
Look at the 2023 San Diego Padres. Few teams have as many superstars in the locker room. Yet the team is floundering. Fans, management and sports media find it astounding that a team with one of the top three biggest payrolls in pro ball basically stinks.
On July 2, a week before the All-Star Game break, the team was 38-46. That’s 8 games below .500 and 11.5 games out of first place in the National League West.
Just two Padres were picked by fans to play in the All-Star Game: Closer Josh Hader and seemingly rejuvenated slugger Juan Soto. Is it it a snub Fernando Tatis Jr. didn’t get picked? Sure, but refer back to the team numbers. A fourth-place team is lucky to get two selections.
No one can explain how such a talented team can be so erratic. It’s become a citywide embarrassment.
So what’s up?
Fingers are being pointed in a lot of directions–but let’s factor in the oft-snickered “team chemistry.” Chemistry is an indefinable but remarkable catalyst. Great when you have it and are winning. Sucks when you don’t and lose.
Could a part of the problem be language barriers? The Padres dugout has superstars who speak four different languages: Korean, Japanese, English and Spanish. The communication problem compounds when you toss in century-old baseball jargon.
Is the Padres clubhouse akin to the lobby of the United Nations? Recently, the team brought on a veteran non-English speaker with more than 10 years of major league playing experience. But, during a recent TV interview with local broadcasters, catcher Gary Sanchez had to depend on an interpreter.
When a new player arrives without English skills, other same-language speakers communicate with him in their native tongue. They want him to feel welcome on and off the field. Those who don’t speak the language can be left out. It’s tough to build chemistry on the field or in the clubhouse when fundamental communication is missing.
Do language barriers create inadvertent clubhouse cliques that freeze out some and dull the bonding process?
The Padres players don’t see it that way. Team leaders Manny Machado and Tatis Jr. (both bilingual) insist the on-field drought is because individual players aren’t doing their job. Interestingly, they agree baseball is a team sport, except when you step in the batter’s box.
“If you’re going to put any fault on anyone, it’s going to be us,” Machado said after a recent loss. “We hold the cards, we hold the bat, we make the outs. It’s not about the managers, coaches, or pitching staff, it’s about the players.”
One area where the team has flourished is pitching. The Padres pitching coach is bilingual. Is it a coincidence the team currently has one of the best pitching staffs in the league?
What is the common clubhouse language? If players don’t go over game strategy in English that can’t be good for team chemistry. Or, be helpful in a team meeting on the mound when certain Padres relievers are getting shelled like a bag of peanuts.
The 40-man active roster includes native Spanish speakers Tatis, Jr., Machado, Sanchez, Juan Soto, Nelson Cruz, Rougned Odor, Luis Garcia, Adrian Morejon, Robert Suarez, Domingo Tapia and Luis Campusano. Then there’s South Korean star Ha-Seong Kim and possible Hall of Fame Japan native pitcher Yu Darvish.
How long does it take to build team chemistry and create a winner?
Depends on how quickly the players gel with the GM, manager and among themselves. It can take a while.
But chemistry and communications don’t swing bats. The Padres have the lowest percentage in the league for hitting the fastball. Who doesn’t hit a fastball at the major league level? Well, the Padres.
Bilingual slugger Nelson Cruz, a veteran of 19 pro seasons, recently told The San Diego Union-Tribune’s Kevin Acee, “I’ve got no clue [why we can’t hit in the clutch]. I wish I could have an answer. I asked my teammates, ‘What do you think is going on? What should we do?’” Then he shrugged, penned Acee.
Is this season a fluke? Are the Padres experiencing a once-in-a-100-year-drought at the plate? At one earlier point in the season, the Padres were batting .184 with runners in scoring position. No team in MLB history has ever batted below .200 with RISP over a full season, according to stat-keeper Codify Baseball.
The season is half over. As TheAthletic.com says, “There’s not a lot of tomorrows left.”
So where does that leave us? As professionals, the team has honor. Players are trying to win. They may or may not have communication problems but at this midpoint in the season they’re obviously not a good team.
Hopes were high. So many home-game sellouts this season proves that.
But can you buy a team that wins? Not so easy. And right now, the Padres aren’t even entertaining. Losing is painful to watch. How many of us would pay to see the same bad movie over and over? Much of what passes for fun now is imagining how they’re going to blow a 4-0 lead.
This team has been spoiled by mostly “softball” local sports media. This incarnation of the Padres would have been charred with ridicule by New York, Philadelphia or Chicago media. They would have been roasted until they had to change the team name to the Charcoals.
The Padres are getting away with millionaire incompetence because they’re playing in front of a forgiving fanbase that’s starving for a pro team that gives them a chance to cheer loud and proud.
For now, the Padres had better learn how to communicate and find ways to win consistently. Time’s running out. The golden goose won’t be here forever. Time to prove the naysayers wrong with a winning streak. Time to become the miracle comeback team.
Time to stop being the worst team money can buy. SDSun
(Thomas Shess is a veteran San Diego-based newspaper and magazine editor and writer, now retired. Members of four generations of his family are or have been Padres fans. His first novel, Cantina Psalms, a collection of crime fiction short stories is available online on BookBaby.com and Amazon.)