Young Latin players studying English and ball

Spanish-speaking St. Louis Cardinals attend thrice-weekly classes to learn English language skills.

At 5:00 on any given Friday afternoon, tired workers, finally done with their work week, are preparing for the weekend of leisure ahead.

St. Louis Cardinals prospects competing in Extended Spring Training camp in Jupiter, Florida were not that different. They had already put in five full days of practice and games but still had another partial day on Saturday ahead before receiving Sunday off.

Before that, however, ten natives of Latin America shook off their assorted aches and fatigue as they passed by the Friday Happy Hour festivities at their home away from home, the Doubletree Hotel, on their way to a meeting room. The sign out front simply says, "English class here."

Dr. Nadal and her Cardinals students
Awaiting them is Dr. Lynette Nadal, an energetic and enthusiastic professor from Northwood University in West Palm Beach. She will spend the next three hours in 60-minute sessions with waves of baseball players learning English as a second language. This was the third of three sets of weekly classes, also held on Mondays and Wednesdays throughout camp.

It might be more appropriate to suggest these young men are learning English as their second baseball language. The intent of these classes is not to teach them such intricacies as verb conjugation.

Instead, their focus is to learn enough conversational English to communicate effectively with their coaches and teammates. Most are teenagers with a few having recently left those years behind. Some are in the USA for the very first time.

Being able to handle the details of travel, ordering meals and the like would be a bonus. For these entry students, only participating in EST for a period of ten weeks, the bar is realistically set – not too high as to be discouraging.

"If each leaves with five phrases they can use, we will be pleased," a Cardinals staffer said.

Mastering common phrases, or more accurately, full sentences, is the focus of Dr. Nadal's session. The bespeckled brunette knows her subject matter. After securing advanced degrees at Arizona State University, she first began her specialization of teaching ballplayers in the early 1990's.

"My first organizations were Montreal and Atlanta, some 20 years ago," Nadal recalled. "The Dodgers had been the first to have these kinds of classes," she explained.

Nadal added Cardinals prospects to her busy schedule in 1998. She was among the first group of contracted employees when the organization relocated its Florida base to the Palm Beach area from St. Petersburg. In addition to teaching, she continues to oversee St. Louis' language program at their Dominican Republic academy and did the same for their since-closed Venezuelan facility.

As Dr. Nadal highlighted her numerous accomplishments, she dropped the name of one of her prized Cardinals charges from an early class, then an anonymous young Dominican infielder. "Albert Pujols was among my first Cardinals students," she proudly noted.

The players filed in for the first of three Friday evening sessions, which are roughly organized by knowledge level, but they did not immediately take their seats. There was preparatory business to be taken care of fist. They instinctively walked to the front table, where they deposited their cell phones. Unlike in their regular job, all caps were removed during class.

Among the group were many players about whom I have written, but never met. They included Leandro Mateo, Victor De Leon, Ramon Ulacio, Ildemaro Vargas, Daniel Barbuena, Michael Santana, Cesar Valera, Jhohan Acevedo and Arturo Toribio. The next few days, as I saw them on the back ball fields, I nodded in recognition and even posed several a question or two in English.

The class began with Dr. Nadal in sort of an audience-warming routine, querying each player as to what he did during that day's game. They had to reply clearly in turn. A single word, or even a short phrase, was not acceptable. A full sentence was expected.

The goal is more to improve the players' English skills than to secure 100 percent accurate answers. Though it is clear that Dr. Nadal knows the game of baseball, some of her students' replies were not always on point.

For example, Toribio replied as to his day's activity, "I was rehabbing my broken elbow." While the right-hander had recently missed time with an elbow injury, he was already back pitching in games and fortunately had not suffered a break. No problem here, because his spoken answer was complete.

Nadal was a supportive leader while maintaining control. Students with waning attention levels were gently but directly called out and brought into the subject matter just as in countless classrooms anywhere in the world. Last names were often used when speaking with players.

As the video indicates, a part of the highly-interactive class routine includes the students together reciting a number of baseball phrases loudly and in rapid succession. Then, on an individual basis, they were randomly asked to repeat a phrase after Nadal.

There was an interesting mix of expected terms like "cut-off man" and "cover first base" along with inspirational messages like "be aggressive."

Another exercise involved players being given a baseball-related term. They were required to compose a sentence using it, step up to the white board and write it for all to see, then recite it to their classmates. The other students were asked if it was ok.

Ulacio at the board (left)
In the above photo, pitcher Ramon Ulacio was in the process of writing, "I like throw inside fastball." While the intent was crystal clear, only a couple of nagging two-letter words were needed to fully complete the sentence. Nadal gently advised Ulacio as the later image below affirms.

Nadal constantly teaching
One of the fast-paced hour's final segments was a more advanced topic intended to stimulate critical thinking. Players were challenged to develop a question that would have preceded a pre-defined answer. As always, verbal recitation of the written response to the group was important to reinforce the learning.

As the 5:00 group was excused to leave, collecting their lesson portfolios and phones, the next set of students milled around outside in the hotel entry way, waiting for their turn.

Though I left the Doubletree at that time to head over to Roger Dean Stadium for that evening's Palm Beach Cardinals 6:35 P.M. game, I was later surprised by a group of the student-ballplayers entering the stadium gate – led by Nadal.

Part way through the Class A-Advanced contest, the instructor had taken her class on the road. She had brought some of her more advanced students for on-the-job training at the ballpark.

The move probably was not required, indicating to me a love of the job – not just to help the next Albert Pujols, but to make a difference to a large group of young men gaining an important life skill.



Related article: "Palm Beach prospects majoring in English"



Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnationblog.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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