Michael Pineda learned English the hard way

ByAndrew Marchand ESPN logo
Thursday, March 23, 2017

TAMPA, Fla. -- When New York Yankees starter Michael Pineda applied pine tar to his neck at Fenway Park three years ago, he might as well have added a "Kick Me" sign.

The oddity of the event, combined with the enormity of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, pushed his ejection -- and 10-game suspension -- beyond sports, making it a topic on shows like "Good Morning America." It seemed like everyone took a shot at Pineda.

Many played Pineda as a one-dimensional figure, glossing over the fact that he was a young Dominican ballplayer still trying to figure out a foreign language and culture. What really brought Pineda to that embarrassing night in Boston is much more complicated.

Today, Pineda points the finger squarely at himself, just as he did in an awkward press gaggle after the game, conducted in English, a language he is still learning. He doesn't blame the language barrier or the culture or his coaches. It was his fault, he says.

That doesn't mean facing two dozen reporters in a cramped Fenway clubhouse, struggling to explain himself, was easy.

"The hardest thing for me is when the media uses big words because I don't know those words," Pineda says. "I didn't understand the questions."

It is not so much that Pineda could have saved himself -- he repeatedly said he was trying to get a better grip -- but he could have been less petrified and more nuanced in his defense. The press -- which itself could have more Spanish speakers -- is not faultless, either.

As for why and how the pine tar found its way to Pineda's neck in the first place, well, others have their theories. Yankees GM Brian Cashman shares a tale, never heard before, of a teammate telling Pineda, between the first and second innings in the visitors clubhouse, that the pine tar wasn't visible.

Manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild, meanwhile, assert the finer points of the pine-tar rule were fully communicated to Pineda after a hubbub in an earlier start, when he was spotted using the substance. But the Yankees wouldn't clarify if the message was delivered in English or in Spanish.

CC Sabathia, the veteran leader of the Yankees and a mentor to Pineda, says he feels he let down Pineda by not giving him better advice on how to improve his grip in cold weather.

"If he were an English-speaking player that wouldn't have happened -- 1,000 percent," Sabathia says. "Just for the fact, it is easy to say, 'Don't put that on your neck.' Or, 'If you need to get a grip, use this.' It is hard to have a conversation about different things when the language barrier is there."

As the Yankees' DH that night, Carlos Beltran saw the episode unfold firsthand and says it inspired him to further push the players' association to require teams to employ a Spanish interpreter in every clubhouse.

Teammates like Beltran, Sabathia and Ivan Nova say they were proud of how Pineda tried to answer post-ejection questions in English, how he searched for the right words.

"The hard thing for me was sometimes you want to explain everything," Pineda says, "and I don't know how to explain everything."

Now 28, Pineda is in a different place. He insists on not leaning on an interpreter, now provided by the team, while conducting interviews in English. He's not taking any classes, but unlike when he was coming up through the Seattle Mariners' system, he has made it a point to seek out American players who don't speak Spanish, to challenge himself.

"I love that," Pineda says.

At his locker, when he doesn't understand something, he looks to Sabathia and reliever Dellin Betances, unafraid to ask for help. "I say, 'Dellin, how do you say this?' "

His English is still imperfect, but it's improving, and he has found more comfort in his surroundings.

"You understand what is going on," Pineda says. "In your heart, you feel great because you understand what is going on. You understand what you have to do."

Sabathia says he thinks this might be the year the ultratalented Pineda wins a Cy Young Award. If Pineda -- who was just 6-12 with a 4.82 ERA last season -- can put it together, his comfort level could play a role.

"When you are on the mound, it doesn't matter if you speak English or not, you have to throw the ball," Pineda says with a big laugh, showing a freedom with the language that wasn't present a few years ago. "When you are on the mound, you need to make a pitch."

While the incident in Boston might be what Pineda is best known for, there's a lot more to him. He has grown in his time with the Yankees, learning the language, understanding the culture and making the difficult transition that is a rite of MLB passage for many Latin American-born players.

GROWING UP IN Yaguate, an hour from Santo Domingo, Pineda loved school. His favorite subject was math. English wasn't offered.

If he weren't a professional baseball player, Pineda says he thinks he'd probably be a teacher -- if not arithmetic, maybe music. One of his pastimes is playing the tambora, a Dominican drum.

Yaguate is the kind of small town where everyone knows everyone else, Pineda says. He uses words like "poor" and "humble" to describe his upbringing, but adds there was always food on the table.

Pineda started playing baseball as soon as he could walk, his first bat a Dominican staple -- a broomstick. In that way, he was a typical kid. But Pineda had talent.

In the Dominican, players are recruited at a very young age by buscones, who are street agents and managers. The kids are picked because they have skills buscones want to turn quickly into profit. They're trained for tryouts to catch the eye of an MLB scout and take home a fortune.

Regimens are built around baseball, and little else. There's no training about how to order food in English, setting up a checking account or signing a lease. They're honed to win the lottery.

"They don't know anything," said Melissa Hernandez, the Yankees' lead teacher for Latino players. "Back in the D.R., we have a big issue with education. The buscones or the managers, back in the D.R., they pull them out of their families very young, 9 or 10, 11; 90 percent of the time they don't care about their education. They flunk out of school at a very young age. The learning is very low. The standard for them is to play baseball. They try and get them to sign as fast as they can so they get their money back for what they spent. Education is not important for them."

Pineda's schooling stopped at 16 when he signed with the Mariners for $35,000. Like many others, he flew to the United States with an 0-2 count, not knowing the language or the culture. It didn't stop him.

Just five years later, as a rookie, he threw a scoreless inning in the 2011 All-Star Game.

By the time he was 23, Pineda had made his first million. He takes great pride knowing his dad, a welder, and his mom, a hair stylist, will never have to work again. He loves the example he set for his four younger siblings, including 19-year-old Ramon Francisco Pineda, who recently signed with the Chicago White Sox.

By the end of this year, Pineda will have made nearly $15 million. He has been an inconsistent pitcher, going 32-37 with a 3.99 ERA. But if he lives up to his talent, he could cash in further as a free agent.

Pineda has navigated the challenges for Latino players that go well beyond mastering a changeup. Even simple tasks, like ordering off a restaurant menu, can become something more. Often, players eat at the same fast-food joint seven days a week just to avoid embarrassment or awkward encounters at unfamiliar places. Many suffer in silence, their confidence shaken. When that humiliation bubbles out into the public, it can become a spectacle.

This is where the 6-foot-7, 260-pound Pineda stood in 2014.

PINEDA ENTERED THAT fateful April 2014 night at Fenway with a 1.00 ERA in three starts. Masahiro Tanaka was the Yankees' marquee, $175 million signing that winter, but it was Pineda -- with his Yankees cap cocked to the side and his gyrations on the mound -- who had been their most impressive pitcher in spring training and over the first month of the regular season.

It was significant Pineda was on the mound at all, let alone excelling on it. The Mariners had traded Pineda to the Yankees after his All-Star 2011 season. It was an old-fashioned blockbuster, as Seattle swapped Pineda for the Yankees' top catching prospect at the time, Jesus Montero. The first question Cashman asked after acquiring Pineda: "Does he speak English?"

"The ones that seem to have the ability to command the language have a higher instance of having success than the ones who don't ever -- they seem to fall by the wayside with their tools," Cashman says.

With Seattle, Pineda had never truly applied himself to learning English. Though the Mariners had offered classes three times a week in the minors, Pineda didn't arrive in the Bronx with much of a vocabulary.

"I didn't learn anything," Pineda says.

Like many young players, Pineda stayed within his clique, speaking Spanish exclusively until he made it to the majors in 2011 in Seattle. He says he attended the classes three days a week but learned nothing.

"When you are nervous in your head, you never learn," Pineda says. "I was nervous."

Pineda says he told the Seattle media he wanted to speak in English with them, realizing its importance for his development.

"I said, 'If I make mistake, fine,' " Pineda says. "Everyone knows I'm not an American guy."

But one season of making an effort to learn the language can't fully prepare a player for New York. Being a Yankee is different. In 2012, during his initial spring training in Tampa, Pineda looked intimidated in the clubhouse. When a Yankees starter throws a simple bullpen session in the spring, there are at least eight reporters ready to ask how it went. Pineda's eyes would grow as big as baseballs in front of the group. He would attempt to speak English, but it was uncomfortable for both sides.

His velocity also had not been there all spring, which left a lingering thought that the Yankees might have acquired damaged goods. Questions about his fastball did not make his transition any easier. Then, before he threw a regular-season pitch for the Yankees, Pineda had shoulder surgery, a procedure that many times robs a pitcher of his throwing motion forever. After the long two-year road back, Pineda looked as good as new.

Then it all unraveled in Boston.

After Pineda gave up two runs and four hits in the first inning, including RBI singles by Dustin Pedroia and A.J. Pierzynski, he decided he needed a better grip on the baseball. In a start earlier in the month at Yankee Stadium against the Red Sox, NESN cameras and Twitter had spotted Pineda using pine tar, and fans criticized Boston manager John Farrell for not pointing to Rule 8.02, which says a player can't use a foreign substance on the ball. The mark on Pineda's palm was obvious, but after the game, Girardi and Pineda acted blind to it. It was the beginning of the awkwardness.

Heading into Fenway, Girardi and Rotshchild say it was communicated to Pineda that pine tar was illegal, though Pineda knew pitchers use it on cold nights.

"Like any pitcher, he had seen guys with pine tar," Rothschild says. "He put it in a place that was conspicuous."

Neither Girardi nor Rothschild would say if the messages were conveyed in Spanish. The Yankees did not have a full-time interpreter at the time, as it was not yet mandated by Major League Baseball.

The way Cashman understands it, Pineda had an accomplice, and not a very good one.

Between the first and second innings, Pineda stepped out of the road dugout, walked up the dank Fenway Park hallway and entered the clubhouse, where it is said he applied the pine tar. Neither Girardi nor any of his coaches say they saw him between innings, their attention firmly on the Yankees' at-bats. Nobody, they say, advised him to be so brazen.

"There is a backstory," Cashman says. "It sounded like one of his teammates said, 'Yeah, you are good.' Our coaches allegedly didn't know anything about it. That is why I was mad after the game because -- forgetting just him -- that is the responsibility of our manager, our coaching staff, his teammates, because anyone in plain day could see it. I was getting calls from the stands from some people. You could spot it from a distance.

"Maybe in the darker spot of a clubhouse, a teammate was like, 'Yeah, you are good.' I won't give the teammate up, but I heard a story of who it was. It sounded like somebody needed to get their eyes checked."

Pineda denies there was an accomplice.

After two outs in the second inning, Farrell asked plate umpire Gerry Davis to check Pineda for pine tar. Davis slowly walked out to the mound. Derek Jeter joined in from short, a sly smile on his face. Davis checked Pineda's glove, then his hand. He found nothing.

Davis asked Pineda to turn around. Davis wiped the back of Pineda's neck, looked at his index finger and tossed Pineda from the game. Pineda looked embarrassed as he slowly left the mound. Girardi, his arms folded, jogged out from the dugout, but mounted little argument.

"Even to this day, I can't tell you why," Girardi says. "The competitiveness comes out. In all walks of life, young people think they are invincible."

Girardi adds: "I definitely think there could have been a misunderstanding."

After the game, Pineda stood dejectedly, answering in his limited English, saying he didn't want to hit anybody, so he used the pine tar for a better grip. Pineda was asked why he put it in such an obvious place. He took a deep breath and didn't answer the question, again saying he didn't want to hit anyone. He was asked if he knew it was illegal. Again, he said he didn't want to hit anyone.

He was trying. "I give him a lot of credit," Nova says.

Beltran watched from a nearby locker.

"For me, that was one of the reasons I approached the players' association for the translator," Beltran says. "It was real, real tough. It was tough for everybody. You guys are trying to ask the questions. He is just trying to answer the questions. Maybe you feel like he didn't answer the questions. It is a complete misunderstanding from both places."

Beginning last season, every major league team is required to have a Spanish-speaking interpreter.

PUERTO-RICAN BORN Beltran has served as liaison for teammates like Pineda. Many times after a manager held a team meeting, Beltran would sidle up next to some of his Latino teammates and ask them if they grasped the message.

"I've been in a lot of meetings," Beltran says. "Important meetings, where managers have talked about something important, and a lot of guys have no clue what is going on. Sometimes, I go to them and I say, 'Hey, man, you understand what they are talking about?' 'A little bit.' That little bit means they didn't understand everything. I try to explain it to them."

The Yankees, with an assist from Pineda, are trying to speed up this process. They hired Joe Perez, a former Tampa high school principal, to be their education coordinator. Perez is developing a curriculum that not only teaches English but prepares the players for just being able to navigate everyday life. The names change, but tales of difficulty remain the same for these young players. Pineda has a message because he has been there.

"It is hard," he says.

Perez tells a story from Staten Island, home of the Yankees' short-season minor league affiliate team. After a game last season, a 19-year-old Dominican player needed to go to Walmart to buy groceries.

Perez and another Yankees official offered to drive him. The young man, Perez said, didn't speak much English. The teenager had just moved up from the Yankees' training facility in Tampa, where he had grown accustomed to using the swipe method with his credit card. When he checked out, the credit card machine was a chip reader, which called for inserting, not swiping.

"The cashier had a long day," Perez says. "So he swipes his card and she starts to yell at him, because the chip reader works."

"If you could have seen the look on his face," Perez says. "He was petrified."

It was a "pine tar" moment, just not in front of nearly 40,000 fans, television cameras and social media.

Who better to help relate to this young man than Pineda?

In January, the Yankees held their Captain's Camp, where they bring in top prospects for big league orientation. Stars like Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are often the headliners, but other players counsel the kids as well. This year, Pineda was among them. Gary Denbo, the Yankees' vice president of player development, had Pineda speak in both Spanish and English.

"It was a developing skill when we got him," Cashman says. "He was not someone who was fluent. He spoke a little. Obviously, his natural language is Spanish. Since that time, he is now fluent in Spanish and English."

Pineda later helped put together a video for the players at the Yankees' Dominican Academy, where the teenagers go after they're signed. He opened up about many of his experiences -- from his pine-tar incident to his DUI while rehabbing his shoulder in Tampa to his English.

"He made a big deal about learning and taking advantage of everything that is given to you," Hernandez says.

Pineda has been through a lot since he left Yaguate 12 years ago. The pine-tar incident is what he is most known for, but now, he is trying to become a teacher.

"It is very difficult," Pineda says. "It is not only for baseball, it is for life. If you don't have English, you don't have communication."