This week, for the first time in team history, two St. Louis Cardinals' games will be broadcast in Spanish. It’s one of the biggest nods to the local Latino community, and comes during what has been a big year for Spanish speakers in Major League Baseball.
Baseball players from Latin America have played professionally in the United States for decades. At the beginning of the 2016 season, more than a quarter of the league's players were foreign born. Many come from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Cuba. But it wasn’t until this year that the league required teams to hire a full-time translator to help Spanish-speaking players navigate English-language situations. For the Cardinals, that person is Alexandra Noboa.
“I’m their voice when they need to express their feelings about anything,” Noboa said. “After having an amazing performance, or a difficult or high stress performance, there’s a lot to say — and you want to get to know what’s inside the players heads. That’s why I’m here.”
Noboa came to the Cardinals in May as the team’s first Spanish translator. To comply with the new regulations approved by the league and the Players Association, she is there for everything — pregame, post game, spring training workouts, home games, away games, and post season.
Born in Puerto Rico to a Colombian mother and a Dominican father, Noboa was raised in Madison, Wisconsin. She lived what she jokingly calls a “double life” in Spanish and English.
“Spanish was only spoken in the home with my family and only allowed — there was a strict rule,” Noboa said. “In school my education was all in English. But as soon as I stepped a foot inside the door at home it was Spanish only, and if I ever tried to speak English with my parents they wouldn’t answer me so I had to learn the hard way.”
Noboa says she grew up with baseball, but even more so than the average fan watching games or wearing jerseys. Junior Noboa, a former professional MLB player and current vice president of Latin Operations for the Arizona Diamondbacks is Noboa’s second cousin. He’s a big reason she ended up in sports journalism, writing for the league's Spanish editorial division for two years before coming joining the Cardinals.
“He said, 'Why don’t you try MLB? There’s a need for young reporters, there’s a need for women in baseball; try it out,'" Noboa recalled. "So I was like, hmm, why not give it a try? I’ve always loved baseball so why not?”
Major league baseball can be a lonely place for a woman of color. Last year, women made up about a quarter of MLB team support roles like Noboa’s. While Latino players make up a sizeable 30 percent of MLB rosters, Latinos account for less than 10 percent of team administrations.
“I’m here because of my credentials, I’m here because I have the skills and the potential,” Noboa said. “Sometimes I have to remind myself that, because it can be a little intimidating as the only woman in the clubhouse, and I have to say, 'No, no Alexandra, you deserve to be here because you worked hard to get here.'”
The public sees the seamless way she goes back and forth between the two languages — most often in media interviews with Carlos Martinez, a pitcher from the Dominican Republic. Having worked as a journalist in radio and for the Spanish editorial division of MLB.com, Noboa sees her place between native Spanish-speaking players and the media as especially critical.
“There have been some really terrible cases where you see a reporter will write the quote in broken English in the published article.” Noboa said. “[It] can be a very poor reflection on [a player’s] education level or if you’re nervous, you should never make your source look terrible like that.”
It’s a real concern for players who are learning a new language. A Texas newspaper recently apologized to Dominican player Carlos Gómez after quoting him speaking with incorrect grammar under the headline "Carlos Gomez knows he's a disappointment to Astros fans."
“For the last year and this year I not really do much for this team," the Houston Chronicle quoted Gomez. "The fans be angry. They be disappointed."
Gomez called out the paper for disrespecting him, and other players who are learning English.
“That person knew exactly what he was writing, and he did it intentionally to ridicule me," Gómez told ESPN’s Max Bretos and Marly Rivera. "[He] not only [hurt] a Dominican, but every Latino who makes an effort [to learn] the language."
Since the league announced the new requirement for translators in January, critics have scoffed at concerns for how players are represented in the media. On the comment sections of articles outlining the Spanish translator program, some readers wrote that if Latin Americans don't want to "look bad" they should quickly learn to speak English.
Noboa said she can see where that critique comes from. But for her, the game should be the main focus.
“They got signed for their talent, not for their ability to speak another language,” she said. “That’s why MLB as an organization signs players from different countries — they do it for their talent and because they’re a good asset to their team.”
Noboa is not in St. Louis just to help the players. She’s responsible for opening new avenues for fans to engage with the team. She heads the Cardinals' Spanish-language Twitter account, and by helping players express themselves in their native tongue offers other Spanish-speakers unfiltered insights.
Brenda Garcia, owner of La Ke Buena Spanish radio station said Noboa’s position is essential for the baseball lovers in her audience.
“Several of the phone calls we’ve received at the radio have been specific to that, about how excited people are that the players can relate in Spanish speak their language and they can tune in and understand,” Garcia said.
La Ke Buena is in charge of the Spanish broadcast, bringing in veteran announcer Polo Ascencio from Los Angeles. It’s something Garcia that has been in the works for years.
“This is not even about [the station], it’s about our community,” Garcia said. “We truly deeply care about them, we want to do this for them and we’re glad they’re going to be recognized.”
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