Guillen found challenge in learning English
Venezuela native pushed through language barrier in States
Our week-long package of stories looking at Tigers Latin-American players and how they grew up around baseball continues with Carlos Guillen. The package leads up to the Tigers' annual Fiesta Tigres celebration Saturday at Comerica Park.
DETROIT -- Carlos Guillen has faced plenty of challenges in his career, from playing in the shadow of Alex Rodriguez in Seattle to knee and shoulder injuries to tuberculosis. But one of the biggest obstacles he had to overcome, he said, was the language barrier.
He was a very good athlete growing up in Maracay, Venezuela, good enough that he stood out in soccer and volleyball. Baseball, he said, was a game he only played on the weekends until he was a teenager. However, baseball was in the family. His father, Carlos Sr., was a ballplayer, though he never reached the professional level.
It was not an easy decision for Guillen, who grew up admiring Reds great Dave Concepcion.
"We have professional teams over there -- Magallanes, Caracas," Guillen said. "I wasn't thinking too far forward to be in the big leagues. I knew we played with big league players [in Venezuela], but my first year, I didn't know anything."
When the younger Guillen decided to give baseball a try and joined the Astros' academy in Venezuela in 1992, it was a chance to make his father proud. And as he worked his way through the Houston farm system, it was clear he was going to get a shot in the big leagues. But when it came to speaking English, he was pretty far behind.
"Nothing," he said when asked how much English he spoke when he signed. "Nada. Only 'please' and 'thank you.' That's the first thing they teach you. My dad told me, every time you ask, you say, 'Please.' And then say, 'Thank you.'"
The Astros provided an instructor for their prospects in the Venezuelan academy, but he said the lessons were just once a week. He had to practice it every day to be effective, and the lessons weren't comprehensive. They covered the basics, but not the intricacies.
Once he came to the United States for the Gulf Coast League in 1995, he had to get immersed in English.
"You have to find your own way to learn English, try to understand," Guillen said. "You don't go step-by-step, because it's hard when you go to eat, when you go out, when you go for anything. It's not easy."
He picked up words the way many Latin prospects do in the Minor Leagues, by listening to teammates and watching television. But while he learned to understand the language pretty well, speaking it was more difficult for him, even as he reached the big leagues.
It's a contrast to his personality. While Guillen is in many ways a leader on the Tigers roster, a player Jim Leyland has said several times could become a manager someday if he wants, his soft-spoken image didn't always reflect it in the public eye. Not until he settled in as a Tiger, having come over from the Mariners in 2004 and signed a long-term contract later that year, did he seem to grow comfortable.
"There are still some things I don't understand," Guillen said about the language.
He's not only a veteran and a mentor for young Latin players coming through Detroit, he's arguably one of the leaders in Venezuelan baseball. He was one of the most vocal players to speak out against the national team and its organization last summer in advance of the World Baseball Classic. His meeting alongside other key Venezuelan players with the country's sports minister last fall helped pave the way for prominent players to commit to the team for the Classic.
Now 34 years old, Guillen isn't afraid to speak his mind on subjects. And he strongly believes Major League teams could help by having an interpreter on hand to translate for Spanish-speaking players as well as provide English lessons -- not baseball English, but everyday English. It isn't just about dealing with the media, he said, but about talking with coaches and others.
Simply having coaches or players who are bilingual, he said, isn't enough.
"They don't pay [coaches] to teach English," Guillen said. "They pay the coaches to teach baseball, not to translate or teach English. To me, that's one of the hardest things when you come in. It's like if you went to Venezuela. What are you going to do in Caracas [without knowing Spanish]?"
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.