Arizona Diamondbacks' Ariel Prieto finds language keeps him in the game
He kept his signing bonus, $1.2 million, in his pocket for four days — Thursday through Sunday — before a teammate, then-Athletics outfielder Stan Javier, took him to a Wells Fargo on a Monday to deposit the almost-crumpled check.
And he'll never forget that one trip to Safeway when he confused the beautiful, yet furry, face of a dog on a can for food intended for him.
"It's really hard," he said. "It looks easy, but it's not easy. It's all about language."
Ariel Prieto was 25 years old when he left Cuba in 1995, resuming his pitching career with the Athletics after they took him fifth overall that year. He started playing only days after he signed and was even named the Opening Day starter in 1997.
But as a Spanish-speaker dropped into a new country, the transition was challenging. Now 20 years after Prieto navigated that new phase of his life largely on his own, he's helping Diamondbacks slugger and fellow Cuban native Yasmany Tomas adjust.
"If he's not there, I don't know what will happen with me," Tomas said in Spanish with Prieto translating. "I'll probably be kind of lost."
After signing Tomas last December to a six-year, $68.5 million contract, the Diamondbacks called on Prieto to act as coach and interpreter, a role held by Prieto the previous three seasons in Oakland while Yoenis Cespedes patrolled the outfield for the Athletics.
Prieto, 45, pitched parts of six seasons in the majors, going 15-24 with a 4.85 ERA. When he was done playing, he knew he wanted to help Latin players adapt to playing ball away from home. But Prieto never anticipated he'd become a translator because he never studied English at school.
Actually, he tried to take a class during an offseason at a local college in Miami once but the teacher decided he was too advanced.
"I need to learn," he explained. "I want to learn the English language."
Apparently, the strategy Prieto had been using was working but he was initially resistant to adopting a second language. He didn't even try to pick up tidbits here and there during his first three years in Oakland. What's more, then-manager and current Diamondbacks Chief Baseball Officer Tony La Russa was the only one who conversed in Spanish with Prieto his first season.
"I have nobody right next to me to push me," he said.
Eventually, though, it became easier to learn.
Back in Miami for the winter, Prieto started to make friends at Gold's Gym, and his workout buddies mixed Spanish and English together in their conversations.
"If you speak only English, I have no idea," Prieto said. "But if you speak Spanglish, I can catch the Spanish. As soon as they say something in Spanish and I understand the little English that they talk, I go, 'Spanish here, English here.' So I can figure it out."
He watched the Discovery Channel ("They speak so slow," Prieto said.), and former teammate and fellow pitcher Mike Mohler shared an English word each day with Prieto in exchange for its Spanish translation because Mohler wanted to learn Spanish.
Prieto's English continued to improve — so much so that before he became an interpreter in baseball, which he feels has deteriorated his English because he talks more frequently in Spanish, Prieto started to have dreams in English. He resumed working for the A's in 2009, becoming a pitching coach in the Arizona Rookie League and a mentor for Latin players.
After his first season, Prieto found that Oakland management wanted to move him to a higher affiliate to coach but Prieto wanted to remain where he was to help ease the transition for the Spanish-speakers. The same offer continued to be tabled and then denied until after three seasons, Prieto was ready to move on; he wanted to check on how the players he had taught were handling the change.
The Athletics liked the idea, Prieto said, but didn't pinpoint an immediate opportunity. But a comparable responsibility opened up once the Athletics signed Cespedes, also from Cuba, to a four-year, $36 million deal.
Prieto was on vacation in Aruba with his wife when, one morning, he decided to hop on the Wi-Fi at Starbucks to check his messages and discovered team brass was trying to reach him.
"We want you to be the guy right next to him," Prieto read.
He accepted and went on to work alongside Cespedes for parts of three seasons. The two lived together; Prieto went with Cespedes to buy a car (and then explained how to use a gas station) and also helped him set up a bank account and hire someone to manage his finances.
"They're a baby when they come over here," he said.
When Cespedes was traded in 2014, Prieto relocated to the minor leagues. But on yet another vacation this past offseason, the Athletics gave the Diamondbacks permission to inquire about a similar role with Arizona following the addition of Tomas, and Prieto accepted.
Tomas and Prieto don't live together, but Prieto helped Tomas acquire a driver's license and is a regular shadow of his at Chase Field and on the road. Prieto crafts a schedule for Tomas on a daily basis for what Tomas needs to do to prepare to play, and the work seems to be paying off — Tomas recently has had an everyday role and is batting well above .300.
"This guy's pretty strong, believes in himself a lot, so that's helping him a lot," Prieto said.
So far, Prieto has focused on translating the terminology and customs specific to the game in North America — what Prieto calls, "baseball language.
"A lot of the words we use here, shortcuts, they don't understand that, so I have to be right next to them, talk to them, explain to them," he said. "Sometimes, I'm right next to their ear telling them everything that the manager says."
But the language Prieto won't teach is English.
"I lose my job," he said. "If they learn English, I'm fired."
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