Brian Dozier had 4,900 major league plate appearances, and only 482 of them came with the Washington Nationals. When he retired from baseball last month, he did so as a Minnesota Twin, the team that drafted him, developed him, brought him to the big leagues and made him an all-star.
And yet in Washington, where no fan has witnessed an in-person major league game since — why, since the 2019 World Series — Dozier is best remembered as the shirtless dude from Mississippi, holding some sort of Anheuser-Busch product that wasn't long for this world, crooning reggaeton lyrics in … Spanish? Which brought no small measure of delight to his Spanish-speaking teammates.
There's a message in there somewhere.
"I think we, as Americans, need to take it upon ourselves to say, 'Hey, these guys are going to be playing for a championship just like us, and you need real camaraderie to make that happen, and in order to have that, we need to take it upon ourselves to learn Spanish,' " Dozier said.
Baseball, you might have noticed, has an inclusion problem. It is certainly true as it pertains to women, and the sport is grappling with that publicly in ways that are both humiliating for some individuals and degrading for the entire industry. It is, too, the most solitary of team sports, because the action centers on pitcher vs. hitter rather than, say, team-with-the-ball vs. team-without-the-ball, lessening the necessity for strategic togetherness that defines games such as football and soccer.
But it remains a team sport, and in some ways — ways as undeniable as they are difficult to pin down — team dynamics matter deeply. Baseball players spend ungodly amounts of time with each other, from early in the afternoon until late at night, on buses and planes, in hotels and restaurants (at least when there's not, um, a pandemic), for eight months of the year. They come from backgrounds both affluent and poor. They are Black and White, American and Asian and Latino.
That last part, it's important. According to data released by Major League Baseball, nearly one in four players on 2020 Opening Day rosters or injured lists came from a Spanish-speaking country. That would impact any company trying to get its employees to work together, so it has to impact baseball teams.
"There's so many times where things have gotten lost in translation," Dozier said. "Just small stuff, on the field, off the field, in the dugout, in the clubhouse. And all you need — it could be one word. An expression. It could be anything."
I thought about Dozier upon his retirement, which was also right around the time Kevin Mather, who was then the president of the Seattle Mariners, had complained at a Rotary Club meeting that some of his team's foreign players didn't speak better English. That's the way baseball treated the issue for years: Players from, say, the Dominican Republic — the largest exporter of talent to MLB — sign at age 16, are in the United States by 18 and are asked to learn English.
Why think of Dozier? Because long ago, when he was in the minor leagues, he decided to flip it around. He decided to learn Spanish.
"There were so many great guys that I became friends with, but I really couldn't break that real true friendship barrier," Dozier said by phone last week, "because you couldn't really communicate in the way that you need to communicate in to have that real bond."
Dozier had no prior Spanish experience, but he took up Rosetta Stone, the language immersion software, and began teaching himself after ballgames and on bus rides. He learned the basics, but there were issues.
"Rosetta Stone kind of taught you the proper way to speak Spanish," Dozier said, "but not the slang you use in the clubhouse."
During one of his offseasons in the minors, he played winter ball in Venezuela. Around that same time, he met Eduardo Escobar, who was new to the Twins organization. They didn't know they'd play seven years together. Still, they made a decision: make each other better.
"I taught him English," Dozier said. "He taught me a lot of Spanish, just how to communicate day-in and day-out and stuff like that. I took it upon myself to start reading books on planes and bus rides just to kind of teach myself more. And then obviously the best way to learn it is being around it every day and actually using it."
A funny thing then happened for Dozier: He became friends — close friends — with many of his Latin teammates. Go figure. Escobar, now with the Arizona Diamondbacks, missed the beginning of a team meeting last week to call into Dozier's retirement ceremony. "I call him one of my best friends to this day," Dozier said.
MLB has come miles and miles in fostering a more welcoming culture for its Latin players. Most clubs offer some sort of Spanish instruction, and the league has mandated that each team designate an interpreter so players who aren't comfortable speaking English can conduct interviews and therefore convey their thoughts and personalities to largely English-speaking fan bases.
But Dozier's approach is the right one. Why not meet teammates where they are, making them comfortable rather than demanding they conform — or at least allow them time to develop? One of my great regrets as a baseball beat writer was not learning Spanish early on. On trips to the Dominican Republic, I needed an interpreter. My relationship with so many Latin players, coaches and staffers could have been so much better if I had just taken the time.
Dozier took the time. And now, even though he was in Washington for just one season, his imprint remains here. Not because of much that he did with the bat or glove. But because when the Nationals celebrated their postseason victories, there was Dozier — bare-chested, in the center of a group of Latin players — crooning the song "Calma" by Puerto Rican star Pedro Capó, which became the Nats' anthem.
That 2019 Nationals team was anchored not just by Los Viejos — the old-guy veterans who performed so well in salvaging what looked to be a lost season and excelling in the playoffs. It was defined by a cross-cultural vibe in which cliques dissolved. Because of that, Howie Kendrick from Florida could have an impact on Aníbal Sánchez and Gerardo Parra from Venezuela; Juan Soto and Victor Robles of the Dominican Republic could have an influence on Anthony Rendon of Texas; and Brian Dozier of Mississippi could surround himself with players of all ethnicities and belt out lyrics — in Spanish.
"For the most part, a lot of the American players learn to have a little conversation in Spanish," Dozier said. "I think it would be great if more guys learn how to take it to the next level."