Meet the woman who taught English, life lessons to Houston Astros’ Latino stars

As Doris Gonzalez witnessed José Urquidy transform into a World Series hero, she began to cry back at her Florida home. The Houston Astros rookie had just pitched the game of his life against the Washington Nationals in Game 4 at Nationals Park.

She was moved by more than the five scoreless innings Urquidy threw against the Nationals to become the second starting pitcher born in Mexico to ever win a World Series game. 

Rather, she was proud of what happened afterward in the press conference room. With more than a dozen national media members eager to learn about his historic night, Urquidy didn’t need to rely on Astros team translator Oz Ocampo. Instead, he utilized the skills he learned in the classroom to hold his postgame interview in English. 

“I literally cried,” said Gonzalez, the Astros’ longtime manager of education. “I looked at him and just saw what he was doing and I just got teary-eyed.”

For Gonzalez, seeing Urquidy speak English on the national stage was an emotional moment. 

“This is really what I work for,” she said.

Recognizing the role Gonzalez had in his development, Urquidy texted her during the World Series. 

“Teacher Doris, I miss you! You are part of this,” he wrote to her.

“That right there, I screenshotted it and I’m keeping it for the rest of my life,” Gonzalez added.

Familiar Beginnings

Like many of the game’s Latino players, Gonzalez’s journey does not begin in the United States. She and her family emigrated from Honduras when she was 11 years old. 

Whereas many prospective players find themselves immediately entrenched into the world of baseball, Gonzalez found herself rooted in education, starting to master English in grade school.

“When you’re younger, you learn the language faster, plus you’re immersed into school,” Gonzalez told La Vida Baseball. “School is a whole different world than the baseball world. I have to go to every class and be around kids that only spoke English. You learn a lot faster.” 

Her early beginnings later helped lay the foundation for her to become an educator after receiving both her bachelor’s degree from Penn State and then a pair of master’s degrees from the American College of Education. 

Gonzalez was a middle school teacher in 2006 when the Astros hired her in spring training as a part-time English as a Second Language instructor. She quickly realized the players needed more than help with English.

Gonzalez began developing her own curriculum based off of her observations and her own personal experiences as an immigrant. In 2011, Gonzalez wrote a proposal to transform the basic English classes into a full-scale program that went beyond literacy.

“I thought I needed to be within the team, get to understand the life that they’re living on a day-to-day basis and integrate a program that is integrated with everything else that they do,” she said. 

Her proposal was a success and Gonzalez was promoted to manager of education, a position she’s held for nine years. 

Major League Teaching

While Gonzalez’s main goal is to teach the players English, her curriculum extends past teaching players how to read and write. It also emphasizes financial literacy, life skills, overcoming obstacles and, more recently, analytics.

The goal is to provide players with skills that go beyond the diamond.

“It’s being independent,” she said. “It’s being fully bilingual and being able to really manage themselves in every situation, not just after a game in an interview. …  It’s really all life skills. … There’s so many situations.”

Through her own experiences coming to the country, Gonzalez hopes to not only relate to her students, but empower them as well. 

She understands how difficult the transition to a new country can be and the feelings of loneliness that come with it. Her transformative years now serve as a valuable lesson in resilience, something she hopes her students can adopt into their lives.

Gonzalez also struggled with the transition as a child with a new culture. She felt left out. She did not belong, and she didn’t look like her new classmates. 

“I struggled with that and trying to change who I was so I could fit in,” she said. “I use my story to empower my players. I had a very rough adolescent years as I came into this country. 

“I use this story and life lessons to teach them about resilience and perseverance, and keeping your focus on your goals. So, I think that really helped with being who I am as a teacher.” 

Typically, her work begins in February during spring training and carries on throughout the season and offseason as players rise through the minor league affiliates.

Players attend class for one hour every night Monday through Friday in spring training. When the season begins, minor leaguers attend a one-hour class before every home game, roughly 55-60 classes per season.

After extended spring training, Gonzalez bounces from affiliate to affiliate within the United States and to the Astros international academies to provide hands-on support for her teachers, whom she credits with carrying on her vision daily. 

Each class is unique and Gonzalez and her team of teachers do their best to engage players from the start. 

“We don’t want to create classes that are traditional grammar, English classes,” Gonzalez said. “I get bored in those classes myself. If I’m bored, they’re going to be bored. They’re going to hate every minute of it. We need to create classes that are fun, dynamic, that are relevant and [where] we’re actually doing activities that they enjoy.” 

In one specific class, Gonzalez asked her students to open up and recall a time when they had to be resilient. Within a couple of minutes and with the help of some candy, students began to share their stories.

The result was more than an engaging class. She also set the groundwork for vital relationships with players. 

“Relationships are important,” she said. “You cannot be an effective teacher if your students hate you. That for me is No 1, building relationships.” 

Having built such relationships, her students have come to view her as the closest thing to a mother while they create new lives in the United States. Gonzalez has celebrated her students’ successes, consoled those who’ve experienced loss and counseled those who’ve been traded away. 

Additionally, she also employs traditional schooling methods like homework, field trips and spelling bees, which help create a traditional school-like experience for her students. Many of her pupils arrive with limited formal education or no education at all. 

As a result, the program has been met with a ton of success. Per Gonzalez, the Astros have ranked in the top three of MLB evaluations and often ranked No.1 overall. The formal education program (FEP) has produced the MLB valedictorian for the last two years and over 15 students have become published authors. 

Impacting the Next Generation 

While many students enter her program, not all of them finish out. Some like second baseman José Altuve exit after some schooling, while others find themselves traded out of the Astros farm system. 

Those who complete the program in its entirety are rewarded with a graduation ceremony akin to that of a high school or university, complete with a cap and gown in the Astros’ signature navy blue and orange.

To graduate, students must pass a reading, listening, writing and conversational test. Gonzalez has graduated more than 30 Astros minor leaguers, some of whom are in the majors. Others are still in the minors. Sixteen graduated this year for her largest class to date.

While not every student graduates or progresses to the major leagues altogether, through Gonzalez each will have gained the necessary knowledge to do what Altuve, Urquidy and others have been able to do.

It may not be as publicized, but is unique in its own way, 

“It makes me feel like I accomplished my goal. I think there’s so many immigrants that come to this country and struggle. I saw it with my own dad. being able to do basic things like [ordering] food at a restaurant, [managing] themselves at a bank and things like that.

“Knowing that they are fully independent, being able to do all the things on their own I’m extremely proud knowing that I was able to be a part of that. That’s not just going to impact them, it’s going to impact the next generation.”

Featured and inset images courtesy of Doris Gonzalez