In baseball, a player’s on-field play can make them great. Yet, it’s what we don’t see that makes them special. It’s in the way players respond to high-stakes situations, and how their leadership can keep a clubhouse loose yet focused. But often overlooked is a player’s ability to unite a clubhouse through language and culture. For Adrián González, who grew up on the U.S.- Mexico border, this would be one of his greatest contributions to clubhouses throughout his career.
González was born in San Diego, California but spent his early years in Tijuana, Mexico. While still a child, his family returned to the United States, where he would begin his schooling. It’s during his time at school that Adrian became familiar with the challenges that come with a new language and a new culture.
"When I came to the U.S. at the end of fourth grade, not knowing a word of English, was really tough," González recalled in an interview with La Vida Baseball. "But by sixth grade, I started speaking English and being able to get acquainted with my classmates."
Growing up on the border allowed González and his brothers to play in two separate little leagues: one in Chula Vista, CA and the other in Tijuana. Playing on two teams quickly sharpened his development as a player and lead him to become one of the top prospects in high school baseball. In 2000, The Florida Marlins drafted González in the first round and give him a $3 million signing bonus.
When González reached the Marlins minor league system, being bilingual allowed González to help his teammates who only spoke Spanish get acclimated to life in the big leagues and in the U.S. "It's in the minor leagues where you have to be that translator, that person who's helping communicate what [a player] wants to the coaches,” González explains.
In the Minors, González noticed that some native Spanish-speaking players had difficulty interacting with their English-speaking counterparts. As you can imagine, clear communication is vital to a player’s development on the field. Further, he began to notice some of the other unintended consequences involved with leaving home for a life in a foreign country.
Homesickness and financial struggle were common themes. Determined to help his teammates, González role as de facto clubhouse translator also meant he was a sort of amateur financial advisor making sure his teammates were responsible with their hard-earned money. He even used his signing bonus to help teammates with food and shelter as well as money that these players could send back home.
González understood that many players from Latin America are responsible for the financial health of their families. "I don't think anybody understands the full spectrum of what each player goes through," he reflects.
Today, over a quarter of MLB players come from Latin America, and a significant number of U.S.-born players have Latino-ancestry. Though MLB has committed itself to assist Latin-American players, clubhouses will always need people like González who can facilitate communication and cultural exchange. It’s what made him invaluable as more than a player throughout his professional career. More than that, though, González’s positive contributions and the full-throated embrace of his identity made him an icon and symbol of pride among Chicano baseball fans across Southern California and beyond.