By Jonathan Fernandez
Freshman Jesus Estrada walked to the batter’s box, inserted into the lineup as a pinch hitter with his team, the Benito Juarez Community Academy Eagles, already leading Back of the Yards College Prep by 14 runs. As he was taking practice swings, getting ready for his only at-bat of the day, the umpire told him to back away from the plate so the opposing pitcher could finish throwing his warmup pitches.
Estrada looked back at the umpire with confusion painted across his face. His native language is Spanish, and he is still learning English.
The umpire grabbed Estrada and pulled him away from the plate, helping Estrada narrowly avoid a hit-by-pitch before the at-bat even started.
“There’s a language barrier between him and some of his teammates — even myself, for that matter — and we play off of it,” head coach Leonard Casa said.
More than one player on the Benito Juarez baseball team speaks Spanish as their first language with little to no English skills. For Casa, who doesn’t know a lot of Spanish, the language barrier has made ensuring that everyone feels like a part of the team even more of a priority.
In fact, something Casa has said over the years has inadvertently become a rallying cry that has brought the team together. Whenever an Eagles player is at the plate, their teammates in the dugout shout, “Let’s go, kid! Come on, kid!”
“It’s just something that I say that they picked up on,” Casa said.
Senior pitcher Juan Villaneuva said the team has said this phrase as long as he’s been there. “When I was a freshman I heard it, and I kept it going because all the other guys left,” Villaneuva said. “I kept it going, and now we say it.”
According to freshman catcher Gabriel Rojas, it has become a source of joy for those on the team. For those who don’t speak English as well, the chant is a way for them to feel closer to their teammates and become more comfortable on the baseball field.
“We’re trying to get him (Estrada) to understand it’s OK to goof around,” Casa said. “When we say, ‘Hey, kid! Come on, kid!’ it’s like a chant, an easy chant that’s not too crazy.”
Something else Casa has done to establish a level of comfort among teammates is give the players nicknames. Estrada earned the nickname Mexico when the coach asked him where he was from. Estrada replied “Mexico,” something Casa said he already knew. He was really asking what city Estrada is from, but Estrada kept repeating, “Mexico.” After that exchange, Casa told the team Estrada would be known as Mexico.
Moments like these have helped the team form bonds that run deep. Casa’s ultimate goal is for the team to have fun and become more than teammates.
“Baseball is really a family sport,” Casa said. “When you get out there, those aren’t just your teammates. They’re your family.”
Seeing the coach tease his players before the game, watching batters make jokes and talk to their teammates in the dugout during at-bats and hearing them yell their support for one another, it’s safe to say Casa has accomplished his goal regardless of the score of any game.
Jonathan Fernandez is a graduate student specializing in sports media at Northwestern Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @JFERN31.