Watch Your Quotations, Sports Writers

Carlos Gomez Center Fielder 2016 Houston Astros

Carlos Gomez
Center Fielder
2016 Houston Astros

In a front page article on today’s May 5, 2016 Sports section of the Houston Article, writer Brian T. Smith wrote a column entitled “Hey, Go-Go, bring the sexy back when you can put bat on ball.” Continuing from that first page to page C5, the reference to “Go-Go” is to Astros center fielder Carlos Gomez and the problems he’s been having with the bat – problems that don’t quite earn him a base for emotional flamboyant behavior that isn’t earned by his slumping level of production since joining the Astros late last season.

Fair subject, but Smith chose to quote Gomez, who isn’t particularly skillful or grammatically correct in his use of English as a second language, but nevertheless, a lot more capable than any of us English-only people are in expressing any thoughts in Spanish beyond “Por favor” and “Si, senor” or “Caliente”. As a result, for example, Gomez is quoted by Brian T. Smith as saying the following: “For the last year and this year, I not really do much for this team. The fans be angry. They be disappointed.”

Craig Calcaterra of NBC Sports jumped all over Smith for using Gomez’s literal problem with English thought expression. Calcaterra wrote that “it’s  hard to escape the conclusion that the quote’s imperfect English fits satisfyingly into a column designed to rip Gomez and that it’s going to play right into stereotyping a certain sort of reader who has just HAD it with those allegedly lazy, entitled Latino players likes to engage in.”

Jose de Jesus Ortiz, now of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but former colleague of Brian T. Smith at the Houston Chronicle then checked in with this comment: “Latino ballplayers work hard to learn English & deal with the media. No need to disrespect them and then taunt them.”

Watch Where You Step

What a mess. Again. For the innocent multiple offender writer, and we have no idea about the beliefs, record, or intentionality of Brian K. Smith in this matter, he may be like the guy who owns a Great Dane, but still refuses to watch where he steps whenever he goes out in the back yard. If so, he will not have a long wait to repeat one of these “wish I had not gone there” moments when he’s already late for his working trip to Minute Maid Park.

The Old Rules Have Changed

The old literal journalism lesson of using only the literal words of the subject doesn’t work if the interviewee is using English with limited grammatical understanding.  So, what could Smith have done, had he seen the need to avoid misunderstanding?

He could have used parenthetical inclusions to show the correct grammatical usage ….

“I can’t get no (any) satisfaction….” – but that could easily have been viewed in the Smith/Gomez case by sensitive critics (and ethnic offense ‘gotcha’ hawks) as condescending.

Where Brian T. Smith wrote: “For the last year and this year, I not really do much for this team. The fans be angry. They be disappointed,” I would have paraphrased those thoughts in this way: “Gomez is aware that he has not done much offensively to help the club since joining the Astros late in the 2015 season. He also gets it that the fans are both angry and disappointed in his work with the bat.”

OK? Clear enough? The paraphrase confirms that Gomez intelligently understands his Houston situation – and with no inference of blame upon him for everything that’s gone wrong with the Astros this year – so far.

It’s a quick and slippery slope from naivete to stupidity to literally quote anyone using a second language today. Worse, or just as bad as the sometimes innocent adherence to the journalism 101 rule about literal quotation, are the ethnic offense ‘gotcha’ hawks who quickly go to print to condemn the offender as an unforgivable racist – and without investigating or confirming all the facts behind each individual case of alleged transgression.

Chill, people. And as Jon Batiste, the music director on the CBS Colbert Late Show, likes to call his band: “Stay Human”.


eagle-0rangeBill McCurdy

Publisher, Editor, Writer

The Pecan Park Eagle

Houston, Texas





7 Responses to “Watch Your Quotations, Sports Writers”

  1. gregclucas Says:

    While I don’t advocate doing what Smith did the irony is that if the same player does a TV or radio interview the fans will hear exactly what he says as he says it. There is a double standard that says newspapers should “clean things up.” I think this is correct, not just to make the interviewee sound better, but more importantly to allow the public to know exactly what he meant if not exactly the words he used.

    When I was working it often was a problem getting some players whose primary language was Spanish or Japanese to do an interview without an interpreter. The players were capable of communicating in English, but not well schooled in speaking it and did not want to appear to struggle. I totally understood that. As they got better they would attempt to speak in English in the post game group interviews in front of their lockers. Most could not be used on TV or radio, but it was not hard to understand what was trying to be communicated by writers and they would “clean it up” for the newspaper stories. Broken English never made it to print.

    The other thing that must be remembered is that no language translates exactly word for word into another. A Spanish sentence if broken down word for word using a dictionary, for example, may not make sense to an English speaker. The reverse is true with English to another language. So many idioms require some real thinking to get the meaning.

    In respect to the players who are making themselves available to the media what they are saying (interpretively) is more important than the exact words or grammatical structure they may use. That “realism” is not needed and only makes the reporter appear not to have respect for his subject. Get the meaning right…not necessarily the exact sentence structure.

  2. Rick B. Says:

    Roberto Clemente used to get rightfully agitated when reporters did that to him.

    Hank Aaron also mentioned – in his autobiography – that, as a young player, he was quoted as saying, “No one is hit .400 since Ted Williams.” He, too, thought the reporter could have fixed his English in the article.

    I read the Gomez article yesterday and cringed at that quote. It took journalism 60 years backward into a less pleasant era of racial attitudes.

    • Rick B. Says:

      Since my first comment puts me at risk of falling into your category of “ethnic offense ‘gotcha’ hawks,” Bill, I thought I should add that I’ve never read Jose Altuve quoted in broken English. I think the obvious difference is that Altuve is a star player and Gomez has been a big disappointment in Houston. The purpose of the article was unclear to me; after all, everyone knows his performance has been disapponting. Why spend a lengthy article harping on that in the first place? While I don’t have access to Brian T. Smith’s brain, I’m willing to bet that if Gomez were hitting like Altuve, his English would appear in print like Altuve’s does as well.

      I’m not a member of the political correctness police, and again, I don’t know if Smith has issues with prejudice or whether his motive was to write a smear job on Gomez, but I haven’t seen an article in recent history that directly quotes broken English as his does. Most reporters paraphrase in the way that you suggested; the fact that Smith didn’t do so strikes me (and obviously many other readers) as odd. At best, Smith is guilty of not accessing his own brain and using poor judgment when he wrote the article. At worst . . .

      • Bill McCurdy Says:

        Rick …. Yes. …. When people fail to “access” their own brains, walking inattentively through the back yard where their Great Dane lives becomes the epitome of “poor judgment.”

  3. Rick B. Says:

    On a nicer note, here’s one more item: Happy Birthday to both Jose Altuve and Willie Mays! (59 years apart in age, just in case that makes anyone feel old). : )

  4. Larry Dierker Says:

    Greg Lucas mentions irony, a foundational aspect of good writing. Well how ironic is this?

    In the early, pre-radio days, the reporters didn’t go down to the locker room for quotes. They embellished, or lambasted (Censurable stupidity on the part of player Merkle…”) as they saw fit. Unless you were at the game (usually fewer than 20,000 people), how could you criticize the writer?

    With the emergence of the electronic media, so many fans already knew the score before the morning paper was delivered, the print reporters had to go down to get “quotes” to add too what folks already knew from the broadcast media. Although there were few Latin for Asian players, there were plenty who did not speak the King’s English. There were Irish and Italian accents, southern accents. And there was the common butchery of the language of the unschooled like Shoeless Joe Jackson. The writers didn’t try to capture these dialects. That was for novelists.

    So are today’s journalists attempting to be more creative? Far from it. Instead, they are practicing irony by accident. With the litigious nature of modern American culture, writers never begin an interview without hitting the “play” button on their hand-held recorders. That way, there is no chance they will misquote the athlete, thus protecting themselves and their employers from legal action. A Boston accent and a Charleston accent still look the same in print. But grammatical errors, especially the egregious ones such as Gomez’ remarks, are embarrassing.

    The irony is that if you were writing a baseball novel and trying for realistic dialogue, you would struggle mightily to get both the grammatical errors and the nuances of dialect right. But when you tape an interview and put in in the paper exactly as it is spoken, it seems anything but artful. It seems cruel.

    I don’t mind the literal language. If the player is embarrassed, perhaps he will try to improve his command of English. If not, so be it. As Greg mentioned, you’re going to hear the way the players speak on radio and TV. I don’t think Colby Rasmus is going to work on his accent to sound more educated. I wouldn’t want him to. I would, however, like to be a good enough writer to capture it in print.

  5. Dierker and Lucas: The Ironies of Baseball Journalism | The Pecan Park Eagle Says:

    […] Astros, Baseball History, and other Musings of Heart and Humor « Watch Your Quotations, Sports Writers […]

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