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Learning the game of baseball and becoming one of the premiere players in our national pastime isn’t an easy task for any professional baseball player. One of the biggest challenges for many players isn’t fielding ground balls or executing the perfect pitch: It’s the English language.
Sixteen players on the Brooklyn Cyclones hail from countries where the primary language is spanish. Despite being exceptional ballplayers, they struggle with the english language. Fortunately for them, Cyclones’ catcher Nelfi Zapata is fluent in both English and Spanish.
“I know what it’s been like to not know the english language,” Zapata said. “It’s tough to learn that second language, but I’m always here to help them learn. They come up to me when they need help buying something.”
The Cyclones have helped the spanish-speaking players learn the language by providing english classes to the players. On occasion, Zapata finds himself playing the role of translator during media interviews.
“Some of the guys really like to learn it,” Zapata said. “(Cyclones pitcher Gabriel Ynoa) was talking to one of his friends and (Ynoa) doesn’t know much English. He asked me to translate and to help him out with writing too.”
Zapata, 21, was born in the Dominican Republican and moved to New York when he was only one month old. After living with his family in the U.S., they decided to move back to the Dominican Republic for another five years. When Zapata was nine years old, they moved back to the U.S. again and haven’t left.
“I started learning the ‘right’ English when I was in high school,” Zapata said, “I started learning in fourth grade. It’s not something you will learn overnight, it takes time.”
Zapata is an alum of Boston English High School in Massachusetts and was drafted in the 19th round of the 2009 draft by the New York Mets. He was the first player to be drafted out of his high school.
“It was a great experience,” Zapata said about his high school days. “I was lucky to be the first one to be drafted out of high school at Boston English High School. It’s an honor to be the first one.”
The first passion for the majority of baseball players was the game of baseball itself. For Zapata, this was not the case.
“I used to be a soccer player before I played baseball,” Zapata said. “I wasn’t interested until I saw two guys playing long toss. I said ‘Wow, this is a good game’, and my big brother and I were able to learn the game together.”
The fourth year professional has had an up and down career in the minors. Zapata was having arguably his best season with the Cyclones in 2011, with the highlight for him coming on opening day against Staten Island where he hit a solo home run off of current New York Yankee Phil Hughes.
“Every year I’ve been able to work on my defense and it’s gotten better,” Zapata said. “This year, my weakness was my hitting. I worked on it this offseason, in particular, laying off of the breaking balls.”
MCU Park has led the New York-Penn League in attendance for 11 years in a row. Last season, an average of 7,002 fans attended Cyclones home games.
“I like playing on Coney Island because it’s a great area,” Zapata said. “It’s got the beach right there and the Cyclone. I’m the type of player where my energy goes up when I hear the fans go crazy. I love the fans, they get me pumped up.”
-- by Mike Baggerman