Betancourt using bat, voice to try to change perception
Hot start, versatility giving depleted Brewers much-needed boost
WAUKESHA, Wis. -- The Rykwalder family of Brookfield, Wis., happily waited in line for a Yuniesky Betancourt autograph on Monday night.
It's still not fashionable to say in some circles, even with Betancourt off to a sizzling start for the Brewers, but Chris Rykwalder is a big fan.
"There's one guy in particular at work who just gives me a hard time about liking Yuni B.," he said. "He's like, 'You're going to go to this thing, and there's going to be nobody there.' I said, 'You watch. I think there's some closet fans out there.'"
Sure enough, a line snaked around Waukesha Sportscards of blue-clad fans waiting for an autograph and a few moments with Betancourt and fellow infielder Alex Gonzalez. Rykwalder had his moment with son Nicholas, who was just learning to talk when Betancourt played his first season with the Brewers in 2011 and loved practicing saying Yuni's name.
Dad would have a good story to tell at work on Tuesday morning.
"We were waiting in line for 20 minutes, and there's still a line," Chris said. "Yuni is doing something right. He's helped the team stay afloat."
Could anyone see this coming when the Brewers re-signed Betancourt during the final week of Spring Training? He was supposed to serve as a utility man but instead was thrust into the starting lineup when Aramis Ramirez joined Corey Hart on the disabled list, both with knee injuries.
Betancourt has played first base for the first time in his career and has also seen action at shortstop, third base and left field. He will enter Tuesday's Interleague game against the Rangers tied with Ryan Braun for the team lead in home runs (seven), and second to Braun in RBIs (22 to 23). Only Carlos Gomez and Braun have topped Betancourt's .525 slugging percentage.
"He's one of the best on the team right now," Gomez said.
And for the first time, fans like the Rykwalders have been able to congratulate Betancourt -- in English.
You can credit former Brewers manager Ned Yost for convincing Betancourt to spend the offseason studying his second language. Yost is now manager of the Royals, and made some critical comments about Betancourt after that team released him last August, indicating Betancourt had been unhappy with his playing time.
Betancourt was stung by the suggestion that he was part of what Yost called Kansas City's "losing culture," but he couldn't speak up about it.
"It was a really frustrating time for him," said Betancourt's agent, Alex Esteban, who began representing Betancourt shortly thereafter. "He was being portrayed one way, and that's just not who he is."
Betancourt began taking English lessons.
"We're really gearing it toward baseball right now," Esteban said. "Basically, it's interactions with fans, media. Then, once that is done, then he'll go into more traditional learning English, reading, writing, all of that stuff.
"It's pretty impressive, in my opinion, for a guy with nine years in the big leagues to say, 'You know what? I'm tired of not speaking English.' Granted, he should have learned English by now. He should have taken the initiative. But he said, 'I'll do it next year,' then next year turns into nine years. When he found it affecting his career, he said, 'I'm going to do this.'"
Betancourt, who was born in Cuba and escaped via speedboat in 2003, is taking small steps. He has begun conducting interviews in English with some of the team's regular beat reporters. When he hit a grand slam on April 16 against the Giants, Betancourt did a half-English, half-Spanish interview on the Fox Sports Wisconsin postgame show.
For many Brewers fans, Betancourt's voice remains a mystery. Remember, this is a member of a 2011 Brewers team that played to within two wins of the World Series.
Ovy Diaz, a former rival in Cuba's baseball ranks who has developed a friendship with Betancourt since they both defected to the U.S., is hoping Betancourt's new language skills help endear him to fans. They watched English language movies with Spanish subtitles over the winter -- many of them Disney cartoons, because the speaking was slower than your average action film.
"He's never been able to express himself," said Diaz, who opened an indoor batting cage, Hitter's Hangout, in Miami with Betancourt. "Mostly, he's afraid of the camera. He's afraid of making a mistake, and then people are going to take it the wrong way."
It is a common fear among players from Latin America.
"Some are afraid of people laughing at their English," Gomez said. "Like me, I don't care. If you don't understand me, you figure it out. This is how I speak, this is how I learned. Yuni, I think he's a little afraid in front of the camera."
Esteban and Diaz are convinced that Betancourt's perceived silence is behind much of the criticism he has engendered over the years.
Even today, Yuni-bashing remains a popular sport around Major League Baseball. When Betancourt re-signed with Milwaukee in late March, it was characterized by the local newspaper as, "news that is sure to cause considerable gnashing of teeth in Brewer Nation." When the news reached the message boards at Brewerfan.net, the first comment was, "Oh, god."
Why does this particular player generate such a strong reaction?
For that, we called upon MLB.com columnist Matthew Leach, who is not a member of the Yuni fan club.
"It's not that Yuniesky Betancourt isn't a good baseball player," Leach wrote in an email. "No, there are plenty of guys who aren't that good, who don't stir up the kind of fervor that Betancourt does. Instead, it's two related issues. It's that he isn't BETTER, and that he keeps getting chances to prove it.
"Betancourt has ability. He's hit for power (16 home runs in 2010). He's hit for average (.289 in 2006 and 2007). He's flashed speed (11 steals in 2006, and four seasons of at least five triples). He has the tools to be at least an adequate defender. And yet the actual player, the sum of all those tools, is so much less than that. He's hit .251 (with a truly dismal .277 on-base percentage) since 2009. He's been caught stealing as many times as he's succeeded on steal attempts. He shows no grasp of the strike zone. It's a combination of not living up to the tools, and not playing smart.
"And that's what's maddening. Betancourt is a lesser player than he has the capacity to be. But nearly 4000 plate appearances into his big league career, we know that. He is what he is. Yet big league clubs continue giving this known quantity chances to perform, and to prove that he is exactly what he's been for the bulk of his career.
"There's no taking away what Betancourt has done this year. When you slug .525 and play the infield even vaguely passably, you're helping your team. All credit to him for doing it. But check again in September, and odds are he'll be the same player: falling frustratingly short of the player that his tools suggest he could be."
Betancourt's hot start is changing some minds, at least in Milwaukee.
"He just seems to be a positive guy," Rykwalder said. "He's always smiling and having fun, even with all the criticism. And he showed up in the  playoffs, when some guys didn't. I was glad when the Brewers brought him back."
Betancourt said he hasn't felt this much love from fans since making his Major League debut in Seattle.
"It's still a little scary with the camera in front of me, but I'm trying," Betancourt said in English. "I'm practicing with my teammates and my best friend, who speaks good English. I try texting in English. ... I feel good now with the fans. The fans are responding to my work. I feel great, I feel comfortable. Now, Milwaukee is my home."