By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
When Omar Malave arrived in the United States from Venezuela as a 17-year-old baseball player, he was frustrated at not knowing any English.
Now, more than 33 years later, his job is to help Latin American ballplayers handle their transition into American professional ball.
Malave, who at age 50 has spent his entire career in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, is in Bluefield for the next few days to work with players at Bowen Field in his new role as Latin affairs coordinator for all levels of the franchise.
“I speak both languages, and help them now to initiate their career, to help them with whatever they need here,” he said on Saturday afternoon in the home dugout at Bowen Field.
“I am really pleased for that opportunity, after I coached so many years, to now have the opportunity to help these guys come from another country and start their professional career.”
Not knowing English is the biggest roadblock for the many Latin baseball players arriving in American towns and cities.
“No question about it,” Malave said. “It happened to me when I came over here. I was 17 years old. At that time, I didn’t know the (English) language — and at that time, we didn’t have many coaches who could speak (Spanish), either. So it was really hard for me to understand.
“At that point, to further my situation, I said I’ve got to learn the language. If I’m going to survive in this game, I’ve got to do that. So I did that.
“It’s really difficult for these guys when they come because they don’t understand the language. But now, the organization really has a lot of coaches that can speak both languages.”
Many players, coaches and managers try to understand Latino-American culture — and American culture — as well, he said.
For the young players surrounded by a community that speaks only English, Malave said, “The only thing I can tell them is to look at my situation. I had the same situation when I came over here. I survived. I put in a lot of work in myself to, hopefully, understand.
“I told them they’ve got to do that. They’ve got to watch a lot of TV. They’ve got to repeat what they listened (to). Sometimes, that’s the only way you’re going to learn.”
The language gap can aggravate another issue that the young men — usually teenagers — face.
“They’re getting homesick,” he said, “and they have to find a way to deal with it. And we’re here to help them with that.”
Having Latin American players on baseball rosters is nothing new, he said.
“I would say, the ’90s, when the Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series, we did have a lot of Latinos, a lot of players from the Dominican (Republic), Puerto Rican (players),” he said. “They helped the Blue Jays to win the championship.”
“Now, I would say, the last couple of years ... I see more Latin-American players.”
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Malave grew up poor in the coastal town of Cumana, Venezuela. Discovered by a Blue Jays scout, the 6-foot-3 prospect signed with the team in 1980 and reported to Toronto’s Gulf Coast League club in 1981.
As a player, he saw time at every position except catcher, and advanced as far as Class AAA Syracuse, just one notch below the majors, for eight games in 1989.
After that, he began a coaching career that included managing more than 2,000 minor-league games for Toronto-affiliated teams.
“It’s been over 33 years,” he said. “Good years.”
“This organization is one of the best,” he said. “They do everything for you. Since I’ve been here, it’s been a family for me.”
“They not only take care of me, but take care of my family. Without the Blue Jays, I wouldn’t have a career. My kids wouldn’t have a career, like they have right now.”
“It’s not only what they do on the field, it’s a lot what they do behind that. They’re a family; they’re going to take care of the family, when they need to. If I have a situation that I need help, there’s no question, they’ll help me.”
• • •
A highlight of his life in baseball was being selected, unexpectedly, as the first-base coach for the major-league club in 2010.
“That was a dream come true,” he said. “Every player has a dream when you sign as a professional player. I had that dream when I signed, to become a major leaguer.
“But I had the chance in 2010. Finally, the phone call came in. It was really special, to have (manager) Cito Gaston tell me about it.
“I couldn’t believe it. It was like, ‘Never give up. You’ve got to keep working hard, and someday that phone call’s going to come,’ and it came in for me. It was something I will never forget.”
He said Gaston was “one of the greatest men I ever met, one of the greatest managers I’ve ever been around, and just for me to be part of his staff in 2010, prior to his last year before he announced his retirement, that was really special for me, because he’s a special man.”
“What he did for the Blue Jays organization, that’s something they’re always going to have.”
“Every day that I wake up and I’m still in uniform, I thank him, because he was the first one to give me opportunity.”
Gaston had already had an influence on Malave for years, from afar.
Malave said, “Through the years, when I saw him managing, and I was in the minor leagues, I always admired him because of the way he handled players, the way he talked to people, the way he cared for people. That was something that I took, myself, and used myself.
“I cannot be more pleased to learn something from somebody like him.”
Malave’s visit to Bluefield has allowed him to reunite with Bluefield manager Dennis Holmberg, who is the only current baseball man in the Toronto organization with more years of service (36) than Malave.
Malave played for Holmberg on a Class A team in Florence, S.C., in 1982-83.
“I learned a lot from him,” Malave said. “I was there with him for a couple of years. He taught me so much about caring for people.
“This city here is very fortunate to have him. Dennis Holmberg, it’s not only what he does on the field. It’s what he does outside, what he does for the players, what he does for their family.”
“He’s a Blue Jay. ... We’re fortunate to have that type of people in our organization. And I can tell you that because he was my mentor, he was my teacher. What I do is a reflection (of) him.”
— Contact Tom Bone at email@example.com