Five-Tongue Player

This article by John Nolan appeared in the Volume 5, Edition 5 of GAMEDAY. 

First pitch is about an hour away at Parkview Field and TinCaps catcher Rodney Daal is biding time between batting practice and when he’ll crouch down behind home plate.

Wearing a navy Padres-logoed, short-sleeved Under Armor top, the 19-year old is sitting down on the carpeted floor of the clubhouse’s lounge area. Rodney’s back is up against the beige wall with his legs extended to serve as a prop for his Macbook. With red Beats headphones on, he’s laughing uncontrollably during a Skype session with a friend back home in Amsterdam. Rodney’s speaking Dutch.

After saying “doei” (that’s goodbye) to his friend on the computer, Rodney is now putting his TinCaps uniform on over his almost entirely inked arms, chest, back, and neck. Reggaeton music blares from the clubhouse speakers. As he rocks his curly-haired head back and forth, he doesn’t miss a lyric. “¡Rompe! ¡Rompe!” Rodney’s singing in Spanish.

Now suited up for the game, Rodney goes over to the locker of the night’s starting pitcher to discuss strategy. “Let’s get it,” he says to end their chat. Rodney’s speaking English.

In less than 10 minutes, Rodney has showcased his proficiency in three of what he says are four and-a-half languages he can speak fluently. There’s also Papiamento — the Spanish-based creole language spoken in his dad’s native Curaçao — and German. (German’s the one Rodney says he’s only half-fluent in after studying it in school.) Though stats indicate the average person speaks less than two languages proficiently, Rodney is a multilingual and doesn’t think much of it.

Credit: Jeff Nycz, Mid-South Images

Credit: Jeff Nycz, Mid-South Images

“It’s easy for me,” Rodney casually says of his lingual versatility. “I just pick them up real quick.”

And as a result, Rodney is the most cosmopolitan player in Fort Wayne this season. In a clubhouse that already has had players from seven different countries, the affable catching prospect can communicate, and laugh, with them all.

“I listen to Spanish music. I watch TV in English. When I chat with my friends, I talk in Dutch and Papiamento,” Rodney says. “So I talk everything except German regularly.”

It’s that kind of constant immersion in languages that led Rodney to learn them in the first place. Back in the Netherlands, Dutch was what he heard and spoke most often. But while Rodney’s mother Mieke is Dutch, his father Ritchie came from Curaçao — a country of about 140,000 off the Venezuelan coast. Ritchie taught Rodney Papiamento.

Even though it wasn’t the common language in his house, English was simple enough for Rodney to pick up as a kid, too. Thanks to the reach of American culture in the Netherlands, Rodney watched Nickelodeon and MTV shows to enhance his English education in school. From a young age, he also developed an appreciation for American rappers like Tupac and Eminem.

Credit: Jeff Nycz, Mid-South Images

Credit: Jeff Nycz, Mid-South Images

Spanish, though, wasn’t on Rodney’s radar until he moved from the Netherlands to Arizona in 2011 to begin his professional career with the Padres’ organization.

“I learned Spanish my first year after I got signed because I couldn’t communicate with the Latin pitchers,” Rodney says, recalling his difficulties catching for Genison Reyes in particular.

The Dominican right-hander, who was again teammates with Rodney on the TinCaps earlier this season, possessed a fastball in the mid-90s then, but couldn’t speak English.

“Reyes threw so hard,” Rodney remembers. “It was hard to catch him already. And then I couldn’t communicate with him. It made it harder. When I went out to talk to him, I just couldn’t explain things to him. I realized I had to do something, so that’s what led me to learn Spanish.”

Like with English, Rodney used music to aid his development in the language. He also relied on his Dominican teammates to answer questions he had about certain translations.

At this point, Rodney’s relationship with his Spanish-speaking teammates is reciprocal. They continue to help him stay fluent in Spanish, while now he’s often relied upon as a translator for them to interpret English. Whether on the field or dealing with media, the multi-lingual Rodney is a liaison.

Ruben Mejia, who’s in his third season as a pitcher for the Padres after moving to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic, speaks English rather well. Still, he says he appreciates having Rodney around to avoid potential confusion.

“When we don’t understand (pitching coach Burt Hooton), Rodney tells us what we need to know,” Ruben says. “And if someone (who can’t speak much English) has an interview, then he helps them with that, too.”

Whether it’s a mound-visit from “Hoot” or manager José Valentín (who’s also a dual-speaker in Spanish and English), Rodney regularly translates the instructions for the entire defense.

Credit: Brad Hand

Credit: Brad Hand

Ironically, though, Rodney’s teammate Walker Weickel points out that the most important language Rodney knows isn’t English, Spanish, Dutch, Papiamento, or German.

“It’s nice that he’s able to speak five languages, but really, the only language he needs to speak as a catcher is sign language,” says the 19-year old pitcher. “So as long as he knows that, then he can work well with pitchers.”

But Weickel, who grew up in Florida and occasionally pitched to primarily Spanish-speaking catchers in showcase tournaments, also acknowledges that Rodney’s communication skills are a benefit to the staff. As is his personality.

Earlier this season after the TinCaps clinched a berth in the Midwest League Playoffs, it was Rodney who stepped into the center of the team’s celebratory circle and danced like he was in a club, not a clubhouse. Perhaps fittingly given his propensity for tongues, on Star Wars Theme Night at Parkview Field, it was Rodney who easily delivered the best Chewbacca impersonation on the video board.

And while no one understood him then, his dialogue with pitchers throughout the season has come across crystal clear.

“I think communication is a big part of the game, especially for a pitcher and a catcher,” Rodney says. “They have such a close relationship, it’s essential.”

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