Burt Hooton’s Spanish has made him an invaluable asset
Twice per day during a typical home game, Burt Hooton walks out of the first-base dugout in Fort Wayne, Indiana, towards the on-field bullpen nestled just inside foul territory. On days where the Tin Caps are wearing their home green jerseys, his sun-faded green hat appears less vibrant. The hue represents experience more than a lack of concern for matching of colors.
Hooton is almost 70 years old. He’s clean shaven with bright blue eyes, often hidden by thin-framed glasses that darken with the summer sun. His speech is slow and direct, with an accent consistent with his South Texas roots. He considers himself “easy-going, happy, and contented,” but his laid-back demeanor is most apparent when interacting with him. Some might even consider him unenthusiastic, but he prides himself on a consistent emotional level.
On August 4, the first of Hooton’s two walks is to watch the Padres 18-year-old righty Luis Patiño throw his scheduled bullpen. Patiño has a small, 6-foot frame that appears larger with a chest-high leg kick. The motion is often compared to Padres top pitching prospect MacKenzie Gore, who is sitting on a bench behind the bullpen mound to watch Patiño throw.
Patiño throws a few pitches off the mound slightly below maximum effort. He wears a gold chain that stands out against a black t-shirt, catching the sunlight with every contortion of his body. Hooton is initially silent, watching Patiño work through his repertoire of pitches. Then he chimes in, speaking to Patiño in fluent Spanish and miming the pitcher’s follow-through as he appears to critique where Patiño’s momentum takes his body after releasing a pitch. For the rest of the bullpen the two communicate in Patiño’s native language.
“Burt’s Spanish is great, it’s better than my English I think,” said Patiño two weeks after his August 4 bullpen at Parkview Field. “He’s bilingual, he has two languages because he has good, good Spanish.”
Nearly 30 percent of players on Opening Day major league rosters in 2017 were born outside of the United States. The majority of those players are from countries where Spanish is the dominant language.
In early 2016, MLB and the players union made it a requirement for all 30 major league teams to hire a full-time Spanish language interpreter for players. A spokesman for the players union called the policy a “positive and necessary step” to improving players’ work environment.
In the minor leagues, no such policy exists. The average minor league system is over six teams deep, creating logistical difficulties for filling each level with a professional interpreter. Spanish-speaking coaches are common, but skills with the language can vary. This creates situations where specialized pitching or hitting coaches aren’t able to communicate as effectively as they could.
The Padres have one of the strongest bases of young pitching talent from Latin America in the minor leagues. Hooton’s knowledge of Spanish is an invaluable asset to the Padres as they grow and develop the team’s next wave of stars.
“Over my lifetime,” Hooton said in regards to when he learned Spanish. “I grew up in South Texas, we took Spanish in elementary school, took it in high school, I actually took it in college, never really used it then, didn’t realize how much I learned or how much remembered until I went to the Dominican Republic in 1974. And all the sudden, you’re kind of immersed in it and it just all started coming back.”
Hooton accumulated buzz as a pitcher after three All-American seasons for the University of Texas from 1969 to 1971. The Cubs drafted him second overall in 1971 and he spun a no-hitter in his fourth-career start. After a stellar debut, Hooton ran into a few years of regression forcing him to the bullpen in 1974.
According to former ESPN.com writer Rob Neyer, Dodgers legend Tommy Lasorda coached for Los Angeles Dodgers when he came across Hooton pitching out of the bullpen for the Cubs. Lasorda remembered Hooton’s collegiate pedigree, which contrasted his 4.80 ERA that season.
After Hooton’s poor showing in his fourth year with the Cubs, Lasorda invited Hooton to play on his Dominican Winter League team after the 1974 season ended. Lasorda said in his book The Artful Dodger with David Fisher, “I worked [Hooton] that winter as hard as I’ve ever worked anybody.”
“You’re kind of immersed in [Spanish] there and it just all started coming back,” Hooton said about the Dominican Republic. “A winter there, playing with Latin [Americans], becoming a coach, coaching two winters in Mexico, [I] just kind of picked it up over the years.”
Hooton’s trip to the Dominican Republic not only helped spark his familiarity with the Spanish language, but may have rebuilt his career, with Lasorda acting as the architect.
The Dodgers ended up trading for Hooton in 1975 and Lasorda earned a spot managing the Dodgers September 1976. Hooton posted five consecutive sub-4.00 ERA seasons after the trade.
After retiring in 1985, Hooton progressed into coaching. His first role came in 1988 with the Dodgers Class A affiliate. In the following years, he moved to Double-A, Triple-A, the major leagues with the Astros, and returned to the University of Texas for a few seasons. The Fort Wayne Tin Caps became his home in 2013.
Thirty years of experience coaching on top of a 15-year playing career allowed Hooton to develop a coaching style.
“Guys coming into pro ball have a lot to learn.” Hooton said. “Most of it is between their ears, so that’s where I go first.”
Patiño recalled a recent conversation where Hooton emphasized working on the mental approach to throwing each pitch. He came to the Padres with a fastball, curveball and changeup. The organization wanted him to incorporate a slider, which caused him to lose spin and feel on his curveball. He has been working with Hooton on regaining form with his curveball ever since.
“Burt says, ‘You need to work more on your mentality, your focus when you throw a pitch that you deliver it [where you want],” Patiño said. “Burt is always telling me I can do anything, I just need to focus.”
Targeting the mental aspect of a pitcher’s game is Hooton’s speciality. His ability to speak Spanish allows for teaching independent of language.
“[Spanish] helps tremendously because some of them don’t speak English at all,” Hooton said. “And you still have to be able to communicate what you’re talking about.”
Hooton is also aware of the Padres affinity for international talent like Patiño.
“If you’re going to sign a lot of Latin players,” Hooton said. “I think you need a lot of people who can help them communicate. To me, a lot of the [international players] that do the best are the ones that can speak both languages and have taken the time to learn both languages.”
In the Winter of 2016, MLB and the players union agreed on a portion of the league’s collective bargaining agreement dictating no team could exceed its signing bonus pool, of which none were greater than $5.75 million with periodic increases over time. The 2016-2017 international signing window would be the last in the era of cash-infused rebuilds for a very long time.
The Padres took advantage by spending nearly $80 million, nearly triple the amount spent by the second biggest spender (Atlanta Braves, $27 million).
Patiño signed in the 2016 class along with phenoms Adrian Morejon and Michel Baez. Other players were signed from Cuba, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Nearly all of the signees have passed or will pass through Fort Wayne, where Hooton will greet them in their native language.
“This team believes in Latin guys,” Patiño said.
Lasorda sarcastically gave Hooton the nickname “happy” back in the late 1970’s, and for years it stuck. Hooton says he hasn’t been called “happy” in a while. When asked Patiño if he knew of the nickname, he misinterpreted the sarcasm within the joke.
“I’ve never heard that, but I believe it,” Patiño said. “Burt always has a smile on his face, always. He never is angry, never.”
After explaining the sarcasm to Patiño, he clarified his answer.
“He [doesn’t] have a smile on his [lips],” Patiño said pointing at his dimples before moving his fingers to his eyes. “He’s always serious, but you look at [his] eyes and he’s happy.”
Talking to Patiño and observing how Hooton works with pitchers shows how invaluable communication and relationships are to the Padres young international talent.
Patiño will likely start 2019 a level above Fort Wayne after a stellar 2018. His time with Hooton will be reduced to phone calls and occasional interactions during spring training. However, the impact Hooton had on Patiño’s career will extend far beyond their days in Fort Wayne.
“For me he’s like a grandfather on this team,” said Patiño. “I’ll miss him, I’ll miss him a lot.”