Mariners' Andrés Muñoz made learning English a priority. He's inspiring kids to do the same.

Adam Jude, The Seattle Times on

Published in Baseball

They met in the summer of 2017 near the bullpen at Gesa Stadium in Pasco, Wash.

Andrés Muñoz was the reluctant student.

Miguel Angel Taboada Catalan was the eager teacher.

They shared a Mexican heritage and a love of baseball. They would soon connect over a shared second language.

At the time, Muñoz was an 18-year-old, flame-throwing pitcher for the Tri-City Dust Devils, and Taboada Catalan can still picture the radar gun readings that flashed on the stadium scoreboard throughout that summer.

Because there was room for only two radar-gun numbers on the board, whenever Muñoz's fastball would reach triple digits, the radar box would simply reveal a "00" or "01" to represent 100 mph or 101 mph.

One night, the scoreboard flashed "02" after a Muñoz pitch, and Taboada Catalan couldn't quite fathom what he was seeing.

Seven years later, Taboada Catalan still marvels at what he's seeing when he watches Mariners games on TV.

Muñoz, now 25, is in his fourth season pitching in Seattle. He's turned into one of the most dominant relievers in MLB, making a strong bid for his first All-Star selection this summer.

Beyond that, Taboada Catalan said he's just as impressed with the work Muñoz has put in to learn the English language, so much so that over the past few weeks Muñoz has done two on-field interviews with Jen Mueller, in English, live on ROOT Sports immediately after closing out Mariners victories.

"It's been inspiring," said Taboada Catalan, a teacher at Stevens Middle School in Pasco. "For him to be giving interviews in English — man, that is amazing. For him, that can open doors to anything now."

When they met, Muñoz only spoke Spanish, and he admitted he wasn't motivated at the time to learn a new language. But Taboada Catalan was persistent, urging the young pitcher how important English would be on his path through professional baseball.

It's a similar message Taboada Catalan gives to his middle school students.

He teaches English language development, along with math and science, to students who have recently arrived in the Tri-Cities area from all parts of Latin America. Last year, Taboada Catalan was named the Pasco School District's Crystal Apple Award winner for excellence in education, and he was the school district's nominee for the state Teacher of the Year Award.

"I thank him a lot," Muñoz said. "He told me so many times why it's important. Because at that time, I didn't want to learn. I remember a lot of the times he was trying to push you to learn the language, and as soon as I realized this, I had to thank him for helping me that much."

The lessons have come full circle now.

During a class field trip to T-Mobile Park last summer, it was Muñoz reinforcing to Taboada Catalan's students why they should learn English. The trip was arranged by Yvette Yzaguirre, a senior activation specialist for the Mariners and a graduate of Stevens Middle School, who set up a Career Day event for the class before a Mariners game.


It was a chance for Muñoz to reconnect with Taboada Catalan and share his story with the students.

"To go out of his way to speak with our students before an MLB game speaks volumes about his character. He's been like that ever since I've known him," Taboada Catalan said.

Muñoz's journey, Taboada Catalan said, isn't all that different from what his students are experiencing.

"One of the biggest hesitations our students have when speaking is their accent," Taboada Catalan said. "Listening to someone like Muñoz, who is in the position he's in, doing interviews in English with an accent for the world to see and hear, [that] made our students more willing to speak and be less self conscious about their accents. Some of the kids who heard Muñoz speak that day are currently enrolled in English classes now and they're excelling. Muñoz has some part in that, whether he knows it or not."

Muñoz was in middle school when he left home at age 14 to sign with a professional baseball academy in Oaxaca, Mexico. It was a 20-plus-hour bus ride from his home in Los Mochis, Sinaloa, and he went to bed in tears his first handful of nights away from his family.

"It was really hard, because I was really young," he said. "But that's the only way the scouts are going to see you."

MLB scouts did find him. At 16, Muñoz signed with the San Diego Padres as an international free agent, for $700,000. Two years later, he arrived in Pasco to play for the Dust Devils, a Padres Class-A affiliate. And in 2020, the Padres traded him to the Mariners as part of a package for catcher Austin Nola.

When he burst onto the scene with the Mariners two years ago, Muñoz was conducting interviews in Spanish, with assistance from Freddy Llanos, the Mariners' baseball communications coordinator and Spanish interpreter.

Last year, Muñoz made the effort to do his interviews in English, and that's continued on. Llanos still stands nearby — in case Muñoz needs to clarify a reporter's question or for confirmation on his use of a specific word — but Muñoz has grown comfortable talking on his own.

"He always jokes with me, 'It depends how I wake up in the morning; I might leave my English at home,'" Llanos said. "The biggest thing for him is confidence. Initially, he wanted me there to do the whole thing with him, and now he's out there doing live interviews on TV. It's been really impressive."

Muñoz is particularly thoughtful, too. After just about every interview, he'll make sure to ask the reporter: Was that OK? Did I answer your question?

"You can tell he cares a lot about it," Llanos said.

Muñoz learned mostly by having conversations with teammates, and the downtime in the bullpen early in games became a classroom.

Over the past couple years, he spent a lot of time with fellow relievers Diego Castillo and Penn Murfee; Muñoz and Castillo would teach Murfee some Spanish, and Murfee would help them with English.

"That was the most important thing to me — to connect with my teammates, be able to talk to them, something I didn't do before," Muñoz said. "And I hope that is good for other people to know, like how important it is to speak this language. Because we're playing here, so we have to understand their language."

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