By NICK KELLY
ROCHESTER, Minn. (AP) — Chia-Ching Ho didn’t let the discouragement in the Rochester dugout affect his mood.
Assistant coach Thomas Walker had just finished telling his players to stop wallowing in their sorrows with the Honkers down 6-0 heading into the fourth inning of a game on June 20, the Post-Bulletin reported. As Walker spoke, the song “YMCA” started to blare over the speakers at Mayo Field.
Many players sat on the bench looking ready to call it a game, but Ho stepped onto the field. He rejected his teammates’ pessimism as he threw his arms in the air in the shape of a Y, then an M, a C and an A.
“He is one of those guys to lighten the mood,” manager Trevor Hairgrove said. “If you need a laugh, he will say something.”
Ho does this despite speaking minimal English. As a Taiwan native who came to the United States to play baseball this summer for the Honkers, he primarily speaks Mandarin.
Ho has no translator. He often communicates through the Google Translate app on his smartphone.
His limited English has not stopped Ho from endearing himself — through a jubilant personality — to teammates and coaches in less than three weeks. Learning English hasn’t come without struggles. But Ho, a pitcher, keeps perspective as he pursues a Major League Baseball career, which is the reason he is spending the summer 7,000 miles from home.
Hairgrove admitted he was scared at first to have a player who spoke a different language with no one to translate. Google Translate soon quelled his concerns. He said communication has not been an issue with Google Translate downloaded on not only his phone but also the rest of the coaches and players’ phones.
Google Translate works well as a surrogate translator when everyone has phones, but during games, players put their phones away. The Northwoods League gave the Honkers permission to use Google Translate on the mound with Ho, though.
Hairgrove has not used it yet on the mound in Ho’s three starts because Hairgrove felt Ho has understood his message each time. Ho said he only understands Hairgrove when he uses hand motions to show what he is looking for from Ho.
“You just make sure he gets the point,” Hairgrove said.
Ho is making an effort to learn English. He has added “dirt,” “grass” and “strike” among other words to his English vocabulary. He goes through the lineup cards and tries to pronounce his teammate’s names every game. Hairgrove said Ho is close to pronouncing them all correctly.
“He wants to learn every day,” Hairgrove said. “We are very fortunate and surprised to have that type of kid (who) wants to learn.”
Ho is following the advice he received from Orca Sauer, who stayed with Craig and Laurie Kellagher, Ho’s host family, when Sauer was a foreign exchange student from Hong Kong 11 years ago.
The Kellaghers asked Sauer, who can speak Mandarin, to come over for dinner when Ho arrived on June 5 so that he could be more engaged in conversation. Sauer helped make his transition easier and gave him advice so that he would not make the same mistake she did. Sauer didn’t act confidently when she spoke English shortly after she arrived.
“Don’t be afraid to speak the language and try to talk to other people,” Sauer told him. “Everybody can make mistakes, and try your best.”
When Ho can’t understand something or makes a mistake, he does not become discouraged.
Instead, he lets out a laugh that rumbles from the depths of his belly.
How he handles learning English is a microcosm of how he lives life. Ho finds joy where there is little. He derives happiness from the small things. He tries to help others experience that same delight.
“If everybody is happy, I am happy,” Ho said through Sauer.
Outfielder Weston Hatten, who also lives with the Kellaghers, sees this first hand. Ho often hops on Hatten’s back and asks for a piggy back ride. He also likes to scare Hatten. When Ho hears Hatten wake up in the morning, Ho will hide behind a corner until he can jump out and surprise Hatten. “He is a pretty fun-loving guy,” Hatten said. “He likes affection. He wants to be close with others.”
Ho likes to help others, too. Sauer wanted to get a photo with Hatten and Ho after a game earlier this season. Hatten came out of the dugout, but Ho was not with him. When Laurie Kellagher went looking for him in the dugout, she found Ho helping a teammate stretch his hamstring.
If you’re looking for Ho before a game, he is probably helping a teammate stretch or massaging a teammate’s sore muscle. Before the game on June 20, Ho massaged a tight muscle in Ethan Ibarra’s shoulder then stretched Ryan Dorney’s legs.
It’s common for teammates to come to Ho asking him to help with aches and pains. Ho almost always has a stretch or maneuver to alleviate those ailments. Hatten said every player always walks away feeling better.
Ho also provides extemporaneous massages for Craig and Laurie Kellagher at home.
“I always say if pitching doesn’t work out, he could be a massage therapist,” Laurie Kellagher said.
Whether Ho is kneading tight muscles or doing something to elicit laughter, he finds ways to put smiles on the faces of his teammates. Craig Kellagher said he was worried that the players laugh at Ho’s expense. But Ho said he could tell if they were making fun of him instead of helping him learn with his best interests in mind.
The Honkers not only teach Ho about culture in the United States, but he also educates them how to live happily like him. It’s only been three weeks since Ho arrived, but Hatten said Ho has taught him to come to the ballpark with a smile every day no matter what is going on outside of baseball.
Ho has also had an impact on Hairgrove.
“The fact he shows up smiling every day, happy, not knowing the language that well, is something I take from him every day,” Hairgrove said.
If Ho gets frustrated with adjusting to life and baseball in the United States, he looks down at the tattoo on his left arm.
It reads “don’t forget your original goal.” Ho got it in Taiwan when he was 18.
The phrase is written in English and not Mandarin because it reminds Ho of where he wants to end up — Major League Baseball.
“I don’t think he has a backup plan,” Craig Kellagher said. “He is so confident he is going to do it because he has put so much time into it.”
Baseball is Ho’s life. He has attended the National Taiwan Sports University since he was 14. Every day, Ho has to throw a baseball repetitively at a board as part of the training regimen.
“My coach is very strict,” Ho said through Google Translate.
Ho doesn’t fight it anymore, though. He likes to take part in challenging activities.
Take his recent bike ride across Taiwan, for example. He biked 15 hours per day for four days just to prove to others he could.
Ho tracks everything he accomplishes in a thin tan journal that has seen better days. He looks back in it to see his growth. If he doesn’t see much personal growth, he pushes himself more, looking for more challenging things he can do to better himself.
He tries to keep himself in the best possible shape he can. He stretches every morning. He often goes to the Rochester Athletic Club to lift weights. He doesn’t want to take any days off. He lifted the day before he pitched in his second game for the Honkers. Hairgrove had to tell him he shouldn’t do that again after Ho, to no surprise, struggled when he pitched a day after lifting.
Hairgrove said Ho has the tools he would need to succeed in the MLB, including a ball that moves “so much.” Hairgrove, who spent time in the Los Angeles Angels system, said Ho will also need to control his fastball better in addition to throwing more strikes.
Ho has shown this lack of control at times in his three starts for Rochester. He has given up 11 hits and seven earned runs in 10 innings pitched with the Honkers.
“Him being how tall he is, he has the perfect body for a pitcher,” Hairgrove said. “He just needs to get the control down and the command.”
Ho, who is 6-foot-1, will do everything he can to accomplish that command with his pitches if his prior endeavors are any indication. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to reach his original goal.
“(The MLB) is the highest temple of baseball,” Ho said. “It is what every player wants to achieve.”