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As Latino Clout in St. Louis Grows, the Cardinals Test a Spanish-Language Broadcast

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The rain is a bad sign.

Clouds have hovered all day over St. Louis, but of course they've waited until now, less than two hours before the Cardinals-Pirates game, to open up. A cold drizzle falls on Busch Stadium as Brenda Garcia, husband Tony and DJ Tiburon from her Spanish-language radio station hustle to set up their booth in a corner of the upper walkway.

"Tiburon, make the rain go away," Garcia says.

She eyes the gray skies from beneath La Ke Buena Radio's pop-up tent, arranging tiny flags from a dozen Latin countries on a folding table. It's the last night of September, and what happens during tonight's game will factor into calculations that could extend well beyond baseball.

For the first time in team history, the Cardinals will be airing two home games in Spanish, and La Ke Buena is making it happen. The inaugural broadcast was the night before and produced an especially poignant moment.

Former big leaguer Bengie Molina was calling the game alongside veteran play-by-play man Polo Ascencio when his younger brother, Cards catcher Yadier Molina, came to bat in the bottom of the fifth inning. Yadi hit a home run to left and then pointed up to his oldest brother while running the bases. In the broadcast booth, Ascencio shouted, "Se va! Se va!" (the Spanish equivalent of "Going, going... ") while an overjoyed Bengie Molina tried not to leap out of his seat. A replay of the call was later aired on the televised English-language broadcast.

It was a golden start for the groundbreaking broadcast, and clips of the moment are still spinning around the internet. Tonight will be an even bigger event if it stops raining. The Cardinals are calling it Fiesta Cardenales.

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, the team is hosting a pregame party on the upper balcony in the southeast corner of the stadium. The president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is scheduled to throw out the first pitch. There are plans for Latin-themed giveaways and free "Cardenales" T-shirts. Flamenco dancers and a performer on stilts pick their way across the wet cement.

Everything is ready to go, in fact, except the field. Members of the Cardinals grounds crew jog out onto the grass and drag the tarp over the infield. There's less than two hours until the game is set to start.

The team from Ke Buena is exhausted. The first broadcast was an all-day affair, and today has been just as grueling. The sound engineer had stayed up until 3:30 a.m. editing commercials to use during tonight's game. Garcia reconvened the group at 7:30 a.m. at Busch so they could do the station's morning show live from the stadium. They followed up with an afternoon show that ended just before 3 p.m. After a quick bite to eat, everyone returns to set up the tent for the fiesta and prepare the broadcast booth for tonight's game.

It's more than the long hours wearing them out. There is the stress of doing something they've never done before and a sense of responsibility to get this right. St. Louis' Hispanic and Latino population has traditionally been a small and often overlooked part of the metro area. Garcia remembers the culture shock of moving here with her husband eighteen years ago from Texas.

"When we went to the mall and we saw another Hispanic, it was like 'Oh, my God, it's another Hispanic,'" she says.

That's changed in recent years with a spike in new residents. Garcia, a 45-year-old serial entrepreneur, now runs a cluster of family businesses in a strip mall on the border of Bridgeton and St. Ann that cater to the growing Latino community. She and Tony own the popular restaurant La Tejana, which shares space with their liquor store. Next door is the family's grocery store, and Garcia does taxes from her offices at the other end of the complex. More recently, they've branched into media with a newspaper, El Hispano, and the radio station, which streams online at kebuena1510stl.com.

As successful as these enterprises have been, the broadcasts are possibly Garcia's most high-profile venture yet. They reach beyond her family and customers, beyond U.S. Census numbers, beyond even the region's Spanish speakers. They demonstrate that the city's favorite team, the most popular brand in town, has recognized it needs to take notice.

The rain breaks shortly before game time, and the grounds crew hauls away the tarp. Garcia's marketing director, her 29-year-old son Kyle Garcia, ducks into the broadcast booth to get ready.

"It's history," he says.

Oscar (left) and Alberto Pasadas run a Latino baseball league in St. Charles County. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • Oscar (left) and Alberto Pasadas run a Latino baseball league in St. Charles County.

Baseball will always be baseball, but every culture adopts its rhythms and rituals in its own way. From Red Sox fans singing "Sweet Caroline" at full volume to Dodgers fans dressed in Lucha Libre wrestling masks, the game has proved amazingly receptive to fans' adaptations and celebrations.

On the Sunday before La Ke Buena's broadcast, dozens of baseball devotees drive back roads to a baseball diamond carved from the farmland of rural St. Charles County. Here at Josephville Ballpark, the Mineros are battling the Venados in a best-of-three series for the championship of the St. Louis-area Latin Baseball League.

The players are mostly young men, but there is no real age limit. Teens suit up alongside middle-aged dads. Their families fill the wooden bleachers or perch on the tailgates of pickup trucks parked along the fence lines. Oscar Posadas, 40, and his brother are running the league for the first time this year after a predecessor bowed out.

The brothers' team, Toros, had been expected to challenge a squad of Nicaraguan players for the crown of the six-team league, but both ballclubs were knocked out by underdogs. On this Sunday, the Posadases have just come to watch and talk baseball.

"No excuses," Oscar Posadas says of the Toros' late-season defeat. "They had a really good pitcher."

Ten years ago, this league would have been impossible. Posadas used to play in the old Eastern Missouri Baseball Association, and his team was the only Latino one in the league, he says. By that he means they had a number of Hispanic players, but it wasn't even enough for a full roster.

Hispanic and Latino residents accounted for just 1.5 percent of St. Charles County's population in the 2000 U.S. Census. The numbers jumped to 2.8 percent in 2010 and an estimated 3.2 percent in 2015. Anna Crosslin, president and CEO of the International Institute, says Hispanic immigration routes or "flow patterns" traditionally split off south of St. Louis in Missouri's bootheel, with one path running into Illinois toward the Metro East or Chicago. Another has tracked west toward agricultural areas of Nebraska and Iowa. St. Louis historically has gotten skipped.

And cross-country migration from the West Coast often pools in Kansas City, giving it a Hispanic population roughly twice the size of the one in St. Louis, says Crosslin, whose organization offers a wide variety of resettlement and other services to refugees and immigrants from its headquarters in the Tower Grove East neighborhood.

"What that means is we have to work harder to attract immigrants than other cities that are naturally in the flow pattern," Crosslin says.

Jorge Riopedre, president of multiservice health clinic Casa de Salud, looks at a recent spike of foreign-born residents in the St. Louis area as a key to the metro's economic future. A constellation of organizations are working to keep it going, he says, and the popularity of the Cardinals is important.

"What brand in St. Louis exceeds the Cardinals in feel-good?" he asks. "The stamp of approval in a city that asks where you went to high school is a big thing."

Rural areas surrounding the city have begun to show growth in permanent residents and also seasonal workers. A good chunk of Garcia's tax business now comes from visa workers who arrive to work during the growing season and go home in the winters. One of the teams in the Latin Baseball League, the Sinaloa Cañeros, comprises entirely visa workers, Posadas says.

It doesn't happen as much anymore, but he has known lots of people who immigrated to the United States only to return home later out of feelings of isolation in a foreign culture. Posadas himself was raised in the baseball-mad village of Pucuato in a mountainous region of the Mexican state of Michoacán. He left home nearly two decades ago, bouncing between Georgia and Chicago before his job as a supervisor in a chain of Mexican restaurants took him to Belleville, Illinois.

He married a local girl, and when the restaurant shut down, he stayed. He now owns a landscaping business and lives a short drive from the Josephville field in O'Fallon.

The Latin league formed to fill a gap in the region's rec leagues. Posadas says he and his brother enjoyed the competitiveness of the established leagues, but it wasn't the game they remembered from home. There always seemed to be some politicking over the operations, and teams paid as much as $3,000 to play seven-inning games during a short season.

"No, this is not baseball for us," Posadas says they decided.

The Latino league teams kick in $800 each for fifteen weeks of regular-season baseball. A string of nine-inning games begin in the morning and last late into the night. Between games, the players, fans and umpires eat tacos fresh off the griddle and cupfuls of chopped papaya, watermelon and cantaloupe spiced with Tajin seasoning and lime juice. It's like Field of Dreams rewritten in Spanish.

A handful of Major League teams are represented on the hats and T-shirts of the faithful at Josephville, but the Cardinals are easily the favorite. Little kids in Molina jerseys play catch in the grassy parking lot, and the men discuss the probability of the team making the playoffs. When the games are broadcast in Spanish the following week, Posadas says, they'll be listening.

"Absolutely," he says. "Most of these guys, they're big fans of the game."

Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez with Carlos "Carlitos" Posadas. - COURTESY OF OSCAR POSADAS
  • COURTESY OF OSCAR POSADAS
  • Cardinals pitcher Carlos Martinez with Carlos "Carlitos" Posadas.

They're still buzzing about the day a couple of weeks before when Cardinals star Carlos Martinez visited the rural park. They explain that the ferocious right-hander posed for pictures with little kids and kicked back among the shade trees. Then Martinez, who'd apparently come at the invitation of some Dominican players on one of the teams, asked why no one had told him about the league earlier.

"I would have come to hang out on my days off," he told them.

To Posadas, the 25-year-old seemed happy just to relax away from the spotlight for an afternoon.

"He's so young," Posadas says, "and his job is very serious."

Announcer Polo Ascencio emcees a Q and A with Spanish-speaking Cardinals players (from left) Miguel Socolovich, Brayan Pena and Alex Reyes. - PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Announcer Polo Ascencio emcees a Q and A with Spanish-speaking Cardinals players (from left) Miguel Socolovich, Brayan Pena and Alex Reyes.

Baseball sounds different in Spanish, Polo Ascencio says. "Sometimes, when you broadcast in Spanish you get away with, not bad words, but a little more spice, a little more salsa," he says.

The longtime announcer flew in from Los Angeles to call the games at Busch. Both Ascencio and Bengie Molina arrive at the stadium about four hours before game time to prepare. They're still amped up from the night before. Not only did Yadi hit that fifth-inning home run — he smacked a walk-off double in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Cincinnati Reds 4-3.

"It was such an amazing feeling," Bengie Molina says. "It's hard to explain it — joy going through your veins."

"Una noche histórica" is the way Ascencio describes it.

Both men are hoping the Spanish broadcasts are more than a one-time promotion for the Cardinals. The Hispanic community in St. Louis may be small, but it's part of a Midwest market that's growing rapidly. Ascencio is used to working Dodgers games back in California, where he estimates 50 to 60 percent of the fans are Hispanic. St. Louis is "totally different," he says, but there is a lot of potential. Fans across Mexico, including Ascencio's family in Tijuana, streamed the inaugural Spanish broadcast the night before, and he believes more fans will follow if they can hear and understand the game in their native language.

"I know it's just two games, but you have to start somewhere," he says.

Molina says he had family from Puerto Rico to Pennsylvania listening the night before. Like Ascencio, he spent most of his career on the West Coast. He accepted a position as an assistant hitting coach for the Cardinals after his retirement but has spent this season at home in Arizona while his wife recovers from hip-replacement surgery.

He looks out the windows of the broadcast booth where his kid nephew, Yadi's son, is bounding around the infield in a miniature jersey.

"He'll probably be a first-rounder pretty soon," Molina quips.

La Ke Buena owner Brenda Garcia works with her sound engineer during the broadcast. - PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • La Ke Buena owner Brenda Garcia works with her sound engineer during the broadcast.

As he did last night, Molina will serve as the color man or analyst during the broadcast, dropping in to explain intricacies of the game or add context to Ascencio's rolling play-by-play. The Ke Buena team had to adjust its timing on the fly during the first broadcast to accommodate subtle differences in the way the game translates into Spanish. Differences in syntax and cadence tend to make Spanish utterances take longer, Kyle Garcia explains.

"A sentence I say in English might take me four seconds, but to say the same sentence in Spanish could be like eight seconds," he says.

It might seem like a small thing, but it can wreak havoc on a broadcast that's been mapped out with precisely timed commercial breaks. Brenda Garcia and the rest of the crew scrambled throughout the previous night's game to solve the problem, but managed to keep everything flowing through Yadi's final, thrilling hit.

Tonight, Garcia is worried about a link on the Ke Buena website. Although her crew is producing the broadcast, it's actually airing on a Major League Baseball app and a KMOX sister station because of licensing contracts. She's heard some listeners hoping to stream the game somehow missed the giant "ESUCHA EN VIVO" heading that redirects them from Ke Buena's site and clicked on the wrong spot. She has their web developer add "ESUCHA AQUI" tab with bright red arrows pointing in the right direction.

These types of behind-the-scenes headaches would easily be worked out during the early days of a season, but Garcia doesn't have a full season. She has two games to make this a success.

"My head is pounding," she says when she finally has a moment's break.

She sets up in a rolling chair at the back of the booth, where she can quickly wheel between her sound engineer and another crew member, who will record the game and edit highlights from the broadcast for replays. Molina and Ascencio settle into their places in front of the window, and the Cardinals run onto the field. Martinez is pitching. Ascencio leans into the mic.

"En Busch Stadium," he begins, "Polo Ascencio y Bengie Molina... "

Fiesta Cardenales is underway.

La Ke Buena DJs Tiburon (left) and Rubén Pérez (center) meet Fredbird on September 30 on the infield at Busch Stadium. - PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • La Ke Buena DJs Tiburon (left) and Rubén Pérez (center) meet Fredbird on September 30 on the infield at Busch Stadium.

Business will always be business, and every culture adapts its rhythms and rituals to harness its power.

Garcia tried for three years to persuade the Cardinals to broadcast games in Spanish before the organization agreed. In her day-to-day business, she was seeing the rising economic power of her community and the potential for so much more.

After decades of residents of other racial and ethnic groups draining out of the city by the thousands, Hispanics and Latinos have begun moving in, a trend expected to continue.

"We wouldn't be doing all that we're doing if we didn't think that it was growing," she says one afternoon, a few weeks before the broadcasts.

There are now about 2,000 businesses across the metro that are owned by Hispanics and Latinos, says Karlos Ramirez, the president and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He is only the second paid leader of the chamber in the organization's 34-year history. Raised in Chicago, he moved to St. Louis a little more than five years ago from San Antonio.

The Cardinals, unsurprisingly, were on his radar from the day he arrived, but he wanted to build and strengthen the chamber before pitching the team on any partnerships. Even with the recent growth of the Hispanic community, it sometimes gets overlooked because residents are scattered across the city and county instead of concentrated in identifiable neighborhoods, like they often are in other cities.

Finally, this year, he had the numbers he wanted to make the case that it would be a good business decision for the Cardinals to become more involved with his chamber and the larger Hispanic and Latino community.

Fans braved the rain to watch Fiesta Cardinales. - PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Fans braved the rain to watch Fiesta Cardinales.

It's clearly to the chamber's benefit to bond with St. Louis' most popular organization, but Ramirez believes it's good business for the team, too.

"To be honest, I think it's a two-way street," he says. "I think the Hispanic population in the St. Louis metro is such an untapped market, they would actually be missing something by not catering to us. It's a population that hasn't been necessarily prevalent in their stadium, so for them to tap into that ensures they're going to continue to have sellouts."

It's business, and even a lifelong Cubs fan like Ramirez can appreciate what it means to have the hometown team on your side. He remembers the day he had to straighten out his Cubs-loving brothers during a game at Busch.

"They started booing the Cardinals," Ramirez recalls. "I said, 'Hey, if you're going to come here for a game with me, you're not going to boo the Cardinals, because if it's good for the Cardinals, it's good for the region. If it's good for the region, it's good for me, and if it's good for me, it's good for you, so shut up.'"

The Cardinals have been receptive, taking baby steps toward courting more Hispanic fans. The team has begun posting videos in Spanish on its website, and it launched @cardenales, a Spanish-language Twitter account, in August.

In a news release announcing @cardenales, the team pointed to a nine-state regional market with more than a million Spanish speakers as one of the reasons for the move.

"The Cardinals also hope to reach fans in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the largest insular territory of the United States, and internationally in Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and other Spanish-speaking nations in Latin America," the team said in the release.

Fiesta Cardenales, coupled with the Spanish-language broadcasts in September, were to be part of the campaign. Ke Buena began to spread the word weeks ahead of the games through on-air promotions and advertisements on its website.

By the time of the annual Mexican Independence Day celebration on Cherokee Street, held on September 18, excitement has begun to build among Spanish-speaking Cards fans. The event draws thousands to the neighborhood, one of the city's only recognizable Hispanic business districts.

Ke Buena's DJ Tiburon has picked up a side gig as emcee for one of the evening's prime events: the smashing of a Donald Trump piñata. He moved to St. Louis eleven years ago after a couple of years in San Diego. Back then, he worked at a Wendy's in south city, picking up English from his Bosnian coworkers. Because the Cardinals were unavoidable, he eventually became a baseball fan, too.

"I would say I'm a 70 percent fan," says Tiburon, whose real name is Heriberto Amezcua. "But I love the Cardinals. They're a great organization."

Around the corner from the "El Trumpo Takes a Thumpo" festivities, 47-year-old Gernaro Gomez eats a plateful of tacos as he takes in the crowd. He wears a Cardinals cap in addition to his cowboy boots, jeans and Western-style shirt. He's lived in St. Louis about three years and speaks little English, but he goes to as many games at Busch as he can. He's looking forward to the upcoming broadcasts as his first opportunity to really hear his favorite team.

"I'm happy to see them," he says in Spanish. "Now to understand is going to be a whole new experience."

Polo Ascencio calls the Cardinals-Pirates game in Spanish. - PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Polo Ascencio calls the Cardinals-Pirates game in Spanish.

The broadcast rolls smoothly through the first three innings. Garcia is locked in, sliding her office chair back and forth between the sound engineer and audio producer while Kyle Garcia delivers printed scripts for commercials one at a time to Ascencio and Molina.

She keeps an eye on Ke Buena's social media; comments from listeners have begun to flow in. One fan writes of listening from Cancun, and Garcia beams.

"I got goose bumps," she says.

As much as Garcia and Ke Buena want to make sure everything goes well, the Cardinals are also tracking the broadcast. A team sales rep — a pleasant but firm woman in a quilted red vest, carrying a floral notebook — pops in every inning or so to monitor their progress.

"Don't forget your station IDs," she says during an early game check-in. Garcia smiles brightly and assures her they won't.

In the bottom of the third, Cardinals power hitter Jedd Gyorko smacks a 393-foot home run over the left-field wall. The solo home run puts the Cardinals ahead 1-0. If that's all the scoring they do, it could be the play of the game, and that could be a problem. Ke Buena's Rubén Pérez has been working on editing highlights, but he doesn't like the sound quality when he checks the recording. He switches to a different laptop, and then back to the original while consulting with Garcia. He spends the next two innings working with the different computers, trying to salvage something he likes.

A crowd of 43,070 people fills the stands. Aside from the broadcast, this is a big game for the Cardinals. They're trailing the San Francisco Giants by a game in the standings, and if they have any hope of reaching the playoffs, they need to win.

The players feel the pressure. Carlos Martinez is pitching, and any of the easygoing vibe he showed a few weeks ago in Josephville has burned away under the lights of Busch Stadium. He looks almost angry as he strikes out one hitter after another. When he bats in the fifth inning and strikes out, he whips his body around and smashes the barrel of his bat into the dirt.

The score is still 1-0 when the Cardinals come to bat in the bottom of the sixth inning. This is Yadi's series. He hits a double, driving in a run, and then scores when Stephen Piscotty hits another double. By the time the inning is over, the Cardinals have scored four runs and taken a 5-0 lead.

The Cards sales rep pokes her head in the door, this time to celebrate. She mouths "that was awesome!" to Garcia, and they share a silent cheer as Pérez, grateful for a slew of new highlights to replace the earlier home run, works away on his laptop.

Still, the game is missing one golden play to push this beyond just an easy victory. It would be nearly impossible to top Yadi's dramatic home run and game-winning double from the night before, but the fans and crew are still waiting for one defining moment.

The best opportunity comes just an inning later. Earlier in the day, fans had learned that longtime favorite Matt Holliday wasn't likely to be coming back for the 2017 season. He'd been injured for part of the year and still wasn't in shape to retake his position in the outfield. The sixth-inning scoring, however, gives the Cardinals enough breathing room to send Holliday in as a pinch hitter without risking much. It's a gesture of respect, an opportunity for his fans to say goodbye to one of their heroes.

The crowd, knowing this could be his final at-bat for St. Louis, cheers when Holliday walks onto the field. Molina stands in the booth and claps.

Holliday takes two strikes, and then he swings at the third pitch and drives it hard to right field. The fans begin to rise as the ball sails through the air, shouting as it clears the fence for a home run. In the booth, it's impossible to hear what Ascencio and Molina are saying over the roaring crowd.

When it's quiet enough to hear again, Ascencio's voice cuts through the room.

"Es momento spectacular!" he cries.

Anything that happens now is a bonus. Garcia and crew have less than two innings to go before they can turn over the broadcast to the post-game show and go home to bed. They cruise through the rest of the seventh and close out the top of the eighth. They're almost done when the rain returns.

The umpires pause the game, and the grounds crew jogs back onto the field to roll out the tarp again. This causes a new scramble in the booth. They'll now have to fill the dead time, and they have no idea how long this delay will take. Ascencio and Molina talk the audience through what's happening while the crew pulls together interviews recorded the day before. More than 35 minutes pass before the rain finally subsides and the grounds crew drags the tarp away.

"Thank you, God," Garcia says. "Thank you."

The Cardinals play through the eighth and two outs in the top of the ninth. Most of the fans have gone home already. Sensing the end, Garcia pats her crew members on the shoulders.

Finally, more than fifteen hours after the Ke Beuna team arrived at the stadium, the Pirates' Sean Rodriguez hits a ground ball to third to end the game. It's over. Ascencio and Molina work through a couple more segments and pull off their headphones. Everyone hugs as Busch goes dark. Outside, fireworks thunder above the stadium walls.

Garcia crouches down and peers out the window. The light from the explosions reflects off the wet concrete down below. The Giants will end up winning the rest of their games and push the Cardinals out of the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Ascencio will fly back to Los Angeles, and Molina will return to Arizona. By tomorrow morning, Garcia will be back at work in La Tejana. But for a moment, it's quiet in the booth, and she stares through the glass into the night.

"I've never seen the fireworks here," she says.

Editor's note: This story was changed after publication to correct an error. Polo Ascencio has called games for the Dodgers, but not the Padres. We regret the error.

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