What has the sitcom done for his English proficiency?
“It’s near perfect,” said Flores’s teammate, Jerry Blevins, who is from Tennessee. “When he doesn’t know something, it’s surprising.”
Flores, Peralta and Galvis built a rudimentary command of English in school in Venezuela. “But I always got bad grades because I didn’t like that way of learning,” Galvis said.
Gonzalez, who was surrounded by Spanish, his first language, at home, also had English classes in school when he moved to Southern California. Some players also received English instruction after signing with a team.
But these players said that they learned more when they arrived in the United States and fully plunged into English. In terms of immersion, few things compare to landing in a small minor-league town with few Spanish speakers — and needing to order food.
Popular culture, especially “Friends,” was education through entertainment.
“The basics you can learn in a classroom,” said Flores, who was interviewed in Spanish, along with most of the players, for ease. “But to speak the language, that comes from here in the clubhouse, on the street or from television.”
Flores said he cannot remember exactly when he first watched “Friends,” but it was sometime early in his minor league career in the United States, perhaps when he was in Class A as a teenager and far from home. Although he said he understood enough English then, he was too unsure to respond in conversation. As he grew more comfortable, he soaked up words from teammates and bought the DVD’s for all 10 seasons of “Friends,” which ran from 1994 to 2004, so he could watch it again at home in the off-season.
Now he is surely baseball’s biggest “Friends” fanatic. He has visited the studio in Burbank, Calif. where the show was filmed , and has chosen the show’s theme song to be played on the stadium public-address system when it’s his turn to bat during home games.
Flores said he still watches it almost every day, and that he had seen every episode at least seven times. “My mom thinks I watch it too much,” he said.
Gonzalez speaks perhaps the best English of this bunch because he was exposed to it at a young age growing up in San Fernando, Calif. Yet he still had help from movies and television shows, including “Saved by the Bell” — and “Friends,” which he watched with an uncle.
“That’s what he watched, so we’d sit there and watch TV with him,” Gonzalez said.
For Galvis, the English-language broadcast with Spanish subtitles on Venezuelan television, was an excellent learning tool. “You can compare what’s going on that way,” he said. “If they say ‘happy,’ you see he’s happy and the subtitle says ‘feliz’, then you can learn. You might not learn 100 percent, but you’ll learn to associate.”
And if Severino did not understand a word from the show, he would ask teammates or friends for help.
Peralta said that listening to music in English and marrying an American woman were also beneficial. He does not need subtitles anymore to watch “Friends,” and still watches it daily despite having already seen every episode.
“When we’re in Arizona, it starts at 11 p.m. on Nick at Nite, so I watch until 1 a.m. and then I go to sleep,” he said.
Most of the players said Joey, the floundering actor played by Matt LeBlanc, was their favorite character. The show’s comedy appealed to them even though — or perhaps because — the lives of six white Americans in the West Village hardly resembled their own.
The New York that Flores has come to know playing for the Mets is not like the one represented in “Friends.” “In photos, it all looks the same, but the traffic and driving around is way different,” he said.
Like Flores, Galvis is evangelical about “Friends.” He tells young Spanish-speaking players that he is living proof that consuming popular culture in English can help. And although he is now a capable English speaker, he still watches “Friends” with subtitles in Spanish so that his wife can learn English.
Marta Kauffman, one of the creators of the show, said she was delighted to hear about its unlikely and unintended impact on certain players. She compared the phenomenon to how Viagra was originally designed to treat heart problems but later was embraced for a very different purpose.
“You always want your show to be enjoyable and for people to say, ‘Oh my God, I love watching your show,’” she said. “But what you don’t expect is for it to accomplish something, and this feels mighty fine.”
Kauffman added that she would love to meet the “Friends”-loving players one day. But she offered one regret: “To the player whose wife is sick of watching it so much, I apologize.”