Byline: Bryan Mullen, Times-Union sports writer
Chin-Feng Chen playfully speaks Taiwanese to some confused teammates who nod as if they know what he's saying. A few lockers down, Adrian Burnside talks English at such a blistering pace in his Australian accent that he sounds as foreign as Chen. Across the room Pedro Feliciano and Jorge Nunez banter in Spanish. Then there's Canadian-born Phil Devey joking around in French.
The eclectic chatter in the Jacksonville Suns locker room is music to manager John Shoemaker. For, despite language barriers and cultural differences, the Suns have established themselves as the Southern League's most dominant team.
"In the end, baseball is a universal language," second baseman Joe Thurston said. "We all talk the same language on the field."
Jacksonville has a 67-40 record, the best in the minor leagues, and won the Eastern Division first-half title, qualifying them for postseason play. The Suns, with an 8 1/2-game lead over Greenville with 31 games remaining, are also in prime position to win the second half
For Shoemaker, a diverse roster is no problem. He is known as a player's coach, and that translates in any language. Besides, this group is not dramatically different than others he has managed.
"If you walked out onto the street and picked out 25 people, they still would have different backgrounds and personality types," Shoemaker said. "You might have someone who is very outgoing, and maybe someone else who is real shy. So when you get a group of baseball players from different countries, it's the same."
One player is Taiwanese, one is Australian, one is South African. Another is from Canada. Three are from the Dominican Republic. Baseball is a common denominator, and in this melting pot of a locker room that seems to be enough.
"If you're not on a baseball team, and you know someone who is Latin or Taiwanese, you don't have to go talk to that person if you don't want to. But in baseball, if you want to be a team, if you want to win, you better try and talk to everyone on your team. Baseball is all about communication."
Even Thurston, an American, sometimes struggles with that part. He and Nunez, who play second and short, respectively, appear to be best friends on the field, laughing and making fun of each other. But their camaraderie often stops at the foul lines.
"You don't like to see just the Dominicans or Latino guys stay to themselves, but they kind of have to because they can't communicate with anyone else," Thurston said. "The hardest part comes when I want to have fun. I try to have fun the whole time I'm on the field. If Jorge or myself isn't having a good day, I want to be able to talk about things other than baseball to try and keep it light. But I can't joke about things because Jorge may not be able to understand me. …