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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

He announces baseball games in Spanish. It is not his first language.

Bill Kulik, a Phillies Spanish language radio broadcaster, from his broadcast booth in Philadelphia.

By James Wagner

Bill Kulik is a longtime Spanish language radio broadcaster for the Philadelphia Phillies. But listeners tuning in wouldn’t always know that.

Instead of calling baseball’s championship by its Spanish name, “La Serie Mundial,” he calls it the World Series. He recently described a player’s up-and-down career as “a roller coaster” instead of “una montana rusa,” the proper phrase in Spanish. And when saying something was quite funny, he said “bien funny.”

This is the distinctive linguistic world of Kulik, a broadcaster nicknamed El Gringo Malo (The Bad Gringo), whose on-air persona is irreverent and even silly. Although most of what Kulik says in front of a microphone is in Spanish, he sprinkles in generous doses of English and Spanglish, a blending of the two languages.

Of the 16 teams — out of 30 in the MLB — with some form of a Spanish language broadcast, the Phillies’ is unlike any other, largely because of Kulik.

He was born in New Jersey, and took only one Spanish class, in high school, he said, but he first learned the language while spending nine childhood years in Colombia and Argentina, where his family lived because of his father’s work with a chemical manufacturing company.

Many listeners cheer Kulik’s style. He is, after all, in his 19th season as a member of the Phillies’ Spanish broadcasting team. But his twist has irritated some Spanish speakers and raised questions about language and culture in a country with roughly 63 million Latinos.

Kulik — whose radio partner, Oscar Budejen, is a native Spanish speaker — makes mistakes in Spanish, stumbles over a pronunciation or sometimes makes literal interpretations that don’t quite mean the same. He turns to English to better convey certain thoughts or facts.

He deliberately uses Spanglish, he said, in part to better connect with the many Puerto Ricans in the Philadelphia area and with newer generations of Latinos in the United States who have grown up speaking both languages.

“There is no way we are going to appease everybody,” said Kulik, 61. “Oscar is going to give you more of the old school and the Gringo Malo is going to bring you the new school. And hopefully in between, you’re going to like our broadcast because we’re going to be different.”

Of the 6 million people in the Philadelphia region, an estimated 11% are Latino, with Puerto Ricans representing the largest group. As the number of Latinos in the United States has soared, the percentage of Latinos age 5 and older who speak English proficiently at home has also grown, while the percentage who speak Spanish at home has declined, according to the Pew Research Center.

“El Gringo speaks Spanish very well and at times when he uses English, I see it as normal since I’m bilingual,” Yolanda Fernández, who listens to Kulik’s broadcasts, told The New York Times. “I’m Puerto Rican. We speak Spanglish by nature.”

But another Phillies fan, Elvis Abreu, who is from the Dominican Republic, said Kulik’s Spanish has made him tune in less to his radio broadcasts.

“It’s bad,” he said. “If you’re broadcasting a baseball game for a Hispanic community, you have to bring the message to the people very clearly about the plays and the game in Spanish because the channel is obviously in Spanish.”

Because baseball was popularized in the United States and then spread to Latin America, several terms used in Spanish are borrowed from English. A home run, for example, is formally a “cuadrangular,” but many Spanish speakers say “jonron.” Left field is technically “jardín izquierdo,” but many still opt for the former. Kulik does all this, too, and more.

“The light switch just turns on and off, and I generally just go with it,” he said.

Kulik has been going with it for decades. After many years in Boston working in marketing, cable television and producing a local baseball show in English, he pitched the Boston Red Sox on a Spanish language radio broadcast to appeal to the city’s growing Latino community.

In 2001, he established a broadcast company called the Spanish Béisbol Network, initially thinking he would only serve as a producer but eventually transitioning into an on-air role.

He earned his nickname in 2003, when he pointed out that Sammy Sosa, a Dominican and a star hitter for the Chicago Cubs, was cheating when he was caught using a corked bat. That’s when the other announcer, defending Sosa, jokingly called him Gringo Malo.

Two years later, Kulik moved to Philadelphia, where he now not only calls the games but buys the Spanish language radio rights from the Phillies and procures advertisers and airtime for all 162 regular-season games.

Over the years, Kulik said, he has leaned on his broadcast partners for help cleaning up his calls. “Oscar comes in,” he said, and “gives the purest Spanish explanation of what just happened.”

Budejen, who is from Venezuela and joined Kulik in 2021, said both men understand and respect their roles. “The objective is that it’s the Phillies in Spanish,” he said. “But we use Spanglish because of the dynamic that exists in the group. And when it’s needed to do the translation, I translate. I have no problem with that.”

Robert Brooks, the Phillies’ manager of broadcasting since before Kulik’s arrival, said he used to get phone calls from people complaining about the way Kulik spoke Spanish. He would explain that it was Kulik’s idea to establish the Spanish radio network and there wouldn’t be a Spanish broadcast without him.

“He’s giving them what they want, even if it’s not the way they want it,” Brooks added. “I appreciate the fact that he stumbles through it, and when you’re speaking Spanglish to Spanish speakers, every once in a while, you’re going to get dinged, and you’ve got to be able to roll with that, and he’s good with it.”

Some listeners said they enjoyed Kulik’s broadcasts and his attempts to chronicle games in his less-than-perfect Spanish.

“I love that someone who has such difficulties speaking Spanish accepts the challenge to teach people about baseball speaking how he can,” said Gustavo Beitler, who listens from Uruguay and became a Phillies fan because of a cousin who lives in the United States. “For him, it would be easier to broadcast a game just in English. So it takes effort to do this.”

Martín Altuve, a listener in Venezuela, said “it wasn’t ideal” to use English or Spanglish on a Spanish language broadcast beyond baseball terminology but “it’s accepted.”

“Here in Venezuela, I’m not speaking Spanglish where a lot of people don’t speak English,” he said. “But at the baseball level, and with friends who understand what I’m saying, sure I use it. I say ‘leadoff’ and ‘closer.’”

José Tolentino, a Mexican and a former Spanish language broadcaster for the Los Angeles Angels, said a baseball program is entertainment, not an English or Spanish class.

“People want to be sitting down in their living room with a guy that knows the game,” he said. “If Spanglish is your language, there’s a market and there’s a certain comfort. Yeah, some people aren’t going to understand some parts and some people aren’t going to understand the others.”

Tolentino added: “I’m very proud that I speak very good Spanish. My dad would kill me if I didn’t speak good Spanish. But baseball is American. You can say ‘jonron’ and ‘cuadrangular.’”

On Tuesday, the Phillies will start postseason play, hoping to get further than last year, when they lost to the Houston Astros in the World Series.

Kulik will be there every step of the way, calling the “beisbol” games.


Wild Card Round

Today (All times EST)

American League

• Texas Rangers at Tampa Bay Rays

(3:08 p.m., ABC)

• Toronto Blue Jays at Minnesota Twins

(4:38 p.m., ESPN)

National League

• Arizona Diamondbacks at

Milwaukee Brewers (7:08 p.m., ESPN2)

• Miami Marlins at Philadelphia

Phillies (8:08 p.m., ESPN)

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