Have you heard The One Where Wilmer Flores Learns English by Watching “Friends”?
The story begins in Savannah, Georgia, where a teenage Wilmer Flores, playing minor-league ball for the Mets, found comfort in tracking the lives of a bunch of 20-somethings living in Manhattan. That he had nothing in common with the people on the screen meant little to Flores, who was fighting homesickness after leaving his native Venezuela.
Years later, Flores still feels a connection to the show. During Sunday’s nationally televised game, he debuted new walk-up music: “I’ll Be There for You” by the Rembrandts, the theme song to “Friends.”
“It’s one of my favorite shows,” said Flores, who, like many, became a fan of Rachel Green, portrayed by Jennifer Aniston. “I watch it every day before I go to sleep. It’s on Netflix. It’s on Nick at Nite every night.”
Flores, 25, has seen all 236 episodes, so his homage Sunday was no surprise. It’s the show that wound up becoming his gateway into learning a whole new culture.
At first, the idea of playing baseball in the United States was intoxicating, but he couldn’t sign with a team until his 16th birthday. So a few months before, he came to the States and tried out for several teams. One of his first stops was with the Marlins, and he spent time with a famous countryman, Miguel Cabrera.
“I’ll never forget that experience,” Flores said. “He took me to the clubhouse, gave me a bat, a bunch of stuff. It was like 20 bats.”
The Mets, however, showed the most interest. He signed on Aug. 6, 2007 — his 16th birthday. By the following summer, he was tearing it up at Class A Kingsport. Still, he missed home.
“I was just a homebody,” Flores said, laughing at the memory. “I signed and then my grandma calls me. Says she missed me. I wanted to go home. It was my birthday and I was by myself. I had all my family crying because I wasn’t there. The hell with this. The last month, I just didn’t want to be there . . . At the end of the year, I told [former Mets vice president of development] Tony Bernazard I wanted to go home. He said ‘no.’ ”
In 2009, Flores began the season with Class A Savannah. Once there, he resolved to speak more English.
“You have to learn,” he said. “If you’re smart enough and you really want to, you will . . . I really wanted to understand what they were saying when the coaches were talking.”
Flores took to watching the local news with a dictionary in his hand. In the clubhouse, he read whatever he got his hands on. But his favorite lessons came through “Friends,” which he stumbled upon on television one day in Savannah.
“It’s still my favorite show,” Flores said. “I don’t know why I started, I really don’t. I watched it once and I liked it.”
So began Flores’ immersion into not just English but American culture. The next season, he bought a used Chevy, helping to go beyond the humdrum of going from the hotel to the ballpark and back.
He still watches “The Avengers” and listens to the Backstreet Boys. And among fellow Latin-American teammates, he functions as a de facto cultural translator. Having arrived in the United States so young at 16, he has the benefit of having picked up on nuance that can only come through time.
“It’s all about adjusting to where you are, and I did it,” he said. “It’s like playing baseball. You’ve got to adjust to what they’re doing to you. If I wanted to be here, I had to speak English.”