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Shohei Ohtani Defies Asian-Athlete Stereotypes in MLB Debut

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Major League Baseball’s opening day is not only a signifier that spring weather is fast approaching; it is also a celebration of clean slates and the purest of hopes for the oncoming season. Baseball franchises and fans alike approached the day with full hearts and the mentality that anything could happen this season. But while there are 30 teams in the MLB with 25-player active rosters that all competed on this day, there seemed to be a massive spotlight shining on a single member of the league: the Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani. Not only is he an instant star in the MLB, but he is also just as important to the Asian athletic community in the U.S. and an inspiration to me as an Asian-American sports fan.

Standing at 6’4” and weighing 213 pounds, the 23-year-old Japanese rookie was an athletic icon back in Japan. He made his professional debut at the age of 18 for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, a team known for churning out well-known MLB pitchers Yu Darvish and Hideki Okajima. However, Ohtani seems to be a different case from his Japanese predecessors. In fact, he is different from most players all throughout baseball history. In these past two weeks, Ohtani became the first MLB player since Babe Ruth in 1919 to play in both a non-pitching role and as starting pitcher within the first 10 games of the season. In mores straightforward terms, Ohtani is a two-way player, serving the Angels as both a hitter and pitcher. But unlike Babe Ruth — who decided to focus on batting and almost entirely scrapped pitching after 1919 — Ohtani hopes to maintain his dual role throughout his entire career.

During his five-year stint with the Fighters in Japan, Ohtani managed a 2.52 ERA and averaged 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings, all while hitting .286/.358/.500 and snagging the Pacific League MVP when he was just 21 years old. He was immensely sought-after by MLB teams throughout his final season in Japan and had the option to leave and join the big franchise Los Angeles Dodgers. However, Ohtani carefully chose to join the comparably smaller-franchise Los Angeles Angels after a month-long contract negotiation with the Fighters.

While it is too early to say whether he will succeed more in batting or pitching, Ohtani made his official MLB debut as a designated hitter and whacked a single. He exhibited his pitching prowess a few days later — throwing one of the nastiest sliders I’ve ever seen and masterfully playing with pitch speeds that ranged from 75 mph to 95 mph — and clinched his first win. While the debuts calmed Angels fans everywhere after a less-than-impressive spring training performance, they also inspired scrutiny and debate — side-effects of being under the microscope of both national and international media attention.

The discourse around Ohtani’s first appearances with the Angels were predictably mixed and extreme — mixed because there were as many negative reactions as there were positive, and extreme because this feedback was formulated after a mere two performances. Ohtani can or can’t bat, can or can’t pitch well, should or shouldn’t go down to the minor leagues, and will or will not be the MLB’s next “big thing.” But in a sport with 162-game seasons, one at bat has never really been a deciding factor. After hitting his second home run of the season — this time against 2014 American League Cy Young Winner Corey Kluber — on Wednesday, he seems to be finding his rhythm.

If you go to ESPN.com and click on the MLB home page, you’ll see a tab named “Ohtani Tracker” next to the standings, scores, and season previews. There isn’t such a tab for Aaron Judge, the New York Yankees poster-child and AL MVP runner-up last year, or even Mike Trout, the two time MVP who is projected to finish in the top 10 Wins Above Replacement ratings of all time when he’s done. So why do so many people care about a 23-year-old rookie who hasn’t even played 10 games yet?

I can’t speak for all baseball fans, but Ohtani has rapidly become an important figure in my life since opening day. He’s a little different than the average 6’4” mammoth of a two-way MLB baseball player, much like how I am much different than the average St. Louis Cardinals fan. Ohtani is an Asian baseball player — just like how I am an Asian-American baseball fan — and he is not just trying to dominate this league. He’s doing something that hasn’t been done in 100 years, and the last guy to do it was Babe Ruth, who is considered to be the greatest baseball player of all time. Ohtani is also accomplishing this all while living in a foreign country with a starkly different culture and racial discrimination against Asians. These anxieties are a familiar narrative to Ohtani’s Asian audience. His story makes me think of my own grandparents, who left South Korea to live in the United States in the 1950s and faced similar challenges. So when I’m watching Shohei Ohtani, I am looking at a representative of a diaspora I proudly belong to — and this is despite being a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan since birth, which dictates I should not love an Angels player as much as I love Ohtani.

Asian players make up a very small percentage of the MLB. As of recent years, they are around two percent of the league. In other words, I watch a lot of baseball but see few players that look like me — an East Asian. In my experience, an average baseball fan either does not know a single Asian baseball player or manages to solely cite Ichiro Suzuki. I will always hold the highest regard for Ichiro Suzuki for both his contributions to baseball and for embracing his status as an Asian pioneer, but he alone is not enough. If anything, he is evidence that I should be able to look forward to even more celebrated Asian baseball players like him in the present and near future. Ichiro was a tactful hitter and his 3,000 hits will undoubtedly land him a place in the Hall of Fame, but Ohtani is potentially a home-run power hitter — therefore defying the prevailing stereotype that Asian players are only good for pitching or playing small ball.

Ohtani seems to be the beginning of this exact transition that I have been waiting for, and I couldn’t ask for a more qualified representative. He is proving that Asian ballplayers can be sluggers who rake home runs with Judge or Trout, and they can even be two-way players like Babe Ruth. While East Asian pitchers seem to be a hot commodity for MLB franchises, East Asian sluggers are far less common.

Perhaps the most thrilling aspect of Ohtani, specifically to an Asian fan like myself, is that he is an exciting player to all baseball fans regardless of his race. He is not being given this staggering amount of attention because he might be a great Asian baseball player. Ohtani might be a great baseball player in general, Asian or non-Asian. Looking at his position now, he stands equally with his Angels, American League, and MLB counterparts, thankfully making his Asian status the least remarkable thing about him.

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5 Comments

5 Responses to “Shohei Ohtani Defies Asian-Athlete Stereotypes in MLB Debut”

  1. Alex on April 6th, 2018 3:01 PM

    Though I understand what you meant, I still want to say that there are more than just ichiro that pioneered asian in baseball. Ichiro’s pioneer counter part for pitching is Nomo. We than had Hideki who won MVP final game of the world series and also Koji red sock’s closer playing crucial part in world series and then plenty of other pitchers/hitters. Shohei represent a hybrid that could challenge the criteria for best baseball player alive because he’s able to both pitch and hit which is something no ethnicity have done for a long time certainly not in modern era.

  2. Vin on April 6th, 2018 3:21 PM

    Vast majority of East Asian parents dont prioritize sports. When sports become the forefront of Asian American’s psych like academic, you’ll start seeing more stars athletes. Nice read, just a little inferiority complexed though.

  3. You on April 7th, 2018 3:03 AM

    Don’t categorize Ohtani as an Asian, or East Asian. That is very bad attitudes of Chinese or Koreans living in the US, or North America. Ohtani is just a Japanese baseball player, not Asian baseball player. Do you categorize Messi as South American soccer player? No. Do you call Micheal Jordan as a North American basketball player? No!
    Ohtani, like other Japanese people, is an absolute foreigner if he goes to Korea or China. And the culture is very different.
    Stop calling him as an Asian.

  4. Andy on April 7th, 2018 6:46 PM

    I think you make good points: it is undeniable that a Japanese baseball player would feel out of place in Korea or China. However, because Ohtani is now playing for the Angels in the MLB, an American league, the context of American race relations becomes especially important. In Japan, or China, or Korea, Ohtani has the luxury of being seen as “Japanese”. Here in the US, people are prone to see him first as “Asian”, especially those who know nothing about his nationality. In the US, there is certain discrimination that all Asians face regardless of national origin.

    Race-related issues in the US are complicated, and there are different sets of rules for talking about and understanding race, ethnicity, and other affiliations in different contexts. For example, Sikhs, who follow the religion of Sikhism, are mostly from India and highly separate from Muslims; however, in the US, many Sikhs are the subject of Islamophobic violence and threats, though they have nothing to do with the Islamic religion. This illustrates the importance of cultural context.
    It varies in different time periods and historical contexts as well, like in the US a couple decades ago– Italians and Irish were identified primarily as such and discriminated against. Nowadays, people of Irish and Italian origin in the US are considered to be white.

  5. Robert on April 8th, 2018 10:34 PM

    The only one referring to him as an Asian MLB player is yourself. His success has been the talking point of ESPN and various other sports outlets, yet the Korea Times and Korea Herald have made no mention of his remarkable success just one week into the league.

    Koreans and Chinese have an intense hatred of Japanese success, so it’s no surprise that they choose to ignore him. You refer to him as an Asian, but northeast asian countries don’t see it the same and prefer that you not lazily ‘lump’ everyone into one category.

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