Shohei Ohtani – a new generation of Asian representation in sports

Shohei Ohtani’s success in baseball is breaking new ground for Asian representation in sports.

Shohei Ohtani Asian representation in sports
Featured photo credit: Michael Dwyer / AP Photo

Can we just take a quick second to acknowledge how amazing it is to have Shohei Ohtani — a Japanese born player — be the face of “America’s Pastime”? Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a long time coming. But damn does it feel good to have this Asian representation in sports.

Shohei Ohtani Asian representation in sports
Photo submitted.

Growing up as a Japanese American meant a couple things. Yes, I played baseball my entire life. Yes, my favorite player was Ichiro Suzuki, and yes, my bedroom was adorned with Seattle Mariners posters and all. 

I remember emulating Ichiro the best any five-year-old child could. I played the outfield and hit left-handed. I woke up every morning just to read the box scores to see how he played the night before. In fact, I had to rely on that a lot because I never actually got to see him play much. Although Ichiro spent much of his career in Seattle, I grew up in Southern California. Of course, you’d think I could’ve caught him on national broadcasts, right? Right?

Shohei Ohtani Asian representation in sports
Photo credit: Norm Hall / Getty Images

Hitting Leadoff: Number 51, Ichiro Suzuki

The early 2000s was an interesting time for Major League Baseball (MLB). The MLB was engulfed in an infamous steroid scandal, and sought only to promote their literal massive homegrown talent. Plastered all over ESPN were the likenesses of Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Mark McGwire. “All American,” and all of whose careers are now appropriately marked with an asterisk.

Their achievements at the time rightfully earned tons of attention. But five-year-old me couldn’t help but wonder where Ichiro and ultimately, Asian representation in sports was. Why was my idol, a player who looked like me and represented my homeland, not receiving the same level of widespread glorification? Ichiro is the only player in MLB history to win the batting title, Rookie of the Year, and MVP all in the same season. He broke the 84 year old hits record with 262 of them in 2004. Ichiro also led the Mariners to the greatest season in the modern era with 116 wins (2001). Not to mention, all while being non-GMO.

The virtue of being five years old meant never understanding why I wasn’t seeing Ichiro everywhere. Though, 26-year-old me now does.

Shohei Ohtani Asian representation in sports
Photo credit: Rhett Bollinger / Major League Baseball

It’s Shotime: growing Asian representation in sports

Fast forward to the present and MLB is being given another opportunity to amplify Japanese —  and Asian — representation in sports, in the form of Shohei “Shotime” Ohtani.

What makes Ohtani so special is that he’s truly outstanding at both pitching and hitting. Understandably, that may not sound all that out of the ordinary. That’s until you realize that historically, nobody has ever been able to do both. 

Coming fresh off of his unanimous MVP last season, Ohtani is already off to another historic start. He’s currently in the race to go back-to-back as the award winner. In fact, many of his career accomplishments bear similarities to those of Ichiro. However, there’s one stark, yet very appreciated difference between the two: market presence. 

See also: Asian athletes to watch in 2022 Olympics (Part 1)

See also: Asian athletes to watch in 2022 Olympics (Part 2)

Whether it’s commercials of him to build up anticipation for the All-Star Game, or gracing the cover of MLB The Show 2022, it’s clear that Major League Baseball is all in on Ohtani. It means that they’re finally ready to take the “risk.” The “risk” of allowing a person who looks like me, to be the face of America’s national sport. 

Stepping into the limelight

To some baseball fans, it can be pretty easy to overlook the fact that Ohtani, just like myself and the generations before me, is a product of the diasporic experience. His accomplishments on the field certainly garner the marketability he now radiates. Although, the conditions by which he is achieving these are often disregarded. Beyond the homeruns and the strikeouts, most impressively, he’s achieving such success in a country with a starkly different culture from Ichiro’s time. In particular, during a period when anti-Asian attacks continue to be on the rise.

As unfortunate as it is to admit, these anxieties exist for many members of the Asian diaspora. So when I watch the MLB roll an Ohtani commercial, or hear the taiko drums boom as I load my game, Shotime’s prominence feels like so much more than just marketing. Seeing him is a representation of my own identity, my own community, and all those who have afforded me the life I have today.

See also: 9 Asian North American athletes we’re excited about

Shohei Ohtani media conference
Photo credit: Chris Carlson / AP Photo

An irresponsible media bias

Coming to a foreign country and making something extraordinary of one’s self is nothing short of awe-inspiring. The sad truth though is that regardless of the feel-good nature of a story, existing in the public eye — especially for minorities — will evoke unsolicited slander.

On July 12th, 2021 ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith gave a very offensive take when asked about Shohei Ohtani’s popularity.

The most repugnant aspect about this entire segment wasn’t just its plain ignorance, but the fact that this was written out, cleared by multiple producers, and then aired on national television. It was a shared opinion. It was purposeful. It was planned.

Is this what increased market presence brings? To go from getting no attention, to being attacked simply for being too good in a space that we’re apparently not welcome in? Was this the sort of attention five-year-old me wanted?

Shohei Ohtani batting
Photo credit: Orlando Ramirez / USA Today

The face of America’s pastime

At the end of the day, our Asian community — especially in the world of sports — is not afforded the same decencies as our American and often white counterparts. It could be argued that we’re viewed as a monolith, who shouldn’t be playing professionally in the first place. At least, that’s the direction my imposter syndrome points me in. 

Seeing Ohtani play day in and day out, reminds me  that baseball should be a reflection of the best this country has to offer. After all, it is “America’s Pastime,” and though it may be arriving 20 years later than ideal for me, the sport really is just that. Although our perception of what we can accomplish on a field thus far has been monolithic, Ohtani is shattering it.

See also: 6 Asian North American Olympians who made history

In a way, Ohtani has finished what Ichiro had started: he’s broken the mold of how those in power have traditionally envisioned us. He’s rattled the people who for so long, fought to make sure that this day would never happen. As tough as it may be to get through, hidden within Smith’s tirade is an inalienable truth: Ohtani is the MLB’s number one face.

So no matter my occasional negative self-talk, or the media’s blatant xenophobia, five-year-old me is finally appeased. While I may never physically step foot on a Major League diamond, seeing Ohtani everywhere I look means part of me definitely has. 

Ohtani’s incredible achievements remind the Asian community that we do deserve this. That we’ve finally made it, and nobody can take that away.

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