There is no person who better represents sports media in America than analyst and talk-show host Stephen A. Smith, the outspoken, boisterous personality on “Stephen A’s World” and ESPN’s “First Take.” However this last week, the generally well-regarded Smith came under intense scrutiny after claiming Japanese-born baseball sensation Shohei Ohtani was unfit to be the face of the MLB and was “harmful to the sport” because of his use of an interpreter.
Ohtani, who has taken the league by storm, wowing fans as both a hitter and pitcher, did not respond, but colleagues were quick to rebuke Smith. Jeff Passan, ESPN’s foremost baseball expert, stated in an opinion piece that those who expect Ohtani to speak in English “[don’t] deserve the joy and pleasure of watching him.”
While Passan’s words might be harsh, they are spot on. Smith’s comments are not only xenophobic but also ignore the challenges that many foreign athletes like Ohtani must face when entering a larger, more Western market like the MLB. In fact, this February, Seattle Mariners’ president and CEO Kevin Mather resigned after stating in a conference that he was “frustrated and tired” of paying Japanese-born pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma’s interpreter because of the expense it put on the team.
As the MLB grows, more international players are being recruited to play in the big leagues. This means a diversity of players, languages, and cultures that should be embraced rather than cast off as “bad for business” or “toxic to the sport.” In fact, Smith and Mather were dead wrong in their claims. On the net, foreign baseball players add a flair to the sport that attracts new fans, even if they don’t speak “the correct language.” For example, MLB’s All-Star Game, headlined by foreign athletes like Ohtani, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (Dominican Republic/Canada), and Fernando Tatis Jr. (Dominican Republic), peaked with 8.90 million viewers, more than both the NBA All-Star Game (5.94M) and NFL Pro Bowl (7.97M).
The MLB is a different league than it used to be 50 years ago. New players worldwide are changing the way the game is played and how the game is consumed, and it is undoubtedly making baseball more entertaining and accessible to all sorts of fans, including me. It’s time to give Ohtani and other foreign players the respect they deserve, and that starts with acknowledging and sharing the challenging journeys they’ve endured to make it to where they are now.