When Stephen A. Smith opens his mouth, it’s typically bullshit. Generally speaking, when it comes to an opinion of his having anything to do with sports or adjacent to sports, I completely ignore him and accept him for what he is — someone who delivers hot takes and yells loudly because it gets views, and ratings equal money for the “Worldwide Leader in Sports.” Today, though, he did not offer a sports-related opinion. It was just plain xenophobia.
“The fact that you have a foreign player that doesn’t speak English, that needs an interpreter, believe it or not — I think contributes to harming the game to some degree when that’s your box office appeal. It needs to be somebody like Bryce Harper, Mike Trout — those guys. And unfortunately, at this moment in time, that’s not the case.”
Smith apparently believes that the face of baseball has to be a white American, raised on hot dogs and apple pie, and anything other than that would simply fail to save the game of baseball.
Except for the fact that it’s not failing. Despite the Los Angeles Angels’ current fourth-place division standing, 9 games out of first at the All-Star Break, Ohtani is must-see TV every night. Records continue to fall, his legend continues to grow, and his athletic feats on the field continue to inspire.
According to Frank Pingue of Reuters, Ohtani is the most-searched player on the MLB Film Room video tool.
Ohtani has been named the starting pitcher and leadoff hitter for the American League in the All-Star game, and is also the betting favorite to win the Home Run Derby tonight. Do you know how absurd that is? We make fun of pitchers for not being able to hit. Ohtani is the MVP front-runner and is putting together a season unlike any in the history of the game.
“Baseball was dying in the 90s. What saved it? It was the home run competition between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Obviously Sammy Sosa, we learned later during his testimony on Capitol Hill, that suddenly he needed an interpreter. You know, ‘baseball been very very good to him,’ you know what I’m saying? That wasn’t enough. He needed an interpreter to speak for him when he was on Capitol Hill. He certainly didn’t need that when he was smacking those home runs,” Smith said.
First of all, the “baseball been very very good” reference is from a 1978 Saturday Night Live skit, twenty years before Sosa and McGwire competed for the single-season home run record. Secondly, if I were testifying before the government of a country where I wouldn’t be in a position to speak my primary language, you’d better believe that the most prudent decision I could make, for the sake of accuracy, would be to use an interpreter.
Smith, unfortunately, continued:
“But Mark McGwire basically helped save baseball, because you had a dude that you could put on Wheaties boxes, alright? That can ingratiate himself with the younger generations out there, and had America transfixed on the sport of Major League Baseball. What I’m saying is, that’s not the case. I’m not taking anything away from Ohtani — I know what he’s doing on the field, I know it’s nothing short of spectacular, and I understand that baseball is an international sport itself in terms of participation — but when you talk about an audience gravitating to the tube, to the ballpark, to actually watch you, I don’t think it helps that the number one face is a dude that needs an interpreter so you can understand what thell he’s saying.”
You think fans aren’t going to “gravitate to the tube” for Ohtani? Tonight’s Home Run Derby will likely be one of the most watched exhibitions ever. People are clamoring for the opportunity to watch Ohtani put on a Sho’ in the thin air of Denver, sending moonshots high into the night sky. Yes, it would be beneficial if Ohtani played for a contending team, and if we got to see him on the playoff stage, but that’s not his fault. He has already stolen the spotlight from teammate and future hall-of-famer Mike Trout, something I never thought would be within the realm of possibility.
Ichiro Suzuki, currently the greatest Japanese-born baseball player in the history of the game, who notched 1,278 hits in Japan before adding 3,089 more in North America, had this to say a decade ago:
Whether or not Ohtani uses an interpreter is entirely up to him, and Stephen A. Smith has no right to lambast him for that decision. It is completely up to the comfort of Ohtani as to how he communicates with the media, and by extension, the general public.
And, by the way, Ohtani is perfectly capable of speaking English when he’s comfortable doing so.
Smith’s rhetoric is overtly racist, and came at a time where hate crimes against Asian-Americans are rampant. It is entirely unacceptable and irresponsible. This xenophobic language — claiming the face of baseball, by default, must be a white player — is dangerous. This game, and this country, are made stronger by promoting and celebrating cultural differences, not by tearing them down because they don’t look and sound like how you want them to. The longer the game continues to attempt to drown out cultural individuality and stick to 1950s Americana, the faster the game will nosedive in popularity.
I hope Ohtani wins the Home Run Derby tonight and gives Smith two very specific English words, straight into the camera.
Until then, though, Smith took to Twitter with a non-apology, essentially restating his First Take comments and demonstrating that he still doesn’t get it.
This isn’t the first time Smith has said something awful. In 2014, he was suspended for one week from ESPN in the wake of Ray Rice’s domestic violence suspension from the NFL. Smith warned would-be victims to “make sure we don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions.”