2021 was quite a season for Shohei Ohtani. He nearly won the home run crown and might have won the Cy Young award with a little more run support from his teammates. He led all MLB in WAR. He won a slew of awards, capped by the  BBWAA A.L. MVP, which he won unanimously—the 18th person to do so in the 91 year history of the award.

But none of the others have done what Ohtani has. He hit 46 homers and struck out 150 batters. He hit a home run in Anaheim on April 4 vs the Chicago White Sox that traveled 451 feet. He hit another one there 470 feet in June. He threw several pitches over  100 mph, one of them on the 99th pitch of a game. His splitter is the single most effective pitch in MLB.

Ohtani might  have had  the most valuable season of any player ever.

He  is also  breaking  stereotypes  of Asian Americans who have had a difficult history in the United States,.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century Asian immigrants to America were viewed with mistrust—illiterate, unclean. During WWII many Japanese nisei were forced into interment camps.  Viet Nam refugees emigrating to American experienced discrimination.  During the recent Covid pandemic a wave of hate crimes were perpetrated against Asian Americans—not helped when US President Trump called Covid  “the China Virus.”

Masahiro Tanaka returned to Japan in April 2020 with  his family  when the Covid pandemic struck saying that he felt ‘danger.”   LA Dodger manager Dave Roberts, son of a Japanese mother and Black father spoke out against harassment of Asians.

On the playing field, in MLB, Asians have been slotted into certain pre-determined pigeon holes. Hideo Nomo, Hisashi Iwakuma, Yu Darvish and Koji Uehara have  been characterized under the rubric of “craftiness” and “deception”  by baseball commentators, but seldom “overpowering.”  Iwakuma was described as having a technical and mechanical focus. Darvish had a “strange mix of pitches.” Nomo, a “baffling windup.”

Ichiro’s ground-ball-to-the-infield approach fit into the Asian archetype of small ball. Even Hideki Matsui, the most reliable run-producer on the New York Yankees and a highly popular player, was also described at times by YES announcers and NYC sportswriters  as a great player but one who could unfortunately never reproduce the awesome home run totals he had amassed in Japan. (The man nicknamed Godzilla, who had hit 50 homers in the Central League, could only muster one season above 30 homers in MLB –31 in 2004.

Sometimes the Anti-Asian prejudice was blatant as when Houston’s Cuban first baseman  Yuli Gurriel mocked the shape of Darvish eyes in Game 3 of the 2017 World Series, mouthing the words ‘chinito’ which means ‘Little Chinese Boy’ in Spanish),   

Constancio Arnaldo Jr., an assistant professor of Asian and Asian American studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said in an interview with NBC News  in July this year. “It’s about masculinity. … Asian and Asian Americans are always seen as not masculine enough. Then you have a game (baseball)  that’s seen as part of the embodiment of this white masculinity.”

“We don’t talk about them in the same way in terms of them as being power hitters, as being hypermasculine. We don’t talk about them in terms of strength and power,” added Christine Chin , an associate professor of sociology at California State University, Fullerton,, “as long as Japanese players have been in the major leagues, the media have focused on their training, consistency, background and precision.”

But then Ohtani came along and changed the equation.  As Arnado put it,

As Professor Chin put it,  Chin, “Ohtani’s Asianness contests age-old ideas of what a dominant, powerful athlete looks like  in the United States…Ohtani is really changing that narrative.”

Indeed, one might say that  Ohtani has single handedly changed America’s perception of Asians–to some degree similar to the way that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in MLB and helped changed MLB fans’ people’s perception of black. Ohtani turned the old paradigm upside down and has now created a new paradigm which now consists of two categories. Shohei Ohtani in Category 1 and the rest of all professional baseball in Category 2–a notch below.

Because no one, absolutely no one, can do what Ohtani does.

Ohtani is also bigger and stronger than most MLB players—and, might I add,  better looking than most. I am waiting for his first Hollywood movie role. Perhaps it will be in  one of Sylvester Stallone’s “Expendables”movies?

It is worth noting that when ESPN lead analyst ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith, who is black, claimed that Ohtani,  shouldn’t be the face of the sport because he uses an interpreter,  he was overwhelmingly rebuked in the US media.

It is  quite clear to most people that no one is a better role model for  MLB than Shohei Ohtani.

All that remains now is to see how long Ohtani can keep the level of excellence he has shown this year.  Can he put several seasons  together to stand along side other historic game changers in the field of sports, like Jackie Robinson, and in the NBA, Michael Jordan.

I would bet he can.

One final thought. It would help if Seiya Suzuki performs like a star too, to erase the memory of Akiyama, Tsutsugo and Fukudome who underwhelmed in MLB.


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