Stephen A. Smith Draws Fire for Comments About Shohei Ohtani

By Terrance Turner

July 12, 2021

ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith is in hot water for his comments about Los Angeles Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani. Mr. Ohtani, who was born in Japan, has used an interpreter since his rookie season in 2018, according to the MLB. (His interpreter Ippei Mizuhara will serve as his catcher in tonight’s Home Run Derby.)

On today’s episode of ESPN’s “First Take,” host Molly Qerim, asked Smith and Max Kellerman if “it’s good for Major League Baseball that Ohtani is the top attraction” in the league. “Not to me,” Smith replied. He argued that Ohtani’s use of an interpreter “might have something to do with your inability to ingratiate yourself with that young demographic to attract them to the sport.”

“The fact that you got a foreign player who doesn’t speak English, that needs an interpreter — believe it or not — I think contributes to harming the game to some degree,” Smith said. “It needs to be somebody like Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, those guys.” He added: “I don’t think it helps that the No. 1 face is a dude that needs an interpreter so you can understand what the hell he is saying — in this country.”

Needing an interpreter clearly hasn’t hurt Ohtani’s game: he leads the league with 33 home runs (per the New York Post) and 70 RBIs. He is batting .279 so far this season. He has a 3.49 ERA and 87 strikeouts. Shohei Ohtani is the first player in history to be selected to the MLB All-Star Game as both a designated hitter and a pitcher.

Smith’s comments were widely decried as xenophobic. Former ESPN host Keith Olberman called them “straight-up racism at a time of dangerous anti-Asian violence.” (A study by Cal State University said that reported hate crimes against Asians in 16 of the nation’s largest cities and counties are up 164% since this time last year.) USA Today writer Andrew Joseph wrote that “Smith crossed the line from bad sports takes into straight-up xenophobia.”

Joseph: “The unabashed xenophobia about Ohtani needing an interpreter is the kind of criticism that baseball needs to rid itself of — Asian and Latino players still face it even at the grassroots level.” He added: “It’s totally unfair to criticize Ohtani — or any player — for utilizing that resource.”

Twitter lit up with criticism of Smith’s comments:

It’s worth noting that just last week, Smith was criticizing the MLB for not marketing Ohtani well enough: Smith even compared him to the legendary Babe Ruth:

Smith has responded to the criticism, claiming he was misinterpreted. “People are misinterpreting what I’m saying,” Smith said. “Baseball’s a great game, a great sport. Some of the greatest players are the foreign players. … I’m talking about the marketability and the promotion of the sport. It’s exactly what Sports Illustrated essentially alluded to in their article last month when they said that 28% of the players in Major League Baseball are foreign players.”

UPDATE: Smith has, belatedly, apologized:

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