What an Ohtani era means for all Asian American Filipinos | Inquirer

What an Ohtani era potentially means for all Asian American Filipinos

No MLB player has signed a 10-year, $700 million contract in baseball history, ever. And no Asian or Asian American was ever this coveted by any team willing to pay such a high price.
/ 05:20 PM December 19, 2023

If you’re a baseball fan and an Asian American of Filipino descent, you got an early Christmas gift last week.

And it’s Shohei Ohtani. The name means “new era in American race history,” or at least, that’s what I’m calling it.

You doubt that? Ohtani’s ascendence is not unlike what happened when Jackie Robinson broke a color barrier in baseball.

Ohtani broke a race barrier too and combined it with the smashing of a historic money barrier everyone in a capitalist America can understand.

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No MLB player has signed a 10-year, $700 million contract in baseball history, ever. And no Asian or Asian American was ever this coveted by any team willing to pay such a high price.

Everyone wanted Shohei. He even accommodated his suitors, allowing them to defer more than 90 percent of his salary to later years, so that his team could use the money to build a team of stars around him.

So when Ohtani finally picked a suitor and agreed to terms with the Los Angeles Dodgers last week, I know it was a huge disappointment for fans like me of the San Francisco Giants. The team met all the demands of Ohtani except for not providing him with his favorite pen to sign a contract.


He chose the Dodgers.

Ohtani wearing Dodgers cap and shirt

Shohei Otani has signed a 10-year, $700 million contract with the LA Dodgers. mlb/Instagram

But this is where we must look beyond our local team biases and see this from a “greater good perspective,” meaning beyond baseball.

Wherever he plays, Ohtani signing makes it easy to predict an emerging new age for Asian America, and certainly for everyone of Asian descent when it comes to America’s racial and cultural history.


Hyperbole? I think not. Fifty years ago, it would have been unimaginable that the face of Major League Baseball–still America’s pastime—would be Asian, or even Asian American.

That’s where we are as we end 2023.

Yes, the distinction of citizenship status is still important. Ohtani is a Japanese national—and not an American. But he’s in America, and he’s Asian. And he’s the best. Of course, we claim him as ours.

I know, there’s that “perpetual foreigner” thing we must watch for. Am I playing into it?

Perhaps, a little. But maybe because Ohtani is so big (6-ft.-4 inches) and special, we are moving into a different arena of identity politics, one where the blur between Asian and Asian in America is more acceptable.

That’s the new era that Ohtani represents, a shift to where we are all about our shared Asian consciousness, or what I call our AC (appropriate, I figure, for what we know as “the summer game.”)

AC? It’s that something beyond the label Asian American or AAPI. Or AANHPI. Those are our oft-used broad superficial labels. When I say AC, our Asian consciousness, I’m talking about that thing inside all of us who are Asian or of Asian descent. It’s more encompassing than identifying by individual ethnicity. It’s an Asian awareness of our commonalities especially here in America.

It’s our Asian consciousness.

We saw it at the height of #StopAAPIHate, when racists bought into Trump’s pushing of “China Virus” hate. What happened? We were all attacked as Asians— Filipinos, Thai, Japanese, you name it. We shared the brunt of America’s violent animus.

But AC goes beyond saying we all look alike. As Asians, it’s all those other things that connect us. The feelings. The Poky. The noodles. Our egg rolls. Lumpia or dumplings. Red bean or ube. We have similarities that bind us. It’s more cultural than political.

We may not have an Asian face on the Supreme Court or in the White House. But the highest paid baseball player ever coming to a North American ball park near you? That might be better for us than we all think.

Keep in mind the specialness of all this.

As if Babe Ruth were Asian

While there have been Asian players (Ichiro), and even Asian American baseballers past and present (Filipinos Tim Lincecum, Benny Agbayani, Yankee’s Anthony Volpe)  no one is like Ohtani, who is no less than the second coming of Babe Ruth.

When Ruth played the 1920s, Asians in America were excluded and demonized. Filipinos were regularly beaten for dating white women.  In the 1940s, Japanese Americans were incarcerated in camps.

Did anyone back then ever think an Asian could be a symbol of an American institution like Babe Ruth?

But now in the 2020s, like the Babe, Ohtani hits homers, only better. Ohtani also pitches, but once again even better and more skillfully than the former Yankee star.

That all makes Ohtani arguably the greatest baseball talent ever to play Abner Doubleday’s game. When the Dodgers introduced him as their guy at a news conference last week, one LA sports columnist dubbed it Ohtani’s “coronation.”

Indeed, Ohtani is the new king of baseball, an Asian icon.

Icon? In this case, that’s like being the best kind of stereotype. It’s not “the model minority” as if we’re expected to all be Ohtani. We may not have his talent, but we will get his feels.

Whenever a sports fan, or a baseball fan in particular, looks at an Asian or Asian American, it will be hard not to think of Ohtani.

Especially if Ohtani’s just homered to win a game in the bottom of the ninth to win you a sports bet. Or he’s on your favorite team. Or visiting your town and signing your kid’s baseball. Or seen walking his dog, Dekoy.

And then the stardust trickles down to all of the rest of us.

It’s the feel-good from America’s pastime powered by the great Ohtani hope.

Remembering the Stephen A. Smith/ESPN incident

I say hope, because this is still America where racial ignorance abounds as it did in 2021.

You’ll recall that’s when I took ESPN sports commentator Stephen A. Smith to task for his racist hot take on Ohtani.

“When I look at Ohtani, he is big time, Babe Ruth, 33 home runs, batting .279, got a 4-1 record with an 3.79 (earned run average) as a pitcher. This brother is special, make no mistake about it,” said Stephen A. Smith on ESPN about Ohtani then with the Angels at the All-Star break in 2021.

But here comes the big but.

“But the fact that you have 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, 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.”

That paragraph is the damning crux of Smith’s diatribe, couched in criticism of MLB’s marketing, still no excuse for racism.

‘Harming the game’

A Black man calling Ohtani a foreigner is worse than racist. It’s xenophobic. Is he for border walls at Chavez Ravine. No interpreters? Does he know the Voting Rights Act requires interpreters for qualified voters? Does that harm democracy?

Or maybe it was Smith’s reaction to foreigners. We know how Asian Americans are always confused as being Asian nationals. Going after Ohtani for being “foreign” is an attack on anyone of Asian ancestry.

Smith did finally apologize in his own way, even though he appeared to be parading his ignorance as if a virtue.

But he didn’t get fired.

And while Smith appears to have learned his lesson, his reaction to Ohtani in 2021 is typical of the American ignorance that we could very well still see today.

How else does the twice-impeached, four-time indicted Donald Trump stay as the Republican front runner for the presidency? In New Hampshire recently, Trump is still talking “China Virus” on the campaign trail. How quickly he forgets about the violence his off-handed remarks caused toward all Asian Americans.

Ohtani as the larger-than-life Ruthian ball player can help us overcome all that, defeat the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype, and find a way for all of us to root for the same guy, making us all on the same team.

That’s the hope. And it’s real.

At the press conference last Thursday, there was a kind of innocence when Ohtani spoke through an interpreter in his native Japanese.

An Asian American reporter asked him what he knew about the Dodger fan base, and “what it would be like to play in LA, which has one of the largest Japanese American and Asian American communities in the country?”

The answer was a surprise.

“I don’t know too much about the fan base, but I’m willing to learn and looking forward to that,” Ohtani said, as if race and his appeal as an Asian has never even crossed his mind.

Clueless? Or just innocent? If the later, all the better. You can trust his impact and effect. He’s all baseball, and as long as he’s hitting homers, he’ll be the face of the sport driving a sense of Asian consciousness for the next decade and beyond.

The seed was planted in 2018 when he first arrived from Japan, but now the 29-year-old, born on the day after the Fourth of July, is in full bloom ready to impact all of us.

Am I being too Pollyanna for a baseball loving Pinoy? Besides, it’s just baseball, right?

Talk to me on opening day. I’m feeling it now with the contract signing. It’s the real start of the age of Ohtani in America, a feel good early Christmas gift. Can I get a “Play ball!”

NOTE: To my dear readers of “Emil Amok,” please have a very Merry Christmas!

Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. He writes a column for Inquirer.nets US Channel. His Emil Amoks Takeout is on www.YouTube.com/@emilamok1

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TAGS: Filipino American achievers, professional baseball
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