Shohei Ohtani responds to Stephen A. Smith’s 2021 comments that Bryce Harper or Mike Trout should be the face of baseball because they speak English
Namely, ESPN‘s Stephen A. Smith declared that having a player who requires an interpreter to communicate was not the best representation of the game of baseball in America. His full comment was an infuriating combination of absurd and racially-insensitive:
"“The fact that you got 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.When you talk about an audience gravitating to the tube, or to the ballpark, to actually watch you, 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’s saying, in this country.”"
Of course, what Smith seemingly neglected to research before going on his tirade, is that Ohtani does speak English, as well as Spanish. He prefers to work with an interpreter because he’s not fluent.
While Smith has since apologized for his comments and tried to pivot to claiming he simply wants MLB to market Ohtani better, the damage was done. Ohtani, who is almost universally adored and admired, had already won the 2018 AL Rookie of the Year and was leading the league in numerous offensive categories at the time of Smith’s controversial comments. A few months later, he won AL MVP by a unanimous vote.
This was in July, but Ohtani only addressed in his GQ cover story for their upcoming February issue:
"“I mean, if I could speak English, I would speak English,” he says in Japanese. “Of course I would want to. Obviously it wouldn’t hurt to be able to speak English. There would only be positive things to come from that. But I came here to play baseball, at the end of the day, and I’ve felt like my play on the field could be my way of communicating with the people, with the fans. That’s all I really took from that in the end.”"
Ohtani went on to say that he learned English in school back in Japan, as it’s a mandatory part of the curriculum. However, he noted that the way they were taught English was to meet a certain standard, not to become fluent speakers, and that is why he prefers to work with an interpreter.
However, Ohtani is proud to be called ‘the face of baseball.’ He says it gives him ‘motivation,’ and the results are astounding. The Angels slugger and pitcher is Babe Ruth-ing better than Ruth himself; in 2021, he hit .257/.372/.592 with a .965 OPS, 26 doubles, 46 home runs, 103 runs scored, 100 RBI, and 26 stolen bases. He led MLB in triples. Oh, and he also made 23 starts to the tune of a 3.18 ERA, with 156 strikeouts over 130 1/3 innings.
Harper, meanwhile, finished the season tied for the MLB lead in doubles (42), and led in slugging, OPS, and OPS+. He pitched briefly in college and reportedly threw 96 mph.
After three seasons and a slew of accolades to add to his collection, Harper is undoubtedly the face of the Phillies. But it’s hard to see anyone unseating Ohtani because we’ve never seen anyone like him.