A tremendous first half has transformed Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels into a superstar.
Between leading the majors in home runs (33) and posting a 3.49 ERA on the mound, Ohtani is baseball’s most successful two-way player in decades, perhaps a century. And he will be a heavy presence in Tuesday’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game after being voted the American League’s starting designated hitter and, on Monday, announced as the AL’s starting pitcher.
But he can’t be the face of baseball, says ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith. Not because of any shortcomings on the field but because he prefers to normally speak to the media through an interpreter, translating his native Japanese to English. While not fluent, Ohtani can speak English, and he also knows Spanish.
“The fact that you got a foreign player that doesn’t speak English, believe it or not, I think contributes to harming the game to some degree, when that’s your box office appeal,” Smith said during Monday’s “First Take.” “It needs to be somebody like Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, those guys. And unfortunately at this point in time, that’s not the case.”
Smith reiterated the point about Ohtani, who is 27 and moved to the United States after signing with the Angels in December 2017, a few minutes later.
“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,” he said. “And that’s what I’m trying to say.”
After mentioning former NBA stars Manu Ginobili and Dirk Nowitzki, Smith said:
“For some reason, in Major League Baseball, you got these guys who need those interpreters, and I think that compromises the ability for them to ingratiate themselves with the American public, which is what we’re really talking about.”
Smith’s on-air sparring partner, Max Kellerman, attempted some pushback while trying to frame Smith’s words.
“It’s not about ‘Ohtani’s not from here, that’s the issue.’ If your point is, ‘He’s got to learn English,’ I agree with that. I think the language barrier in every sport, not just baseball, it’s useful to learn the native tongue of the vast majority of most Americans.”
Smith said: “That’s what I’m talking about.”
To close the segment, moderator Molly Qerim Rose attempted to diffuse Smith’s comments.
“Those home runs are doing plenty of talking for me,” Qerim Rose said. “It is very difficult to learn a second language. I’m sure he’s trying.”
Smith then grilled Qerim Rose about how many Angels games she watches — quite a few, actually — before the program went to break.
USA TODAY Sports has reached out to ESPN for comment. Smith posted a video on Twitter later Monday to attempt to further explain his thoughts.
“In the United States, all I was saying is that, when you’re a superstar, if you could speak the English language, guess what, that’s going to make it that much easier (and) less challenging to promote the sport,” Smith said. “That’s all I was saying.”
On an episode of his daily ESPN+ show “Stephen A.’s World” last week, Smith marveled over Ohtani’s historic season and compared him to Babe Ruth while criticizing the league for not capitalizing on his prowess at the plate and on the mound.
“Baseball has a modern day Babe Ruth on their hands, and what are they doing about it? How many Shohei Ohtani commercials have you seen?” Smith said. “How many people are wearing Ohtani jerseys outside of Angel Stadium in Anaheim?
“You better get your act together baseball. You have to fix your game. Market it better.”
Ohtani, the 2018 American League Rookie of the Year, also leads the league in slugging percentage (.698). He’s struck out 87 batters in 67 innings, and made his first All-Star team this year. He will be participating in the MLB Home Run Derby on Monday.
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