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Stephen A. Smith, commentator on ESPN's "First Take" and king of opinions you wish you hadn't heard, is walking back his worst opinion yet.
In a rant on "First Take" Monday, Smith loudly claimed that Shohei Ohtani, the Japanese-born Los Angeles Angels superstar who is the first legitimate two-way player since Babe Ruth, can't be the face of baseball because he needs an interpreter.
“But 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 number one face is a dude that needs an interpreter so you can understand what the hell he’s saying.”
Before you point out that some of baseball's brightest and most talented stars — Fernando Tatis Jr., Ronald Acuna Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr., — don't speak English as their first language, Smith had more to say (or yell) on the topic.
Smith claims that if Bryce Harper was doing what Ohtani is doing, "we might be talking about baseball five days a week." After insisting that English isn't hard to learn (which is not true), he says that he hasn't watched a single Angels game all season, but "when Barry Bonds was smacking home runs, or Mark McGwire, I was transfixed on the tube."
The full segment is currently available on Youtube. View at your own risk.
Smith gets roasted, doesn't understand why people are angry
The world wasted no time flooding Twitter with angry responses to Smith.
Smith recently had opposite opinion
Smith's unhinged rant about Ohtani is unsupported by facts, and plainly xenophobic. And if you're familiar with Smith at all, it probably won't it surprise you that he was essentially on the other side of this argument on July 6, less than a week ago. He loudly complained that MLB "has a damn modern day Babe Ruth on their hands and what are they doing about it?"
He spent two minutes praising Ohtani and railing against MLB for failing to market him, yet on Monday he said that Ohtani can't be the face of the game because he doesn't speak English, implying that it's Ohtani's own fault and that MLB couldn't marked him if it tried.
It's also worth noting that Smith spends his July 6 rant talking about Ohtani like he's watched him plenty of times, yet bellowed at his fellow commentators on Monday that he hasn't watched an Angels game all season. That is somehow the least surprising thing about this entire situation.
An interpreter doesn't mean a player doesn't speak English
English is the primary language of baseball in America, so players who are learning English as a second language typically know more than enough to communicate with their teammates and coaches. Interpreters are there to help players understand English more thoroughly and express themselves in more detail.
Many players know English well enough to understand it, but don't feel confident speaking it to reporters. For some players, doing their first interview exclusively in English is an important milestone, but even then they they typically continue to use an interpreter because their native language is still most comfortable to them.
Yu Darvish, a Japanese pitcher who has played in the U.S. since 2012, explained this perfectly in 2019 when he began speaking English in interviews with English-speaking media. His interpreter was still close by, but only in case of an emergency.
"I want to speak better English," Darvish told ESPN. "I understand what you guys are asking, but when I get nervous — like now — my English gets stuck a little."
Another famous and beloved Japanese player, Ichiro Suzuki, used an interpreter throughout his time in the majors despite knowing how to speak English. That didn't stop him from being a total superstar. In fact, a 2016 tweet about Ichiro's "unwillingness to learn English" from a now-former ESPN commentator inspired a GQ article called "Ichiro Suzuki Speaks English Just Fine, Moron." In that article, he explained that he used an interpreter during his entire 19-year career specifically because he wanted to deeply connect with fans.
By the way, you can replace "Ichiro Suzuki" with "Shohei Ohtani" in that article title and it would be true, because Ohtani also speaks English.
SAS issues followup apologies
Smith tweeted a response on Monday afternoon in which he completely failed to understand what people were angry about, actually doubling down on his previous xenophobic opinion.
"I'm talking about the marketability the promotion of the sport ... 28 percent of the players in Major League Baseball are foreign players. A lot of them need translators ... If you are ab sport trying to ingratiate yourself with the American public the way Major League Baseball is, because of the problems that you've been having to deal with in terms of improving the attractiveness of the sport, it helps that if you spoke the English language."
According to Smith here, MLB is not as marketable as the NBA or NFL because they have a significant number of foreign players who don't speak English as their first language.
Later on Monday, Smith tweeted a written statement:
It reads in part:
Let me apologize right now. As I'm watching things unfold, let me say that I never intended to offend ANY COMMUNITY, particularly the Asian community — and especially SHOHEI Ohtani, himself. ... I screwed up. In this day and age, with all the violence being perpetrated against the Asian Community, my comments — albeit unintentional — were clearly insensitive and regrettable.
Maybe it's time for Smith to take a break from speaking into a camera for awhile. Or if he's going to speak into a camera, make sure it's off.
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