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Stephen A. Smith: Shohei Ohtani ‘harming’ baseball because he ‘doesn’t speak English’

Shohei Ohtani has 33 home runs and a 3.49 ERA, but Stephen A. Smith believes the Angels’ two-way star is detrimental to Major League Baseball. 

During Monday’s episode of ESPN’s “First Take,” the show’s host, Molly Qerim, asked Smith and Max Kellerman if “it’s good for Major League Baseball that Ohtani is the top attraction.” In response, Smith answered “not to me,” reasoning that Ohtani’s use of a Japanese interpreter diminishes the sport’s popularity domestically. 

“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,” said Smith, who is paid a reported $12 million annually to share his opinions with the ESPN audience. “It needs to be somebody like Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, those guys. 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 is saying — in this country. And that’s what I’m trying to say.”

Ohtani will start in Tuesday’s MLB All-Star Game as both the designated hitter and pitcher for the American League. Last Sunday, he became the first player in major league history to be selected at both positions, with his two-way prowess surpassing even Babe Ruth. He is batting .279 with a league-leading 33 home runs and 70 RBI, while also pitching to a 3.49 ERA with 87 strikeouts in 67 innings.

Despite admitting that Ohtani’s on-field success is “nothing short of spectacular,” Smith stuck to his original argument throughout the show. 

Shohei Ohtani rounds the bases after hitting a home run against the Red Sox.
Shohei Ohtani rounds the bases after hitting a home run against the Red Sox.
Getty Images

“In other sports like basketball, you notice, Dirk Nowitzki was German and Manu Ginobili and others were from other places, and guess what Max? They spoke fluent English,” Smith said. “You understood what they were saying when somebody was interviewing them. They didn’t need an interpreter. It goes a long way. For some reason with Major League Baseball, you’ve got these guys that 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, who professed that he “knows my baseball,” also drew a reference to the legendary 1998 MLB home run record chase between sluggers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Smith lauded McGwire, who is white, for helping to “save baseball,” insinuating that Ohtani is unable to do so because of the language barrier. 

Stephen A. Smith does an ESPN broadcast.
Stephen A. Smith does an ESPN broadcast.
Getty Images

“You had a dude that you could put on Wheaties boxes because he l could ingratiate himself the younger generations out there that had America transfixed on the sport of Major League Baseball,” Smith said. “What I’m saying to you is that’s not the case (with Ohtani).”

Later on in the show, Kellerman admitted to agreeing with Smith’s opinion.

“If your point is, ‘he’s gotta learn English,’ I agree with that,” Kellerman said.

On Monday afternoon, Smith released a video on Twitter responding to criticism, though he hardly issues an apology or corrects his initial take.

“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.

“A lot of them need translators. You know, Spanish, it can be Mandarin, Japanese, the list goes on and on and on. If you are trying to ingratiate yourself with the American public the way Major League Baseball is because of the problems that you’re having to deal with in terms of approving the attractiveness of the sport, it helps you spoke the English language.

“… But in the United States, all I was saying is that when you’re a superstar, if you can speak the English language, then guess what, that’s gonna make it that much easier and less challenging to promote the sport.”


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