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ESPN's Smith: Ohtani's Language Barrier Hurts MLB

Brock Fritz

Los Angeles Angels pitcher and Major League Baseball home run leader Shohei Ohtani is changing the game. It’s not enough for ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, who said on “First Take” Monday that the Japanese-born Ohtani’s stardom isn’t ideal for Major League Baseball due to the fact that he uses 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 No. 1 face ... needs an interpreter to understand what the hell he's saying," Smith said hours before Ohtani participated in Monday night’s MLB Home Run Derby.

According to USA TODAY, Ohtani can speak English but isn’t fluent, so he normally speaks to the media through an interpreter. The 27-year-old, who moved to the United States in 2017, 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. "It needs to be somebody like Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, those guys. And unfortunately at this point in time, that's not the case.

"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."

Moderator Molly Qerim Rose responded mid-segment by saying, "Those home runs are doing plenty of talking for me. It is very difficult to learn a second language. I'm sure he's trying." 

Smith received significant backlash for his comments, leading him to post a series of responses and apologies, starting with a video in which he said, "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. That's all I was saying." 

He followed that with a Twitter post saying, “Amazing that folks still don’t know me after all these years. If I am wrong about something, I will apologize. Especially if I unintentionally offend ANY GROUP of people — because it’s the right thing to do. Period! I’m BLACK. I would know! See y’all tomorrow on @FirstTake.”

His biggest apology Monday evening, when he used the notes app to post a longer apology in which he said he screwed up.

“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,” Smith said. “As an African-American, keenly aware of the damage stereotyping has done to many in this country, it should’ve elevated my sensitivities even more. Based on my words, I failed in that regard and it’s on me, and me along! He is making a difference, as it pertains to inclusiveness and leadership. I should have embraced that in my comments. Instead, 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. There’s simply no other way to put it. I’m sincerely sorry for any angst I’ve caused with my comments on First Take this morning. Again, I am sorry. And I’ll happily reiterate these words more extensively tomorrow morning, as well.”

A two-way star in a way the MLB hasn’t seen in years, Ohtani has a 3.49 ERA while leading the league with 33 home runs in the season’s first half. He will be the starting pitcher, designated hitter and leadoff batter for the American League in Tuesday night’s All-Star Game.

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