ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith on Shohei Ohtani: Angels star using interpreter hurts baseball

Shohei Ohtani is at the top of his game as a batter and a pitcher and is doing something not seen in Major League Baseball since Babe Ruth was playing in the 1910s.

As the Los Angeles Angels star is set to compete in the MLB Home Run Derby on Monday night, ESPN’s top personality Stephen A. Smith was wondering whether Ohtani being the top star was good for the sport because he has to speak through an interpreter.

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The question about whether Ohtani’s emergence was good for baseball was a topic posed on one of ESPN’s flagship programs “First Take” on Monday — hours before the network was set to air the competition in which the slugger is the No. 1 seed for.

Smith said in his debate with Max Kellerman that, in his opinion, an MLB baseball player speaking through an interpreter isn’t a good look.

Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani reacts in the dugout after he scored on a sacrifice fly hit by Phil Gosselin during the ninth inning of a baseball game, Sunday, July 11, 2021, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

“Even though baseball is an international sport, and I totally get that, it’s played in the United States and Canada. That’s where Major League Baseball is being played. So when I’m looking at it, I’m looking at it from this perspective. In the United States of America, when you talk about the sport of Major League Baseball, you talk about it’s lack of diversity in terms of African American players, you talk about the influx of foreign players – whether they be from Venezuela, the Dominican Republic or Japan or anywhere else – if you are a star and you need an interpreter that might have something to do, not everything because there’s a lot of things that go into it, but that might have something to do with your inability to ingratiate yourself with that young demographic to attract them to the sport,” he said.

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Smith lashed out against MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s alleged inability to get baseball to appeal to the younger demographic and that the sport is “always last to the party.”

And while Ohtani has hit 33 home runs and has a 3.49 ERA on the mound through 13 starts, Smith said that having an interpreter will hinder Ohtani’s appeal.

“But 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 in 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,” Smith said.

Los Angeles Angels' Shohei Ohtani, left, talks with third base coach Brian Butterfield while on base during the first inning of a baseball game against the Seattle Mariners, Sunday, July 11, 2021, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani, left, talks with third base coach Brian Butterfield while on base during the first inning of a baseball game against the Seattle Mariners, Sunday, July 11, 2021, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Kellerman made a point that Ohtani is doing something that no one since Ruth has done before with the competition in MLB presently being better than it ever as been.

Smith fired back at Kellerman’s point by bringing up the home-run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in the late 1990s.

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“Baseball was dying in the 90s. What saved it? It was the home-run competition between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Now obviously Sammy Sosa we learned later that during his testimony on Capitol Hill that suddenly he needed an interpreter. You know, ‘baseball being very, very good to him (in an accent).’ You know what I’m saying? That wasn’t enough he needed an interpreter to speak for him when he was on Capitol Hill. Surely didn’t need that when he was smacking those home runs,” Smith said.

“But Mark McGwire, basically helped save baseball. Because you had a dude that you could put on Wheaties boxes … that can ingratiate himself with the younger generations out there and had America transfixed on the sport of Major League Baseball. But what I’m saying to you is that’s not the case. That’s all I mean by that. I’m not taking anything away from Ohtani. I know what he’s doing on the field. I know it’s nothing short of spectacular and I understand that baseball is an international sport itself in terms of participation.

“But when you talk about an audience gravitating to the tube or to the ballpark to actually watch you, OK, 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. And that’s what I’m trying to say.

“You know in other sports, Max, basketball … You notice Dirk Nowitzki is German and Manu Ginobili and others were from other places and guess what Max they spoke fluent English. 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 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.”

Kellerman added it would be helpful for Ohtani to learn English and cited players like Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera who learned the language as the New York Yankees formed a dynasty in the late 1990s.

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Smith wondered if Bryce Harper was going on an Ohtani-like tear whether they’d be debating baseball five days a week.

Smith’s comments drew a visceral reaction online.

ESPN didn’t immediately respond to Fox News’ request for comment. The Angels nor the MLB Players’ Association immediately responded to Fox News’ request for comment.

Smith didn’t comment on the controversial statement, instead focusing his attention on the Milwaukee Bucks and their NBA Finals runs.

Ohtani is making his first All-Star Game appearance and will likely hit and pitch at Coors Field for the American League.

For what it’s worth, Ohtani can speak some English and Spanish.

He spoke English on state during a Baseball Writers of Association awards ceremony in 2019.

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In 2018, Angels manager Mike Scioscia said Ohtani knows a little bit more Spanish than English.