Shohei Ohtani has taken the world of sports by storm. After months of speculation and buzz from fans, journalists and fellow athletes, Ohtani announced on December 9th, 2023 that he had signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers on Instagram. Ohtani’s decision to go Dodger Blue was just part of the astounding news; the 10-year, $700 million contract drawn up between the superstar and the Dodgers organization is recognized as the largest contract in sports history.
Known as an elite two-way baseball player, the Japanese pitcher and hitter began his career with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in 2013. Since then, he has played six seasons with the Los Angeles Angels, was named 2018 AL Rookie of the Year, made three All Star appearances, won two AL Most Valuable Player awards and was part of the 2023 World Baseball Classic Japan championship team. Shohei Ohtani has always had the talent; if he hasn’t proven it through his historic performance, his new contract sums it up pretty well.
Shohei Ohtani’s dominant presence in the sports world goes beyond simply baseball. Ohtani’s success continuously fights back against stereotypes of professional Asian and Asian American athletes, inspiring generations of young hopefuls that one day their hard work may lead them to sign a contract that gets the world talking.
Asians and Asian Americans have never been the most visible demographic when it came to American professional sports. There have been a good number of Olympic athletes of Asian descent who have represented the United States: figure skater Michelle Kwan, snowboarder Chloe Kim, swimmer Nathan Adrian, and gymnast Sunisa Lee have all won Olympic medals in their respective sport. But when it comes to the sports teams that are watched on the television screens of American homes and loved by the American public, household names are few and far between. Shohei Ohtani has arguably challenged that barrier, and has become one of the most recognizable names and faces today in a sport that has long been dubbed “America’s favorite pastime.”
At around the same time Ohtani was starting his professional career in Japan, the NBA would see Taiwanese-American basketball star Jeremy Lin stir up a similar wave of popularity during his 2011-2012 season with the New York Knicks. Lin’s speedy rise to success and stardom was nicknamed “Linsanity.” While Linsanity drew a lot of positive attention, it also garnered endless instances of racial stereotyping, claims that discredited Lin’s accomplishments, and uncovered the ugly truth behind what can happen when someone of Asian descent takes the forefront of a well-loved American sport—even when they have the talent to justify it.
Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock made an insensitive attempt at a joke on X (formerly Twitter) towards Lin, reading, “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight.” While Whitlock was quick to apologize, his comment had already done its part to perpetuate the long-standing stereotype of the emasculated, sexually inferior Asian American male. Renowned sports channel ESPN used a racial slur in a headline about Lin, and if dealing with racialization from media wasn’t enough, fellow athlete Floyd Mayweather claimed that Lin “is a good player but all the hype is because he’s Asian.”
Since the fade of Linsanity, Asian American educators have used Lin to discuss the relationship between the model minority myth and Asians and Asian Americans in professional sports. “Jeremy Lin’s Model Minority Problem” by Maxwell Leung, featured in Contemporary Asian America: A Multidisciplinary Reader edited by Min Zhou and Anthony C. Ocampo, examined how Lin’s situation walked the fine line between resisting and perpetuating the model minority stereotype.
“Lin is tall, strong, aggressive, and physically gifted. Far from shy or quiet, he’s a powerful player in a physically demanding sport, displaying style and swagger on a huge media stage. The Linsanity phenomenon marked more than just the international embrace of a spectacular new Asian American sports star—it posed a challenge to emasculating stereotypes.” Leung writes. “At the same time, Lin could be the poster child… He was smart and driven, but overlooked by college recruiters and NBA draft scouts, and he bounced from team to team. His hard work and focus—model behavior—paid off in the form of a phenomenal ascent to the upper echelons of a multibillion dollar sport.”
Jeremy Lin’s short-lived time in the spotlight has provided a story significant to Asian American studies, but it has more or less left the minds of the American public.
Shohei Ohtani has provided the Asian and Asian American community newfound hope of proving that people of Asian descent have a place in professional American sports, resisting stereotypes that Asians are simply skilled at academics. Where Ohtani departs from the frustrating paradox that plagued Lin’s career can be summed up perfectly with the events of the last couple months.
Ohtani has already been paving new ground in sports with his performance up until now, but his free agency period, contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers and general reception to the news signals a significant turning point in the perception of Asians and Asian Americans in sports.
With how big of a player Ohtani is, people in the baseball world expected a loud, highly-publicized free agency; many expressed their disappointment with the secrecy of the negotiations. Some even went as far as to track Ohtani’s plane for hints of who and where the player was looking at for his future team. While the free agency period may have stirred less drama than some hoped, it did not deter from one glaring fact: baseball executives, organizations and fans all wanted Ohtani.
As ESPN writer Buster Olney so succinctly said, “Everybody wants him, and everybody wants to give him a lot of money.” It did not matter that Ohtani chose not to make a show of himself and his free agency campaign because the baseball world knew that any team would take their shot with him if they had the chance. Ohtani let his past 10 years of professional experience speak for itself.
When news eventually broke that the Los Angeles Dodgers signed him for $700 million for 10 years, Ohtani sent the world another message—not only did he know his own worth, but an organization as celebrated as the Dodgers knew it too. To be the face of baseball is one thing, but to be the face of the most talked about free agency in recent times and the face of the largest sports contract in history shows that Ohtani is recognized for his talent and skills.
Responses to Ohtani’s contract have been generally positive, especially within the Asian and Asian American community. Ohtani’s career is a testament that there is space for them in professional sports.
“You don’t really see many Asian faces on TV across any field, let alone sports,” Katherine Siew, a Chinese American attorney based in Pasadena, told the LA Times. “I think if growing up, we had seen examples in arts or sports … I could point to that and say: ‘Look, Mom, we can be successful in that, too. It’s not just always doctor, lawyer.’ I just hope it gives the younger generation a different chance.”
Shohei Ohtani has proved himself to be a modern-day baseball superstar. The Los Angeles Dodgers may have been able to sign Ohtani and his unprecedented skills for a grand $700 million, but the representation, inspiration, and pride that Ohtani has given the Asian and Asian American community is priceless.
Visual Credit: Jeffrey Hayes