MLB hosts conversations for AAPI Heritage Month

If an Asian American baseball fan flips to MLB Network these days, they’re likely to find highlight after highlight of Japanese megastar Shohei Ohtani’s attack on MLB’s record books in a manner unlike anyone the league has seen in more than a half-century.

A handful of channels away, on the news, that same person might be confronted by reports of another disheartening attack on a member of the Asian American community, making them question their safety — and their place — in this society.

That’s the dichotomy involved in MLB’s celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month this May. It highlights, of course, a recognition and commemoration of the shared roots and contributions of those of AAPI descent — not only in the baseball world, but around all our communities.

But at this juncture of American society, it’s also impossible to have those discussions without a collective reckoning about the troubling rise in hate crimes against those of Asian and Pacific Islander descent and the damaging rhetoric against those communities that has become all too commonplace as a fragmented country picks up its pieces amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.

“You want to have the right combination of concern and hope,” said Farhan Zaidi, Giants president of baseball operations. “As with everything in this country, we all believe that hope prevails. But it’s a really unsettling time when you look at the fact that we have citizens in this country, Asian Americans, who just don’t feel — and can’t feel — safe in the current environment.”

How did we get here? How do we move forward from this? And what place does baseball have in this national conversation?

Those are some of the questions that voices from around the MLB community attempted to answer as part of MLB’s “Unfiltered” series this month, led by Stephen Nelson and Adnan Virk of MLB Network and shared across platforms on Sunday and Monday. Players, media members and front-office officials discussed their experiences in the sport, celebrated the Asian community’s contributions to baseball and — most importantly — opened up about the fraught state of Asian American relations in 2021.

The discussion, titled “#StopAsianHate,” culminated with a roundtable elevating the voices of notable Asian American leadership figures from around MLB: Zaidi, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, Marlins general manager Kim Ng and Royals assistant general manager Jin Wong.

“There’s a profound sadness to the fact that that’s a phrase we’re uttering in this country in 2021,” Zaidi said. “I don’t think any of us can actually get those words out of our mouth without wondering why we even have to use that phrase.”

Any understanding of the Asian American experience in the United States requires the appreciation of the fact that there is no such singular “Asian American experience,” considering the wide variety in the proud roots of the AAPI diaspora in America.

Ng is the first person of East Asian descent to lead an MLB front office, while Wong, also of East Asian descent, immigrated to the United States at age 3. Roberts was born to a Black father and Japanese mother, and he didn’t know which to identify with or how to communicate with his Asian relatives growing up. Zaidi, a practicing Muslim of South Asian descent, spoke of being racially profiled in the post-9/11 era.

Other such experiences were highlighted in “MLB Tonight: A Conversation” on Sunday night, including Rangers bench coach Don Wakamatsu, whose father was born in a Japanese American internment camp in the United States, and Jen Mac Ramos, a nonbinary AAPI writer for Baseball Prospectus, who spoke of the challenges of navigating the dynamic of an MLB clubhouse due to their identity.

For all their nuances, one strong commonality of those Asian American experiences is the sense of not fitting in — of simply being different — as part of a country and societal structures in which they are the minority.

“It took a little time to get comfortable in my own skin and be willing and able to raise my voice when I disagreed about something,” Wong said. “Because a lot of times in my youth, I just wanted to fit in. I was just questioning in the back of my mind, ‘Why can’t I be treated the same as everybody else?'”

That’s a distinction that’s accentuated now, more than ever.

And even setting aside the issues generated by the pandemic for a second, that’s also a distinction that has been historically prevalent within the baseball industry.

It took until 2018 for Zaidi to be hired as the first MLB front office leader of Asian descent, and then, until ’20 for Ng to become the first of East Asian descent. Zaidi pointed out that the environment of baseball has been such that, as recently as the 2017 World Series, with the eyes of the world upon baseball, Yuli Gurriel of the Astros made a racist gesture in reference to then-Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish’s ethnicity and was allowed to play the remainder of the series.

“That moment and the fact that we didn’t take stronger action, I think that still resides in the heart of every Asian fan around the game,” Zaidi said. “I think we have to talk about moments like that. We can’t allow things like that to happen without taking stronger action. I think that’s the only way we get to the other side of this.”

Many of those issues have traditionally not risen to the level of truly broad and nuanced discourse in the media and in American communities, in part due to the harmful myth of the “model minority” often faced by Asian Americans and lack of representation in traditional and broadcast media and in positions of power.

This is not one of those moments — and the panelists stressed the importance of maintaining this exposure.

“I think it’s just being relentless with our voices,” Roberts said. “This is not just something that’s an isolated moment in time that we’re talking about. It’s something that needs to be talked about [on an] ongoing [basis], and be relentless with it.”

Part of that, too, is continuing to diversify the game of baseball, giving others like them platforms to speak out in the future. Asian superstars like Ohtani and, years ago, Ichiro Suzuki, will market themselves and the game. But to make a more noticeable dent in clubhouses and front offices, they agreed things start at the youth level and in underrepresented areas, fostering an environment where differences are accepted — and encouraged.

“Let’s embrace that diversity instead of kind of working towards conformity, which I think is sometimes an issue in our game,” Zaidi said. “Allowing people to be authentically themselves and feel comfortable and safe being themselves is one of the biggest gestures that anybody can make right now.”

These are complex problems and structural issues that won’t be solved quickly. But, as Roberts said, it’s more important now than ever to give AAPI leaders a platform and a voice to speak to their community and their allies, working toward a better future — and a better game.

“We all want that ideal where it doesn’t matter — where we’re not looking at color, where we’re not looking at gender,” Ng said. “But it’s the most obvious thing when you walk into a room. It’s tough to break it down. It’s difficult when you’re just identified in that way. There’s just no getting around it.

“And so, I think that the more that we embrace it, our differences, how we look to people, and how to educate, the better off we’re going to be.”