On an uncharacteristically frigid Tuesday in April back in 2003, a newly minted New York Yankees baseball player stepped onto the field during the team’s home opener.
The stadium would have been more packed had it been a warmer spring night, but the crowd carried the same boisterous, all-American spirit. Enthralled fans chorused in unison chants for the home team.
Entirely immersed in the game at hand, the player took his place at home plate. He peered out into the field, and then stared straight at the pitcher. The crowd quieted to watch the pitch. Seconds later, there’d be a new hero in town.
Hideki Matsui, storied Japanese baseball slugger, had made his debut at Yankee Stadium with a grand slam. For an Asian American 10-year-old like me at the time, who’d already learned to brace myself for any tired Asian metalmouth supernerd tropes, the player represented a glorious hero who’d possessed the ability to command respect and prompt Americans who may have never regularly interacted with an Asian dude to chant his name.
I was far from the only Asian American who found their hero in the sport.
For many in the community growing up, the Asian sluggers and stars on the field were welcome, powerful wins for representation. The athletes’ visibility on MLB teams was all the more striking considering that, as Asian Americans continue to meet challenges asserting our place in the U.S., the players became titans at America’s favorite pastime.
“I gravitated towards baseball mainly because you got to see faces that look like yours,” Ryan Hirano, who grew up rooting for Japanese pitcher Hideo Nomo, the player who’s largely credited with starting a wave of Asian players entering the big leagues, told HuffPost.
Brandon Lee, who works in the nonprofit space and idolizes the Chicago Cubs, felt similarly about the sport.
“When you think about the posters you have in your room as a kid, I would’ve loved to have someone who looked like me up there and it wasn’t until Nomo that I had that,” Lee said of the player, who’s known for his legendary wind-up. “I could go onto the field and play and emulate someone who looks like me.”
Many Asian Americans, while loyal to certain teams, went out of their way to root for any player with a similar background. The players were a vehicle for fans to reclaim their heritage in an environment scarce in proper Asian representation on-screen or in media, where it was at times difficult to feel pride for their heritage.
Mina Park, a baseball superfan and Texas Rangers aficionado, looked at South Korean pitcher Chan Ho Park as a role model, even when he wasn’t playing for the home team. While she recounts moments where she didn’t feel comfortable embracing her heritage, like when she refused to bring kimchi to the lunchroom to avoid being taunted by her classmates, players like the pitcher pushed her closer to identity when he was on the field.
“Whenever a Korean was in the spotlight, we all [rallied] around that person and we had this sense of pride. Chan Ho Park was with the Dodgers before he actually came to the Rangers but I remember seeing the Korean community really rallying behind him,” she told HuffPost. “I had a ton of figurines with his Dodgers apparel. ... I belonged to a Korean church growing up and I remember the church would organize outings to go see Chan Ho Park when he actually joined the Rangers.”
The Rangers fan added that seeing others outside of the community embrace Asian players and wear their jerseys was a heartening surprise. While many of these athletes hailed from overseas, they had found fans in an arena that “felt very American growing up,” Park said.
Hirano echoed Park’s thoughts.
“Other kids at school, white kids, Black kids, Latino kids, they would wear jerseys like that so it was really cool to see other people embracing Asians in that way,” he said. “We belong here, and seeing that success, it felt validating to be part of something that’s super American.”
Of course, there were many sobering moments for fans of the Asian community as well. And the athletes’ stardom could not protect them from moments of bigotry. Lee pointed out how sportscasters and media often racialized the descriptions of the players. In one particularly notable incident, Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray made a “slanty” eye remark while discussing Nomo.
In 2008, a shop outside the Cubs’ Wrigley Field began selling a shirt, as an ode to Japanese outfielder Kosuke Fukudome, that featured a bear face with slanted eyes, wearing oversized Harry Caray-style glasses, accompanied by the words “Horry Kow.’’
“It illustrates that being a Japanese player comes its own sort of backlash,” Lee said.
Though the racist incidents are undeniable, neither is the cultural weight these players carried. Joon Lee, a longtime baseball fan who now reports on the Boston Red Sox for ESPN, grew up revering Korean pitcher Byung-Hyun Kim, who’d become best known for his time on the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Red Sox. He pointed out that sports carry immense sway in pop culture opinion. It’s one of the few areas where fans who may not typically discuss or consider political and cultural issues are forced to confront them, he said.
Citing monumental figures in the civil rights movement like athletes Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson, Lee pointed out that “sports is where a lot of American cultural change happens.”
“Having an Asian voice at the table was really important because as invisible as Asian Americans often are, they have a very valuable perspective in all of this,” he said.