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ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith offers full apology for ‘insensitive’ comments about Angels star Shohei Ohtani

Smith drew heat for saying it was bad for baseball that the Los Angeles Angels phenom chooses to speak through an interpreter.

ESPN host Stephen A. Smith during a live "First Take" filmed at the 76ers Fieldhouse in Wilmington, Del. in 2017.
ESPN host Stephen A. Smith during a live "First Take" filmed at the 76ers Fieldhouse in Wilmington, Del. in 2017.Read moreLeslie Barbaro / For the Inquirer

After catching heck most of the day for making comments about baseball all-star Shohei Ohtani deemed by many disrespectful of Asians, ESPN host Stephen A. Smith backed off hours later, posting an apology on Twitter saying he did not mean to be disrespectful.

“Let me say that I never intended to offend ANY COMMUNITY, particularly the Asian Community...” he wrote on Twitter.

Smith isn’t known for measured takes, but the ESPN host drew plenty of heat for comments he made about the baseball star.

During a segment on Monday’s First Take about the Los Angeles Angels phenom, Smith said it was bad for baseball that Ohtani has become the face of the sport — not because of his performance on the field, but because he prefers to speak in Japanese and address the media through an interpreter.

“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 number one face is a dude that needs an interpreter so you can understand what the hell he’s saying,” Smith, a former Inquirer sports columnist, said to First Take cohost Max Kellerman.

MLB executives might not agree, as they’re marketing the entire All-Star Game around him. The 27-year-old slugger is the first player in MLB history to be named an All-Star as both a position player and a pitcher, and he leads the major leagues with 33 home runs while also posting a 3.49 ERA on the mound.

Ohtani can also speak English and Spanish, but he’s not comfortable enough speaking to the media in either language, so he comments through an interpreter.

Smith said someone like Phillies slugger Bryce Harper or South Jersey native Mike Trout, both of whom have been stars for years, would have more “box office appeal.” He also pointed to NBA stars like Dirk Nowitzki and Manu Ginóbili as foreign players who learned English and became popular among American fans, and faulted MLB for waning in popularity due to the number of players who speak through an interpreter.

“For some reason, with Major League Baseball, you got these guys that need those interpreters, and I think that compromised the ability for them to ingratiate themselves with the American public, which is what we’re really talking about,” Smith added.

Smith’s comments were roasted on social media, with fans and some ESPN colleagues panning his remarks.

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“Perhaps we shouldn’t ask the most multitalented player in recorded baseball history to cut up lil morsels of English sound bites and make airplane noises while spoonfeeding them to us too,” wrote Pablo Torre, host of the “ESPN Daily” podcast.

“Stephen A. Smith going full Tucker Carlson isn’t surprising at all, he tends to have an ignorant, unsubstantiated take a couple of times a week,” Andrew Hammond, the assistant sports editor at the Detroit Free Press, wrote on Twitter. “But you guys continue to watch this garbage, so … there you go.”

“Seems telling of something that on First Take today Stephen A. Smith both said that Shohei Ohtani can’t be the face of baseball because he uses a translator and also butchered the names of Nigerian basketball players by way of criticizing Team USA for losing to them,” tweeted New York Times sports reporter Kevin Draper.

Kellerman offered some pushback to Smith’s logic, but ultimately agreed about Ohtani’s language barrier limiting his appeal. It was left to Molly Qerim Rose to attempt to walk back the comments of her cohosts.

“Those home runs are doing plenty of talking for me,” Qerim Rose said. “It is very difficult to learn a second language. I’m sure he’s trying.”

Smith attempted to clarify his comments in a video shared on Twitter on Monday afternoon, claiming his comments about the “marketability and popularity” of baseball were being mischaracterized as criticism of Ohtani, whom he referred to multiple times as “the second coming of Babe Ruth.”

“If you are a sport trying to ingratiate yourself with the American public the way Major League baseball is because of the problems you’ve been having to deal with in terms of improving the attractiveness of the sport, it helps that if you spoke the English language,” Smith said. “It doesn’t mean anything more than that.”

By early Monday evening, Smith had decided to go with a full apology, saying in a statement he “never intended to offend” the Asian community with his remarks about Ohtani.

“In this day and age, with all the violence being perpetrated against the Asian Community, my comments — albeit unintentional — were clearly insensitive and regrettable,” Smith said, adding that he was “sincerely sorry for any angst” he caused with his comments.

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