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On Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees, and the rise of anti-Asian hate in America

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Hearing news of what the former pitcher experienced hits close to home.

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, it was reported by multiple English-speaking outlets as well as a Japanese magazine that one of the motivating factors in Masahiro Tanaka’s decision to return to Japan was the concern over the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes in America. The magazine claims that Tanaka and his family felt unsafe in America, in part stemming from a discriminatory episode experienced by his son in school. Brian Cashman said he felt heartbroken to learn of these purported incidents, though he maintains that he never heard directly from Tanaka about such events.

Recently, ESPN’s Marly Rivera reported that she has spoken with Japanese journalists who claim the magazine is an opinion piece and does not quote Tanaka, though she has yet to provide an update on her request for comment from the pitcher. Even if that is the case, it is not hard to imagine that the rise of anti-Asian hate in America would be cause for unease for anyone of Asian heritage. Indeed, when Tanaka and his family returned to Japan during the 2020 shutdown between spring training and summer camp, he tweeted: “During the Florida camp, there were events other than the Coronavirus that made me feel like I was in danger, so we decided to return home with due care.”*

Disclaimer: Google Translate was used to translate the tweet.

As someone who is half-Chinese, this news and the events of the past year are weighing heavily on my heart.

Watching videos on the evening news of unsuspecting pedestrians being savagely beaten makes me physically ill. Seeing the images of the 74-year-old victim of a random attack with bruises across her face, I cannot help but picture the face of my grandmother, and it makes me want to cry to imagine this having happened to her. I worry every time my mother volunteers at the soup kitchen in an underserved neighborhood of Enfield, CT. It’s a helpless feeling.

I have experienced episodes of racism throughout my life. Growing up, I was taught that strength is the ability to turn the other cheek, to not make one’s own problems others’. However, now I feel I must speak up. It is no surprise that the increase in violence against the AAPI community coincides with certain voices with enormous platforms harmfully labeling COVID-19 as the “China Virus.” But more than just targeting Asian-Americans, the previous few years have seen the normalization of hateful speech and sentiments filtering down from the highest level.

The Yankees have a rich tradition of welcoming Asian players; it’s one of the reasons I gravitated toward the team in the nascent stages of my baseball fandom. From Hideki Matsui to Chien-Ming Wang to Hiroki Kuroda to Ichiro to Tanaka, I knew I wanted to cheer for a team that had stars who looked like me. Seeing Matsui step into the box, hearing the chants of “Godzilla” ring down from the upper decks, feeling the goosebumps as he proudly saluted the crowds when given a curtain call all gave me a sense of belonging at a time I was beginning to understand that I looked different from my white elementary school classmates. So to think one of their own felt unsafe living in a country that was as much his own as any of ours hits close to home.

Baseball at its best can be such a unifying force — 26 men from all different walks of life united in pursuit of a common goal. And I feel this strongest when I cheer for the Yankees. People from all backgrounds speaking the shared language of Yankees fandom, bound in their shared support of the team. That is why I end this somber post on a hopeful note: that our differences melt away when we recognize our common humanity. And what better avenue to do so than our collective love of the Yankees?