No “Asian American Privilege” here–Baseball stars Travis Ishikawa and Kolten Wong steal the stage in America’s national pastime
I was too busy watching baseball this week to catch Bill O’Reilly on “The Daily
where he defended his belief in the Model Minority myth and how it’s evolved
into a sense of “Asian American Privilege.”
Who needs that bunk when there was a very special Asian American event happening
at the San Francisco Giants’ AT&T Park.
There has rarely been such a moment for those of us who identify as Asian
American, even though it may have been unremarkable to others.
Travis Ishikawa? Kolten Wong? Heroes? What’s the big deal, right?
In a league where the best players of Asian descent are actually established
pros from Japan or Korea, the native-born Asian American has rarely shined as
brightly in baseball.
The major exception, perhaps, has been the Giants’ Tim Lincecum, who is
part-Filipino. He has twice been the National League’s best pitcher, twice
thrown a no-hitter, and twice been a World Series champion.
That’s quite the exception.
For most Asian Americans, Wong’s experience is more normal. Deemed a can’t miss
star as a rookie last year, he was a goat in the 2013 World Series when he was
picked-off in a critical Cardinal rally by Red Sox pitcher Koji Uehara.
That brought out the racist tweets, as documented last year by the website,
Tweets went after both the native born and the “foreigner.” It was all the same
to the twitterverse.
And they went after the baseball acumen of Wong.
Incidents straight out of the Jackie Robinson era, I’d say.
This year, Wong again struggled, spent most of his time in the minors, then was
called up in the latter part of the season where he blossomed like a hibiscus.
Wong hit a home run to help his Cardinals beat the Dodgers and advance in the
five- game division series.
Then in the National League Championship against the Giants, Wong hit another
game ending home run in game 2 that tied up the series as it went back to San
Wong continued to terrorize the Giants with his quick left-handed bat. After the
first four games he was the Cardinals’ Hawaiian Punch: two doubles, a triple,
two homers, four RBIs. He was playing like the Cardinals’ MVP.
But in Game 5 on Thursday, the Cardinals were still down 3 games to 1 and were
threatened with elimination. In the 9th inning , with the score tied 3-3, Wong
sparked a rally attempt to load the bases. But the team failed to get a go-ahead
Better luck next year.
Giants’ turn. In the bottom of the ninth, Pablo Sandoval, whose roundness has
earned him the nickname “Panda” singled. Then Brandon Belt walked.
At 6-foot-3-inches, 220 pounds, Ishikawa is far from your typical Asian
American. Born to a third generation Japanese American father and a mother of
European descent, Ishikawa is half-Japanese American. But his background
includes the worst of the Asian American experience. His paternal grandfather
was interned during WWII in Colorado.
Ishikawa’s big break came in 2002, when the Giants drafted him straight out of
high school in Federal Way near Seattle. He was offered a reported $995,000
bonus to skip college and go pro.
But it wasn’t easy money. In 12 years, he’s been an example of how difficult it
is to play pro baseball, with multiple trips from obscurity to the bigs and
For the Giants, Ishikawa’s been both the hope and the nope.
At one time, billed as the first baseman of their future, he even played on the
Giants’ 2010 championship team, only to lose his batting touch and be released
the following year.
Since then, Ishikawa has been on six different pro clubs and started this season
with Pittsburgh. After being released, he knocked around, got no takers. He even
“I’ve been 30 all year, and it gets to the point, you’re in the minor leagues
and not only are you in the minor leagues but you’re struggling,” he told
reporters. “There’s times it crosses your mind if God is continuing to put me
through this trial, or it’s him telling me to hang it up and do something else.”
Ishikawa described how bad it got: “I was putting every effort I possibly could
into the hitting and no matter what, I was 0-for 4 and didn’t look like I could
hit a ball off a tee if you put it there.”
But Ishikawa didn’t give up. He worked hard and was given a second chance in
July by the Giants to be a role player.
Hero was not necessarily the role.
He was on the margins, not a star, but in the glow of others.
Still, injuries have a way of altering the course of events in sports, and due
to a depleted roster, the Giants had no choice but to put Ishikawa in left field
for the post-season.
Having only played a few games at the pos ition, he was a risk. It was averted
for the most part. But not on Thursday.
Ishikawa had made a few good catches in the series, but in the third inning he
badly misread a fly ball that sailed over his head for a double. It made him
look foolish. More importantly, the misplay gave the Cardinals a 1-0 lead. And
if the Giants lost by that margin, Ishikawa would be the goat.
But he would get a chance to do something about that in the ninth inning. With
the score at 3-3, it was a surprise even to see Ishikawa still playing.
Ordinarily he’d be replaced late in the game by a better defensive player.
With the two-balls and no strike count, Ishikawa said he figured a fastball
would be coming. And he guessed right.
“It was just nice to hit that ball,” he said.
From where I sat, Ishikawa hit the ball right in the sweet spot, on a line but
with just enough loft to get over the high brick wall in right field.
He rounded the bases and could hear the loud crowd cheering him on. In one
swing, Ishikawa delivered–a three-run homer that ended the game, gave the Giants
a 6-3 victory, the National League Pennant, and a ticket to the World Series.
“I don’t remember touching third or touching home,” he said. “It’s
The walk-off home run could immortalize Ishikawa, no longer the star in the
margins, as the latter-day Bobby Thompson.
You’ll recall Thompson hit that legendary game-winning home run that won the
pennant for the New York Giants and sent them to the World Series in 1951.
Travis Ishikawa, a name to remember?
Surely, he’s a baseball hero if you’re a Giants fan.
But for all America, he’s something more.
He’s diversity’s hero.
Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at www.amok.com. Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page. The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.