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 Show,” 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?
Travis Ishikawa hit .385 and drove in 7 runs vs. STL. (© 2014 Photo by Emil Guillermo)
Oh, I wish we were at that point in our nation’s history. Post-racial, Asian American-style.
But truthfully, we aren’t there yet. The idea of two Asian Americans as the critical stars in America’s pastime, baseball, is really quite remarkable in the history of diversity in our country.
It happened just this past week when the St.Louis Cardinals played the San Francisco Giants for the National League Championship.
For a while, the hottest player on the ball field was a 5-foot-9-inch second baseman from Hilo, Hawaii, a star at Honolulu’s Kamehameha School, and the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Was there anyone hotter in the game than a guy with the improbable baseball name of Kolten Wong?
For a few days, no.
(© 2014 Photo by Emil Guillermo)
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, Public Shaming.
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 Francisco.
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 run home.
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.
Next up, the 31-year-old Travis Ishikawa.
Travis Ishikawa about to touch home on historic night. (© 2014 Photo by Emil Guillermo)
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 back.
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 considered quitting.
“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.
Ishikawa rounds second after hitting home run, as Giants storm the field. (© 2014 Photo by Emil Guillermo)
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 unbelievable.”
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.