Where have you gone Kurt Suzuki? Should our lonely nation turn its eyes to you?
David Inoue, Executive Director, JACL
Parenting in these times can be challenging. This fall has been a roller coaster ride as my seven year old son has followed his hometown baseball team, the Washington Nationals, capture the World Series championship in dramatic fashion. In full disclosure, I have been a lifelong Cubs fan, though have adopted the Nats as my favorite team when not playing the Cubs. Asked who his favorite player is, he’s quick to answer with the obvious choice of Anthony Rendon, the likely National League Most Valuable Player third baseman for the Nats. I had been pushing for months, “What about Kurt Suzuki? He’s Japanese American.”
And Suzuki did not disappoint on the field in the post-season. He caught two amazing games helping the Nats to a two game lead on the road. Although he struggled at the plate, his leadoff walk in game one and home run in game two ignited the Nats two big offensive innings in those games . Unfortunately, his season ended with an injury in game three, just before he was set to once again leadoff in a late inning. Who knows what would have happened if he led off that late inning as he had in the previous two games. The Nats still went on to win the World Series and my son had the opportunity to walk in the World Series parade as a player in Washington, DC’s Senators Satchel Paige Little League.
Then came the Nats team appearance at the White House where Suzuki donned a MAGA (Make America Great Again) hat and shouted to the crowd how much he loved everyone. It was a viral moment, rippling across the internet drawing rebuke and praise depending on which side of politics you represent. For many Japanese Americans though in particular, it was emotionally crushing.
The very concept of Make America Great Again evokes times past where things have not always been so great for minorities. The Pollyanaish perspective highlights a past greatness that ignores and was often built upon slavery, Jim Crow, displacement of indigenous people, and for Japanese Americans, the mass incarceration of 120,000 of us from the West coast during World War II. The incarceration rose from the intense anti-immigrant sentiment prior to World War II which prevented immigrants, especially Asians, from naturalizing as citizens and owning land. Or maybe America’s greatness is found more recently in the auto industry during the eighties, when Chinese American Vincent Chin was beaten to death by unemployed auto workers on the eve of his wedding because he was mistaken as Japanese?
Today, we see equally virulent rhetoric against immigrants, and even worse, governmental policies to match. The President thought nothing wrong with ripping children from their parents as punishment for crossing the border in search of asylum. After intense opposition, the solution is now to incarcerate entire families at euphemistically called detention centers. We must not be deluded, just as the government referred to Japanese American concentration camps as internment camps, these detention centers are family prisons. The Muslim travel ban is keeping families separated because of their religion. These policies are the embodiment of Making America Great Again.
I have reached out to Mr. Suzuki and the Nationals, so that we might try to engage in dialog about why his espousing the message of MAGA flies in the face of history, especially from the perspective of many Japanese Americans. The more difficult discussion is the one we are having in our household. It’s not unlike the discussion two years ago when Yuli Gurriel in celebrating his home run pulled his eyes back to mock opposing pitcher Yu Darvish. In an ideal world, baseball is supposed to be an escape, not a mirror to the ugliness in the world outside the baseball stadium. In fact, baseball was one of the escapes for Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II.
The reality today is that the real world is mirrored in sports. The Astros were embroiled in their own controversy this post season over an executive’s gleefully celebrating his team’s trade for pitcher Roberto Osuna who had been suspended 75 games for domestic violence, and as a result untouchable for many teams. My own favorite Cubs ended their World Series drought in part on the arm of Aroldis Chapman, who had also served a 30 day suspension for domestic violence. It exposes the ugly truth in baseball and society in general, we celebrate winning above all else.
We cannot expect our sports heroes to share the exact same values we try to instill in our children, but we can expect them to understand their position as role models and public figures. The MAGA message is one that on its face could be a strong positive message, but it has been co-opted by the President to promote an agenda of divisiveness that was actually summarized well by Suzuki’s teammate, Sean Doolittle. In declining to attend, Doolittle said “There’s a lot of things, policies that I disagree with, but at the end of the day it has more to do with the divisive rhetoric and the enabling of conspiracy theories and widening the divide in this country.”
As a baseball player, Suzuki is among the best at his position and worthy of being recognized for that within the Japanese American and Asian American community. But as a public figure, when he makes a public statement as he did at the White House by putting on the MAGA hat, it is our responsibility to counter that view with our own understanding of history and the implications of current White House policies.
My offer still remains to sit down with Mr. Suzuki to discuss how his actions, and weak and flippant explanation that he was “Just trying to have fun,” are in direct opposition to the experiences of many other Americans, and particularly Japanese Americans.
These are the discussions I have in my house with my children. We talk about how immigrant children need to be with their parents and how we should be helping people trying to find a better life, not arresting them. A lot of it comes down to a discussion of how Mr. Trump does not seem to be a nice person. That doesn’t mean we should hate Mr. Trump, but it does mean we should to oppose many of his actions.
These discussions now also focus on how our heroes can sometimes also disappoint us. It doesn’t necessarily diminish their success on the field, but it does change how we see them and whether they are worthy of emulation, particularly off the field of play.
Perhaps the best way to discuss this with young children, or anyone for that matter, is to use Doolittle’s other comment in declining the White House invitation. “I don’t want to hang out with somebody who talks like that.”
Ultimately, the most fond memory I have of this World Series run comes from the night of one of our last little league practices this fall. Rather than rush home to watch game two as I wanted to, my son asked if we could spend an extra hour in the batting cage. We took turns pitching to one another and ended up missing the start of the game. Baseball can still be an escape from the ugliness in the world, so long as it is centered in our own enjoyment and success, not someone else’s. The Japanese American baseball hero I had thought my son needed, but in reality I wanted, was right there in front of me all that time.
David Inoue is the executive director for the Japanese American Citizens League. He has served as the head coach for his son’s Little League team based in Washington, DC at both the tee ball and machine pitch levels.