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Shohei Ohtani makes history with distinguished Commissioner's Award

“I know how special it is. I’m not fully sure if I really deserve it, but since Mr. Manfred is going to give it to me, I will accept it,” Ohtani said through an interpreter.
Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run on Oct. 3 in Seattle. Ted S. Warren / AP file

After a record-breaking season, the Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani has now made history in Major League Baseball. 

Before the first game of the World Series on Tuesday, Ohtani was presented with the MLB Commissioner’s Historic Achievement Award, given to those whose accomplishments are “of historical significance to the game.”

Ohtani, 27, a pitcher and designated hitter, is the sport’s first two-way All Star starter and became just the 16th recipient of the award since it was established in 1998, and the first since Rob Manfred became commissioner in 2015. 

“This award is not given out every year, so I know how special it is. I’m not fully sure if I really deserve it but since Mr. Manfred is going to give it to me, I will accept it,” Ohtani said through an interpreter at a news conference.  

Shohei Ohtani holds the Commissioner's Historic Achievement Award with Commissioner Rob Manfred on Tuesday in Houston.Ashley Landis / AP

Ohtani is the first to receive the award since 2014, when Yankees’ Hall of Fame shortstop Derek Jeter and longtime L.A. Dodgers’ broadcaster Vin Scully were both recognized. Manfred said that baseball fans who witnessed Ohtani’s performance during the 2021 season “were seeing something that had never happened in nearly 90 years.”

“It’s really extraordinary to find a human being who can perform at the highest level in Major League Baseball as both a pitcher and a position player," he said. "It takes courage and fortitude not to make the choice that players traditionally make and it takes tremendous endurance to do both over the course of what is a grueling 162 games schedule. In 2021, that extraordinary person came to us and it was Shohei Ohtani.”

This season, Ohtani, who’s often compared to Babe Ruth, became the first player to hit over 30 home runs and record over 30 strikeouts in a single season. He is also one of five players in MLB history with at least 100 runs batted in, 45 home runs and 25 stolen bases in a season. 

While Ohtani is credited with bringing excitement to baseball, his being Japanese born drew discussion after ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith claimed Ohtani shouldn’t be the face of the sport because he uses an interpreter. Many critics argued that such views are a reflection of baseball’s long history of being steeped in white supremacist ideas. The sport was segregated until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, and continues to grapple with issues around racism and language politics. 

But Constancio Arnaldo Jr., an assistant professor of Asian and Asian American studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, previously told NBC Asian America that Ohtani’s skill has sufficiently proved his place in a sport that’s been regarded as the national pastime. 

“Speaking English does not constitute one’s performance of Americanness. In many ways, he’s performing an American national pastime, even though he’s not American,” Arnaldo said. “He doesn’t need a translator to convey his thoughts or his ideas. He’s doing it through his play, through his body, the fact that he’s being a dominant force in major league baseball.”