MLB star Shohei Ohtani shakes up baseball, and old players like Jack Morris don’t appreciate it

On Wednesday, I visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. When you enter the second floor, the foundation of the game comes to life — first, you find early items reflecting the game’s immediate hold on its fan base, and then, rightly, a huge exhibit about Babe Ruth.

The question for baseball is whether it wants future conversations inevitably poisoned by retrograde comments that obscure the latest and greatest accomplishments.

His exploits as a hitter and, yes, as a pitcher have not been forgotten a century later.

Now, Los Angeles Angels pitcher, designated hitter and outfielder Shohei Ohtani is taking Ruth’s exploits to another level. Ohtani’s feats have captivated American and Japanese fans, from his dominant fastball in this season’s earliest days to an unprecedented star turn at the 2021 All Star Game. He’s been a one-man boon to Angels attendance.

When my family got back to the hotel after our day at the hall, my MLB app signaled that Ohtani had launched his 40th home run of the year — a stratospheric figure reached only by baseball’s greatest sluggers — with more than six weeks left in the regular season to add to his total. The news delighted my daughter, who has been tracking his every move — not as an Angels fan, but a baseball fan.

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During our visit, she also reveled in the plaques for Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, Tom Seaver and many other legends of the game. However, she walked right past that of Jack Morris, a starting pitcher from 1977-94, mostly with the Detroit Tigers, who many experts aren’t sure ought to be in the great room at all.

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And yet, on the occasion of Ohtani’s milestone, much of the focus within the baseball world, along with the media chatter around it, centered on Morris, now a TV analyst in Detroit. Specifically, his use of an ugly, stereotyped Japanese accent on a Tigers-Angels broadcast. A day that could have been spent celebrating Ohtani’s greatness was instead overshadowed by the insensitivity of a 66-year-old white man.

Unfortunately, it’s hardly the first time that Ohtani’s nationality has subjected him to criticism, most notably when ESPN talking head Stephen A. Smith questioned whether a Japanese man could be the face of baseball. These types of comments have the same undeniable goal — to make sure a group that’s historically underrepresented in baseball is made to feel chastened for even attempting to enter the sanctum of the traditional gatekeepers.

Eventually, Smith apologized. As for Morris, Bally Sports Detroit, the network that broadcasts Tigers games, has suspended him indefinitely and will have him undergo sensitivity training. This time, he was held to account — at least superficially. Back in 1990, when he attacked sportswriter Jennifer Frey for having the audacity to try to do her job while being a woman, he received public support for his attitude from people like the Tigers team president at the time, Bo Schembechler. (Gee, where have we heard his name in the news lately? Oh, right.)

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I couldn’t help but reflect on the reality that Morris has a coveted baseball analyst job here in 2021 when this is the best he can bring to a broadcast. For a sport that has spent years talking about the need to add younger fans — an inherently more diverse, more progressive group — what exactly do the likes of a Jack Morris bring to the table? His moments on the mound grow dimmer with each passing year. And this is a business, after all. What has Morris done for baseball lately?

We know what Ohtani has done. His 40 home runs lead the majors this year. His slugging percentage of .648 does as well. He’s doing all this while pitching to a 2.79 ERA. Consider that in Ruth’s 1919 season, in which his dual pitching-hitting accomplishments are still talked about today, the Bambino hit only 29 home runs and pitched to a 2.97 ERA. And Morris? His career ERA was 3.90, and his best in any season was 3.05. Yet somehow, Ohtani was forced to answer for Morris’ poor behavior.

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Baseball history matters, and is a critical part of why the game has had a hold for generations. So, too, does recognizing and embracing progress, which can be done by everyone, young and old, of any race or gender.

The question for baseball is whether it wants future conversations inevitably poisoned by retrograde comments that obscure the latest and greatest accomplishments of the sport’s biggest stars or whether it wants to empower folks like MLB Network’s Sara Langs and Lauren Shehadi, MASN’s Melanie Newman, ESPN’s Joon Lee, free agent analyst Daniel Kim and up-and-coming broadcasters like Emma Tiedemann and Emily Messina? These voices, and many more, show us every day what a privilege it is to love this game and embrace it in its fullest glory while letting baseball fans know it is possible to be loved by it in return.

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Baseball needs to make sure its partners and broadcasters are ready to embrace a changing fan base, and a talent base that has long been more diverse and, yes, more interesting than the gatekeepers would have you believe. None other than MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has diagnosed the problem, but empowering folks like Morris obscures the solution.

Someday, I hope to return to Cooperstown with my daughter and her children. I believe we’ll see a Shohei Ohtani exhibit there that will rival Babe Ruth’s. And we’ll keep walking right on by Jack Morris’ plaque.

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