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Kwan proudly represents his Japanese heritage…not just in the World Baseball Classic

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ROOKIE SENSATION – Stephen Kwan, a native of Japanese and Chinese descent, made his rookie season debut in 2022, earning a spot as an MLS Rookie
year final.
Image courtesy MLB

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Stephen Cowan burst onto the Major League Baseball scene this past April, making national headlines in his dazzling debut with the Cleveland Guardians. In a feat not accomplished by any other player since 1901, he hit base 15 times in his first four games, good for a crushing . 692 batting average. He strode toward the pitchers from the left batter’s box with a signature high leg kick, and narrowly avoided hitting and swinging in the first 116 pitches of the season.

As the months went by, the gritty player emerged as a key contributor to a young Cleveland team that easily won its division and made some noise in the playoffs. After the dust settled from the 2022 campaign, no one could dismiss Kwan’s hot start as a fluke: He struck out 168 hits to generate a team-best . 298 batting average while earning a Gold Glove Award and finishing third. newbie general.

Having captured the attention of the baseball world with his outstanding performances last year, the 25-year-old Bay Area native is now poised to establish himself in the sport, and is looking forward to extending what has been an incredible journey thus far.

The next chapter of Kwan’s inspiring story seemed ready to unfold at the fifth edition of the World Baseball Classic in March, when 20 national teams featuring some of the best pros will compete in a massive tournament hosted at locations in Taiwan, Japan and the United States. . Many American-born players have joined foreign teams representing their ancestors, and since Kwan’s family traces back to both China and Japan, it’s possible he could fit in with either country. In fact, media reports began circulating last November that Kwan had secured a spot on Japan’s roster – but he revealed last Friday to Nichi Bei News that those reports were premature.

“I was deemed ineligible by MLB,” Kwan said, explaining, “The criteria I assume is that I need a passport from Japan or my parents need a passport from Japan.” Neither he nor his mother have the required documents; Kwan’s maternal grandparents, Saitos, immigrated to California from Yamagata Prefecture after World War II, and their daughter was born in the United States.

“I know there are some exceptions being made with other teams,” he said, adding, “I hope we can work something out with that, but so far I don’t have that opportunity, so I’m pretty upset.”

The idea that he might play in the WBC came when the Los Angeles Angels visited Cleveland for a three-game series in September. Before a game, he talks briefly with Shuhei Ohtani; MLS MVP asked him if he would join Team Japan, and he enthusiastically agreed. After this interaction, an Otani interpreter came forward to help facilitate this step. “He was trying to figure things out,” Cowan recounted, “but then in November the issue of eligibility came to their attention.” Asking for an update, “Kwan sent him a while ago, and he said no progress, but they’re still working on it.”

His prospects navigating Team China faced the same obstacle, as his family’s immigration story on his father’s side mirrored his mother’s – it was his paternal grandparents who came to the United States from China. In theory, the Chinese team might be more inclined to push for an exception to the rules due to the fact that they have a smaller talent pool to draw from than Japan. However, nothing substantial was developed on the Chinese front. Joining either team means entering the stadium at the Tokyo Dome on March 9, when Japan kicks off the tournament against China. No matter what jersey he has to wear, he declared, “I love any kind of opportunity to represent my heritage – I think that would be really cool.”

Unfortunately, this particular opportunity in Tokyo definitely disappeared, something Kwan learned shortly after his interview with Nichi Bei News. He followed up with this newspaper on Jan. 17 to confirm that MLB has issued an official ruling — he will not be allowed to play.

He was excited at the prospect of returning to Japan, having visited in 2019 as a way to celebrate Cleveland’s drafting the previous year. Before picking up the team’s signing bonus, he “never had so much change in my pocket,” and so he splurged on a trip to visit Yamagata. As far as he knew, his grandparents were the only ones left, and so “I still have a bunch of family there.” Kwan enjoyed the experience to witness the “quieter hillside lifestyle” and to partake in the local “comfort food”.

He’s not sure exactly when his grandparents chose to leave this rural area of ​​northern Japan, but “I know it was after the war, and Japan was picking things up.” His grandfather pursued friends seeking greater fortunes in California, but kept in touch with his grandmother in Yamagata by writing letters. “It was kind of a funny story,” Cowan said, adding, “He’d send money to my grandmother, and she’d say, ‘Well, this guy’s rich, I guess I should go see him in California. ‘” “

Then I went in there, met him, and he was like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve been sending all the money I have — please stay!”

Despite the romantic ruse, she stayed, and the couple eventually settled in Sunnyvale. Kwan’s grandfather was a gardener while his grandmother worked odd jobs, finding work as a maid at one point. Later, she helped take care of little Stephen, who grew up close to him in Fremont.

“I was near my bashan for a long time. She was the one I would spend the summer with,” Kwan said. He fondly recalls playing hanafuda with her, and seeing tempura fry for her at the obon festival booth at the Mountain View Buddhist temple, where she was an active member.

When he wasn’t hanging out with his grandmother, much of Kwan’s childhood centered around baseball.

“Fortunately I was fortunate to be good at baseball from as early as I can remember,” he said. When he was four years old, his parents noticed that while he didn’t respond enthusiastically to other sports, he seemed to enjoy baseball, and so they signed him up for T-ball. He joined Little League after that, and then started playing travel ball when he was 10 years old. “I was always touring,” he said on the traveling ball circuit, because “my dad would push me to other teams to get maximum exposure.”

His father also gave him a competitive advantage by pushing him away from using his naturally dominant right hand. Cowan said of his father that “every chance he got, he’d try to put a baseball in my left hand and make me swing with his left hand,” because coaches always need a left-hander. A southern powerhouse with height—another asset given to him by his relatively tall father—Kwan initially played a lot of first base. “I was growing up as a little kid,” he said, “I grew up early on, but after we got older, everyone kept growing and I stayed the same, so I was brought back on the field.”

Despite all the support he received from his father, Kwan credits his mother with instilling in him the mindset needed to thrive as an athlete. “My dad was really laid-back, very nurturing, and very considerate,” he said, while “it was my mom who was really hard on me.” He relentlessly complimented her to “make sure I wasn’t lazy, just teach me that fire and that drive.”

Kwan’s mother had played volleyball for San Jose State, and he asserted, “I have a lot of my athletic ability through her.”

Having taken up the sport seriously herself, she was experienced in advising her son on how to approach his sporting future, and cautioned him against setting unrealistic expectations for himself. As a child, he firmly believed he could become a professional baseball player, but she “didn’t want me to get hurt” out of disappointment. The realization of such dreams “doesn’t happen very often,” she insisted, reminding him that “statistically there aren’t a lot of Asian Americans who play baseball.”

As a Giants fan growing up, Kwan said an Asian American who “jumped out to me” was Travis Ishikawa. But in terms of role models, Kwan said he was most drawn to Ichiro Suzuki. “He’s clearly not Asian American,” but the legendary Navy player offered a left-handed hitting “blueprint” that prioritizes contact and speed.

Once Kwan started playing at Oregon State University in 2016, his coach suggested someone else imitate him: “He said, ‘You remind me so much of this guy named Dave Roberts. ‘” If you don’t know who he is, find him out, watch his highlights, and watch his game. The principal set a real model of success for someone of full Asian descent like himself. He admitted he struggled badly with imposter syndrome his freshman year, felt “the odds were against me” for going pro and lacked the “validation and assurance that there are people like me who can do it.” “

Eventually, he came to understand “I had to create this evidence in front of me, to say, ‘No, I can do it, I’m good enough. ‘” “

Once he reached his sophomore year, “I started to figure it out, to really believe there was a path to professional baseball.”

This path was realized at the end of his freshman year when Cleveland selected him with the 163rd pick of the Major League Baseball Draft. Just weeks later, he reached another exciting milestone as OSU won the 2018 College World Series championship — an “incredible” moment culminated from countless hours spent hard working drills and conditioning sessions with teammates who now value Kwan more than any award. Although they’ve all headed in different directions since then, they’re still in regular contact these days, and they often reminisce about that formative time together.

Cowan’s own journey progressed up through Cleveland’s minor league system until his 2022 spring coaching performance secured him a spot on the Guardians’ opening day roster. Shortly thereafter, he was basking in a national spotlight.

Kwan wants his success to motivate others like him to aspire to similar heights. “There are a lot of good Asian baseball players I knew growing up,” he asserted, “but they fall flat because they don’t have support from their families or they don’t see representation there.”

Although “baseball is clearly a white-dominated sport,” he remains optimistic about its ability to diversify, due in part to the efforts of individuals like himself and Shuhei Ohtani. “I think it’s really cool to see the game push that way, and hopefully I can be another cog in the grand scheme of things,” he said.

With more and more Asian-born and Asian-born players, he believes they will not be seen as outsiders so much, and therefore less vulnerable to the kind of racism he has faced throughout his life. The belligerent fans have long tried to confuse his focus by resorting to bigotry, hurling the usual insults like “jp” and “ch-nk”, occasionally resorting to more bizarre taunts like “sushi roll”, or telling him to “open your eyes” in reference to his epithelial fold. common in the Asian phenotype.

Understanding how he would face ignorance and hostility as an Asian American, Kwan’s parents raised him protectively, trying to protect him from racism by belittling their ancestry. “My parents wanted me to basically assimilate as quickly as possible,” he said, “to be as white as possible to give me the best chance of success in white America.” The alternative, according to his father, is that “you’re not taken seriously, you’re prescribed right away, and you’re put in this little box.”

Kwan recalled that before he was born, “my mom wanted to call me Kenji, but she was cold,” because she “wanted me to have a really ‘normal’ name, and not be seen as too Asian.”

Thus, even his full name doesn’t indicate his Japanese ancestry — which is ironic, since “I’m closer to my Japanese side,” Kwan said. For anyone who lacks an awareness of the entirety of their heritage, playing for Team Japan in the WBC would have certainly enlightened them. However, while he won’t have that chance to share his identity with the world, if he continues to excel at the Baseball Diamond, there are plenty of other opportunities waiting for him.

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