March 21, 2019, Tokyo Dome in Tokyo, Japan. In the bottom of the eighth, Ichiro Suzuki trotted off the baseball diamond for the last time, waving to an unusually emotional Japanese crowd. Soon after, fellow Seattle Mariners Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. remarked that, during his career, Ichiro was able to “cross barriers.”
When he made his MLB debut in 2001, it was an anomaly to see a prominent Asian athlete in professional American sports. Nearly 20 years later, prominent Asian athletes are still an anomaly. However, change seems to be on the horizon — and what is interesting about an emerging group of up-and-comers is that their identities are not singularly Asian. This group’s diverse backgrounds reflect their eclectic platforms, from at least one transformative international superstar to those who will have more regional impact.
Although listing the whole gamut of newcomer athletes of mixed race could provide universal inspiration, we will keep our focus on those of Japanese heritage, with one notable exception. Here are your multiracial prospects for 2019/2020:
Naomi Osaka (Tennis)
At the top of the list is Naomi Osaka. With her 22nd birthday coming in October, the question of her citizenship is looming. This in itself proves Osaka’s monumental influence in sports and beyond. Of course, Americans will be rooting for her to claim the U.S. as her place of citizenship. But, it might actually be smarter to pick Japan. With endorsement opportunities and the ability to shape conversations on the future of Japan’s traditional and conservative culture, picking Japan could allow for greater impact. Not to mention that, since Osaka has lived most of her life in the U.S., she would continue to have influence over a currently divisive and ever-changing American culture, even as a non-citizen. Serena Williams’ influence in the sport and beyond has surely set the stage. All this could make Osaka a one-of-a-kind transcendent athlete.
Christian Yelich (Baseball)
The Milwaukee Brewers right fielder has been historically eye-popping at the plate, with only Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers producing better all-around batting numbers early into the 2019 season. The stats for these big boys, especially the advanced ones, are being compared to baseball legends like Bonds, Ruth and Sosa. Yelich, who exploded last year, is young, has a chance for a second consecutive National League MVP award this season, and thus clearly has a bright future ahead.
Rui Hachimura (Basketball)
Hachimura is a little obscure right now, but basketball experts are undoubtably excited about his potential to make a splash in the NBA after a stellar college career at Gonzaga University. With fading interest in Memphis Grizzlies forward Yuta Watanabe due to a sub-par performance in his rookie season, Hachimura has the chance to eclipse what has traditionally been more measured expectations about basketball players of Japanese heritage. Although he showed some immaturity in his final appearance of the NCAA tournament in March, he is clearly very coachable, smart, and physically gifted. He is a bit of a tweener at 6-feet-8-inches and is used to playing the four in college and high school. On the other hand, he has a serviceable jump shot and good mobility and athleticism on the perimeter, which bodes well for his prospects on the wing in the pros.
Yu Darvish (Baseball)
After Tommy John surgery and a historically poor performance for the Dodgers in the 2017 World Series, Yu Darvish hopes to bounce back with his third MLB team, the Chicago Cubs. Tommy John surgery is usually a bad sign for the career of a pitcher and Darvish has suffered numerous setbacks since then. As for the 2017 World Series letdown though, the revelation that he was tipping pitches has rejuvenated some hope in his talents. His start with the Cubs has been inconsistent and below his peak standards, but there have been moments of brilliance. After signing a substantial contract, he could be on the rise for the 2019 season and beyond.
Katelyn Ohashi (Gymnastics)
The most notable moments in a gymnast’s career usually occur before college and in the Olympics. So, it appears that since graduating from UCLA this year, Katelyn’s athletic career is all but over. With her platform though, she is still someone to keep an eye on. Her viral explosions are evidence that she understands the moment: she quickly seized upon her brand and the opportunities it brings by spreading positive messages about body image. With her viral videos centering her athletic prowess and spunky personality, she seems to be a great fit as a strong voice for her generation of social media-driven youngsters.
Lesser Known Prospects
Keston Hiura (Baseball)
Drafted ninth overall by the Milwaukee Brewers in 2017, the 22-year-old Southern California native is on the cusp of breaking out as a young star. After sitting atop the leader boards of the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League this season, the half-Japanese, half-Chinese second baseman was called up for his major league debut on May 14, going 2-for-3 with a walk.
With teammate Yelich already garnering a lot of attention, the Brewers will be a fun crew to keep an eye on.
Kyla Ross (Gymnastics)
With Ohashi’s exceptional accomplishments already getting a lot of attention at UCLA, the former Olympian Kyla Ross’ athletic dominance has been largely overshadowed. This is unfortunate, because she is having one of the best years in collegiate gymnastics history in 2019. In addition, Ross was a gold medal champion and member of the famous “Fierce Five” in the London 2012 Summer Olympics. And, sadly, she also came forward as a victim of serial sexual abuser Larry Nassar. One more year at UCLA and who knows what she will be able to accomplish in the gym and beyond.
Dave Roberts (Baseball)
He led the Dodgers to two World Series as manager but Dave Roberts is more well known as a great contributor to Red Sox history. For one, he helped lift the Curse of the Bambino as a player. But, more recently, he has been accused by rabid Dodgers fans of helping the Red Sox win the 2018 World Series against his own team, due to questionable managerial decisions. But, with a deep and talented roster, Clayton Kershaw as their ace, and Cody Bellinger knocking balls out of the park, the Dodgers are currently sitting atop the NL West. And, for the eighth straight season, they are once again considered contenders. This could all backfire for Roberts though, as even though he has led them to two World Series, he has lost both. If he can successfully manage his weak link — the bullpen — and overcome his ace’s woes in the postseason, maybe we will start to hear more about the leadership expertise of this talented skipper. Otherwise, sadly, he might be out of a job.
Kyler Murray (Football and Baseball)
A Native Texan of partial Korean ancestry, Murray is the only non-Nikkei on this list. It looks for now that the talented and athletic two-sport athlete is going to stick to football, having been drafted by the Arizona Cardinals after winning the Heisman Trophy while at the University of Oklahoma.
And reportedly, there are clauses in his contract that protect the Cardinals if he decides to play baseball. Some good news though: The Oakland A’s still own his baseball rights. So, if the 5-foot-10-inch quarterback’s height truly becomes a disadvantage — which experts are saying will not happen due to the success of shorter quarterbacks like Drew Brees and the trending popularity of spread offenses — let’s keep our fingers crossed that we have the opportunity to see him in an A’s uniform.