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

ROOKIE SENSATION — Bay Area native Steven Kwan, of Japanese and Chinese descent, made a splash in his rookie season in 2022, earning a spot as an American League Rookie of
the Year finalist.
photo courtesy MLB

Steven Kwan exploded onto the Major League Baseball landscape last April, sparking national headlines in his dazzling debut with the Cleveland Guardians. In a feat accomplished by no other player since 1901, he reached base 15 times in his first four games, good for a scorching .692 batting average. Striding toward pitchers from the lefty batter’s box with a signature high leg-kick, he miraculously avoided a swing-and-miss strike on the first 116 pitches of the season.

As the months rolled on, the gritty outfielder emerged as a key contributor to a young Cleveland squad 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 had racked up 168 hits to generate a team-best .298 batting average while snagging both a Gold Glove Award and a third-place finish for Rookie of the Year.

Having grabbed the attention of the baseball universe with his breakout performance last year, the 25-year-old Bay Area native now stands poised to firmly establish himself in the sport, looking to extend what has been a remarkable journey thus far.

The next chapter in Kwan’s inspirational story seemed ready to unfold at the fifth-ever World Baseball Classic in March, when 20 national teams featuring some of the top pros will compete in a massive tournament hosted at sites in Taiwan, Japan, and the United States. Many American-born players have joined foreign teams that represent their ancestry, and since Kwan’s family lineage traces back to both China and Japan, he could conceivably suit up for either country. In fact, media reports began circulating back in November that Kwan had been granted a spot on Japan’s roster — but last Friday he revealed to Nichi Bei News that those reports were premature.

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

“I know there’s some exceptions that are made with other teams,” he said, adding, “I’m holding out hopefully that we can work something out with that, but as of now I don’t have that opportunity, so I’m pretty bummed out.”

The idea he might play in the WBC came to life when the Los Angeles Angels visited Cleveland for a three-game series in September. Prior to one of the games, he spoke briefly with Shohei Ohtani; the reigning American League MVP asked him if he’d join Team Japan, and he enthusiastically agreed. Following this interaction, Ohtani’s translator stepped up to help facilitate the move. “He was trying to get some things figured out,” recounted Kwan, but then in November the eligibility issue came to their attention. Seeking an update, Kwan “messaged him a little bit ago, and he said no progress, but they’re still working on it.”

His prospects for hopping on Team China faced the same obstacle, since his family’s immigration story on his dad’s side mirrors his mom’s side — his paternal grandparents are the ones who came to the U.S. from China. Theoretically, the Chinese team could be more inclined to push for a rules exemption due to the fact that they have a lesser talent pool to draw from compared to Japan. Nothing substantive developed on the Chinese front, however. Joining either squad would mean taking the field in the Tokyo Dome on March 9, when Japan kicks off the tournament against China. Regardless of which jersey he got to wear, “I would just love any kind of chance to represent my heritage — I think that would be really cool,” he declared.

Unfortunately, this particular chance in Tokyo has disappeared for certain, something Kwan learned shortly after his interview with Nichi Bei News. He followed up with this newspaper on Jan.17 to confirm that MLB had handed down an official ruling — he would not be allowed to play.

He had been excited by the prospect of returning to Japan, having visited in 2019 as a way to celebrate getting drafted the previous year by Cleveland. Prior to receiving the team’s signing bonus, he “never had a real chunk of change in my pocket,” and so splurged on a trip to visit Yamagata. As far as he knows, his grandparents were the only ones to leave, and so “I still have a bunch of family out there.” Kwan relished the experience to witness the “calmer lifestyle up in the hills” and partake of the local “comfort food.”

He’s not sure exactly when his grandparents chose to depart this bucolic area of northern Japan, but “I know that was after the war, and Japan was picking up the pieces.” His grandfather followed friends seeking greater fortunes in California, but stayed in touch with his grandmother back in Yamagata by writing letters. “It was kind of a funny story,” Kwan said, elaborating, “he would send money back to my grandma, and she was like, ‘Well, this guy is rich, I guess I should go see him out in California.’

And then she goes over there, meets him, and he was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I was basically sending all the money I had — please stay!’”

Despite the romantic ruse, she did stay, and the couple eventually settled down in Sunnyvale. Kwan’s grandfather worked as a gardener while his grandmother picked up odd jobs, finding employment as a maid at one point. Later, she helped care for little Steven, who was growing up close by in Fremont.

“I was near my baachan for a long time. She was the one I would spend summers with,” Kwan said. He fondly recalled playing hanafuda with her, and seeing her fry tempura at a festival booth for obon 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 revolved around baseball.

“Luckily I was blessed with actually being good at baseball from as early as I can remember,” he said. When he was four years old, his parents observed 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 as a 10-year-old. On the travel ball circuit, “I was always bouncing around,” he said, because “my dad was pushing me to other teams to get the maximum exposure.”

His dad also provided him with a competitive advantage by nudging him away from using his naturally dominant right-hand. Kwan said of his dad that “every chance he got, he would try to put a baseball in my left hand and get me to swing left-handed,” since coaches are always in particular need of lefties. As a southpaw with height — another asset bestowed him by his relatively tall father — Kwan initially played a lot of first base. “I was bigger as a young kid, I grew kind of early,” he said, “but then once we got older, everybody kept growing and I stayed the same, so I got put back to the outfield.”

For all the support he received from his dad, Kwan credits his mom with instilling in him the mindset necessary to thrive as an athlete. “My dad was really laid back, very nourishing, very nurturing,” he said, while “my mom was the one who was really hard on me.” He praised her for relentlessly “making sure that I wasn’t being lazy, just teaching me that fire and that drive.”

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

Having seriously pursued sports herself, she had the experience to counsel her son on how to approach his athletic future, and cautioned him against setting unrealistic expectations for himself. As a kid, he firmly believed he could become a professional baseball player, but “she didn’t want me to get hurt” by disappointment. She insisted that fulfillment of such dreams “doesn’t happen very often,” reminding him that “statistically there’s not a lot of Asian Americans who play baseball.”

As a fan of the Giants growing up, Kwan said one Asian American who “jumped out to me” was Travis Ishikawa. But in terms of role models, Kwan said he gravitated more to Ichiro Suzuki; “obviously he’s not Asian American,” but the legendary Mariners outfielder furnished a “blueprint” for a left-handed batter prioritizing contact and speed.

Once Kwan began playing at Oregon State University in 2016, his coach suggested someone else to emulate: “He said, ‘You remind me a lot of this guy named Dave Roberts. If you don’t know who he is, look him up, watch his highlights, watch his game.’”But besides retaining a Giants fan’s aversion to the Roberts-led Dodgers, Kwan harbored nagging doubts that Los Angeles’ ethnically half-Japanese manager offered a true template for success for someone of full Asian heritage like himself. He admitted to suffering heavily from imposter syndrome in his freshman year, feeling “the odds were against me” for turning pro and lacking “validation and affirmation that there were people like me who could do it.”

Ultimately, he came to understand “I had to create that evidence in front of myself, to say, ‘No, I can do this, I am good enough.’”

Once he reached his sophomore year, “I started figuring it out, to really think that there was a pathway to professional baseball.”

That pathway materialized at the end of his junior year when Cleveland selected him with the 163rd pick of the Major League Baseball draft. Just weeks later, he reached another thrilling milestone as OSU won the 2018 College World Series championship — an “unbelievable” moment that culminated from countless hours spent toiling away in practice and conditioning sessions with teammates whose camaraderie Kwan now treasures more than any trophy. Although they’ve all headed off in different directions since then, they stay in regular contact these days, frequently reminiscing about that formative time together.

Kwan’s own journey progressed on upwards through Cleveland’s minor league system until his 2022 spring training performance secured him a place on the Guardians’ opening day roster. Soon after that, he was basking in the national spotlight.

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

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

As the numbers of Asian-born and Asian American players increase, he believes they won’t be viewed as outsiders quite so much, and will thus be less vulnerable to the kind of racism he’s confronted his whole life. Belligerent fans have always tried to disrupt his focus by resorting to bigotry, raining down standard slurs like “j-p” and “ch-nk,” sometimes resorting to more bizarre taunts like “sushi roll,” or directing him to “open your eyes” in reference to the epicanthic eyelid fold common to the Asian phenotype.

Understanding how he would face ignorance and hostility as an Asian American, Kwan’s parents raised him protectively, attempting to shield him from racism by minimizing their ancestry. “My parents wanted me to basically assimilate as soon as possible,” he said, to “be as white as possible to give me my best chance of succeeding in white America.” The alternative, according to his dad, would be that “you don’t get taken seriously, you get profiled immediately, you get put in this little box.”

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

Consequently, even his full name conveys no indication of his Japanese ethnicity — which is ironic, since “I’m closer to my Japanese side,” Kwan said. For anyone who lacked awareness about the entirety of his heritage, playing for Team Japan in the WBC would have certainly enlightened them. Yet while he won’t have that chance to share his identity with the world, if he continues to excel on the baseball diamond, plenty more opportunities await him down the line.

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