LOS ANGELES — The Japanese American National Museum hosted an event in the Tateuchi Democracy Forum called “Beyond the Dugout: A Discussion with Japanese American Staff at the Los Angeles Dodgers” July 29. The event featured a Q&A conversation with the Dodgers’ World Series Champion manager Dave Roberts, Play-by-play Broadcaster Stephen Nelson, Senior Director of Team Travel Scott Akasaki, Director of Integrative Baseball Performance Emilee Fragapane and Manager of Performance Operations Will Ireton.
The panel celebrated Japanese and Japanese American contributions to the Dodgers, as well as baseball as a whole in the modern era. The auditorium was packed with Nikkei Dodgers fans.
Baseball has always had a strong presence and influence in the Japanese American community. Japan had embraced the sport as far back as the 1800s, so many Japanese immigrants in the U.S. have a family history of enjoying and playing the sport.
During World War II, people of Japanese ancestry were unjustly imprisoned in American concentration camps. Many camps, including Heart Mountain and Manzanar, had their own baseball teams. The sport was an outlet for prisoners who were forcibly removed from their homes. Despite immense talent in the prison communities, the inmates’ detained status prevented them from achieving major league success during wartime.
Masanori Murakami was a pioneer as the first person of Japanese ancestry to play in Major League Baseball for the San Francisco Giants in the 1960s, followed by Hideo
Nomo who threw two no-hitters after he broke in with the Dodgers in the 1990s.
Fast forward decades later, and players and staffers of Japanese descent have helped make the MLB in the U.S. the successful sport it is today. Players like Ichiro Suzuki, Masao Kida, Kazuhisa Ishii, Norihiro Nakamura, Yu Darvish, Kenta Maeda and Shohei Ohtani are just a few of many renowned MLB players of Japanese ancestry who have graced the all-American pastime along with Murakami and Nomo.
Among these players is Dave Roberts, who played for the Dodgers from 2002 to 2004, and is now the manager who led them to a World Series Championship in 2020. It was their first World Series win since 1988. Roberts is half-Black, half-Japanese American, and spoke about his role as a biracial public figure in baseball.
“As far as being biracial, I feel the sense of responsibility that I’ve got to do things the right way because a lot of people are counting on me,” said Roberts. “Every day I feel that if I don’t do things the right way, Japanese Americans, African Americans, minorities, whatever you want to say, will be affected in some way.”
Stephen Nelson, who is also half-Japanese American, was the only Asian American play-by-play broadcaster working for a Major League team upon joining the Dodgers in January of 2023. He felt Roberts played a role in his new position.
“You have to have people in positions of power who are advocating for Japanese Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific, people of color in general,” said Nelson. “If it were not for (Roberts), I do not have this job. I don’t think without the support of Dave behind the scenes.”
Scott Akasaki, senior director of team travel for the Dodgers, has a profound relationship with the Japanese American National Museum, as his parents were imprisoned in American concentration camps during WWII. He recalled spending time at the museum when he was young, and loved being able to be a part of the panel.
“My parents were in camp. So growing up (around) Japanese American history, I spent a huge part of my life as an intern here at the museum,” said Akasaki. “So when you talk about the history of the Dodgers and what that means to me, it’s meant so much to me since the moment I was born.”
Director of Integrative Baseball Performance Emilee Fragapane spoke on the uniqueness of being a woman, and specifically, a woman of color in the male-dominated MLB. She was new to the world of baseball when she joined the team’s staff. She grew up in a mostly white community, and was encouraged by her parents and Japanese grandmother to always be herself.
“The number of women in baseball has increased exponentially, along with women of color and just generally representation in baseball in terms of where I would like things to go, I think having the representation in more visible representation is great, and it really helps you see that as possibility that’s there for you,” said Fragapane.
Will Ireton joined the Dodgers in 2016 as the interpreter for then-Dodgers Japanese pitcher Kenta Maeda. He was born and raised in Japan and is now the Dodgers’ manager of Performance Operations. He says Japanese culture has influenced the way he approaches his work on the team. For example, he is known for making Roberts a cup of green tea before every game.
“In our Japanese culture, we talk about reading the room very often… In baseball we talk about that like reading the room and just being aware of the people in the room where they’re at and I think that’s something that really helped me navigate this work area workspace and my work environment,” said Ireton.
The conversation encompassed topics from scouting Japanese and other minority players to the league, to the history of players of Japanese ancestry in the MLB and everything in between. The need to continue to include minority players in the game was a highlight of the talk, and Roberts himself had much to say about his role as a prominent biracial figure to minority communities in the U.S.
“I realized really quickly that I had a platform and it kind of goes back to the responsibility of advocating on what’s right and what’s not right,” said Roberts. “I kind of embraced that responsibility again to speak up and not just be silent. I manage the Dodgers, but that’s not who I am. And so when I do get opportunities to speak up and sound off, I have been more vocal.”