by Akemi Tamanaha, AsAmNews Associate Editor
When Steven Kwan, a rookie right fielder for the Cleveland Guardians, was a kid, there weren’t many Asian American players in Major League Baseball to look up to.
Kwan, a California Bay Area native, was a fan of several San Francisco Giants players growing up because that was his favorite team. He admired Asian players like Ichiro Suzuki but remembers there being very few Asian American role models in the MLB.
“I think that’s kind of what led to some confidence issues growing up,” the 24-year-old said in an interview with AsAmNews. “I didn’t really see anybody who looked like me who played baseball or really in any kind of facet of professional sports.”
He hopes that his own journey might inspire other Asian Americans.
Road to the major leagues
Kwan took to baseball from a young age. Like most kids, his parents enrolled him in a multi-sport activities camp to keep him busy. Once he started, the only sport he was really interested in was baseball. After the camp, he joined a tee-ball league and has since dedicated most of his life to baseball.
The path to the major leagues has not been easy. Unlike many MLB prospects, Kwan was not drafted right out of high school. From 2016 to 2018 he played college ball at Oregon State University, where he also studied finance.
In 2018, the Cleveland Guardians picked Kwan during the fifth round of the MLB draft. MLB teams typically send draftees who don’t make the roster to their Minor League affiliated teams for development. Kwan spent the next few years playing in the minor leagues.
During his time in the minor leagues, Kwan traveled to several small towns throughout the country. It was an experience that made him more aware of his identity as an Asian American baseball player.
Kwan described an encounter he had with a fan while playing with the Lynchburg Hillcats, a single-A team located in rural Virginia. After a game one day, Kwan said he and his teammate were approached by a Hillcats fan and her son.
“She’s over the moon. She’s like, ‘Hey son, great game today, really excited with how you did today,” Kwan recalled.
She then began asking Kwan questions about his family origins that most Asian Americans have heard before. Questions like: Where are you from? Where are your parents from?
Kwan told the fan he and his parents were from California. This confused the woman, who asked why he was Asian. Kwan eventually explained that his grandparents were from China and Japan.
“And I think she could kind of sense that I was kind of confused and a little taken aback so she’s like, ‘Well I just wanted to come over and say you know I love Asian people. I tell ’em all the time I love how Asians have their jet black hair and their porcelain skin. You guys are just like little dolls,'” he said.
The pandemic put a halt to the Minor League season. Kwan and a few of his friends moved to Texas during quarantine.
On November 19, 2021, the Guardians named Kwan to their 40-man roster, a list of 40 players available to play in the major leagues. After a good spring training, Guardians manager Terry Francona called Kwan into his office.
“He kind of played with me a little bit and had this kind of like negative tone…” Kwan said. “He was like, ‘Hey sit down real quick. It won’t take too much of your time really sorry it had to come to this.’”
After jokingly pretending to deliver bad news, Francona told Kwan he had made the Guardians regular-season roster.
“It was just super validating that all of those years of hard work and struggle came to fruition,” Kwan said.
In April, Kwan took the field wearing no. 38, a combination of two lucky numbers in Chinese culture.
Kwan’s rookie season got off to a hot start. In just four games, he reached base 15 times, the first player since 1901 to do so. He struggled with an injury in late April but is slowly finding his form again. His goal is to continue finding ways to help the Guardians win.
“I think we have a really special team. We’re a really young team,” he said.
Aiming to Inspire
Now, Kwan is among the few Asian American players in the league young people can look up to. He praised players like Kurt Suzuki and Kolten Wong, who have been representing Asian Americans in the MLB long before him.
Kwan says the desire to be a role model doesn’t add pressure.
“It’s more of a privilege than anything,” he said. “If I can make these people proud that’s another motivating factor of why I want to do well in this league.”
Asian Americans in Cleveland have already started reaching out to Kwan to wish him luck. They say they have “never really seen a player that looks like” Kwan.
“Of course, you don’t do it for a stranger’s validation but those are one of those things that are really special to me because I feel like I was one of those kids who didn’t see that,” Kwan said.
The Guardians rookie frequently spoke to his good friend Will Benson, an outfielder for the Guardians’ triple-A affiliate, about his desire to elevate the Asian American community when they played together in Lynchburg.
“That’s why it’s so cool to see him in the position that he is in now because we talked about the impact that he would like to have on the Asian American baseball Community,” Benson said in an email interview with AsAmNews. “We talked about how he wished there were more opportunities to bring light to the Asian American community.”
Being an Asian American in the MLB doesn’t come without its challenges. During the first game of the series against the New York Yankees back in April, Kwan heard several Yankees fans called him “sake bomb.”
The right fielder is no stranger to racist heckling. In college, some fans used to call him “Short Round,” like the character from Indian Jones. Kwan refused to let those Yankees fans get under his skin.
“It’s just something where it’s like, alright, I’ve heard this one before, just keep it pushing,” he said.
But, he doesn’t want to shy away from his Asian heritage either.
“I grew up extremely white washed and not knowing anything about my Chinese or my Japanese heritage, suggested to me by my peers that Asian culture isn’t cool and that it’s embarrassing to be outwardly Asian. If anything, I grew up listening to Asian jokes slung at me and having to laugh along in order to not be alienated by my peers for being “overly sensitive,” Kwan said in a follow-up comment emailed to AsAmNews.
He said he has at times felt ashamed that he didn’t know more about his heritage.
“Ultimately, we are born in America and will adopt much of the current culture, but keeping a hold on how we got here and who came before us I believe sheds light to those who brought us here,” Kwan said. “I think it should be cool to be Asian, not being ashamed or trying to hide it in any way.”
(Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Wong by the wrong first name)
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