By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
Welcome to another edition of The Layup Drill. In this column, we take a brief look back at 2017 and list the top Asian American athletes of 2017 and look forward to 2018.
Last month, the Seattle Mariners missed out on signing Shohei Ohtani as the young, prized Japanese phenom that can hit a ball 400 feet and throw a ball over 100 miles per hour — he signed with the Los Angeles Angels instead. All of the wheeling, dealing, and accommodations the Mariners attempted to make to show that Seattle was the place for the Japanese star did not sway him.
Ironically, it was the lack of previous Japanese baseball stars for the Angels that appealed most to Ohtani. Seattle has been a place where Japanese baseball players made names for themselves in Major League Baseball. Hishashi Iwakuma, Kazuhiro Sasaki, and Ichiro Suzuki all have had great careers in Seattle. But, Ohtani wants to pave his own way and make his name in Orange County.
Ohtani is a rare dual threat that may pitch and play in the outfield, on separate days of course. On the bright side, Mariners fans will be able to see Ohtani play when he comes up to Seattle this summer as part of the Angels.
One of the big events of 2018 will be the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. With the political tension in the region, many will have their eyes on the events for various reasons. Of the Olympic hopefuls for the United States, local short track speed skaters J.R. Celski and Aaron Tran look to earn medals this year. Following the lineage of former medalist Apolo Anton Ohno, Celski and Tran look to bring back medals from South Korea. Celski earned medals in the 2010 and 2014 Olympics, and hopes to earn more in his third Olympics this February. It will be the 21-year-old’s first Olympics.
But, before we focus on 2018, we take a look at some of the top Asian American performers in 2017.
1. Kailer Yamamoto
The 19-year-old is one of the few Asian American hockey players who have played in the National Hockey League. He was drafted 22nd in the first round of 2017’s NHL Draft. Yamamoto played 9 games for the Edmonton Oilers this season, before he was sent back down to play for the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League. Still, Yamamoto’s future seems bright. He was chosen to play for Team USA in the Ice Hockey World Junior Championships. The tournament is for players 20 years and under.
2. Claire Liu
The 17-year-old Southern California teenager was the top-ranked junior tennis player in the world, having taken the girls singles title at Wimbledon in England last summer. Liu is still noncommittal on turning pro despite her recent success. She maintains a modest style unlike many teenage tennis prodigies, as she still lives and trains close to home.
3. Aaron Tran
Along with J.R. Celski, they are part of the short track speed skating team for the United States at the Winter Olympics next month in South Korea. Tran, a graduate of Todd Beamer High School in Federal Way (where Celski also attended), will compete at his first Olympic Games. Tran started speed skating when he was in elementary school, after he watched the 2006 Winter Olympics. “Out of all the winter sports, speed skating really caught my eye,” Tran said in a 2016 interview. “There was just so much strategy and speed, and it seemed so different from the other sports.”
4. JoJo McIntosh
The UW football junior safety is part Cambodian, and a recent Seattle Times story on his grandparents fleeing the country detailed the roots of the West Hills, Calif. native. McIntosh’s mother was an indentured servant for a wealthy family to settle a debt. His grandfather was able to pay off the debt and the two eventually left the country with their eight children during the Cambodian Civil War in the 1970s. His grandparents struggled upon moving to the United States and McIntosh’s mother eventually settled in South Central Los Angeles. However, McIntosh was a football standout in high school and signed a scholarship to play with the University of Washington. A pillar of the Huskies’ defensive backs, McIntosh was an 2016 Honorable Mention Pac-12 Academic All-American and a 2017 second team All-Pac-12 choice. He will be a vital part of the team’s success in 2018.
5. Natalie Chou
The 6-foot-1 Chinese American is a freshman guard for the Baylor Bears. Coming out of high school in Texas, she was a girls’ basketball McDonald’s All-American, a distinction saved for the elite high school basketball players in America. She was the No. 8 ranked girl’s guard coming out of high school. She chose to play for Baylor over California, UCLA, and Texas. Her mother played basketball for the Chinese Women’s National Team. Chou also played with USA Basketball and played for the U17 (under 17) U.S. team and won a gold medal at the 2014 FIBA World Championships.
Not only is she succeeding on the court, she was on the Academic All Big-12 rookie team. She considers Jeremy Lin an inspiration and some have compared her to the female version of the NBA player. It is her goal to play professionally one day and maybe we will see her in the WNBA.
6. Doug Baldwin
It was a down year for the Seahawks, as they failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2012. But, Baldwin still produced with eight touchdowns and almost 1,000 receiving yards for the season. In the team’s last game against the Arizona Cardinals, Baldwin scored two touchdowns.
Baldwin, who is part Filipino, also is producing off the field advocating for social reform. With the NFL protests this season of players either kneeling or sitting during the national anthem, Baldwin has advocated for change to address the reasons behind the protests.
Earlier this year, he co-signed a letter with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to congressional leaders, which offered the league’s “full support” of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017. The bill would reduce the enhanced penalties for repeated non-violent drug offenders and eliminate the three-strike mandatory life provision.
Baldwin, the son of a law enforcement officer, is also rallying behind Initiative 940 in Washington state. The bill supports police de-escalation, which would require law enforcement to receive violence de-escalation, mental health, and first-aid training. It would provide first-aid training and increased ability for officers to administer first aid. It would change standards for use of deadly force, adding a “good faith” standard and independent investigation.
Baldwin’s social activism reflects his awareness of community issues and using his platform as an athlete to speak out about them.
7. Younghoe Koo
He was the fourth South Korean American (former Pittsburgh Steelers Wide Receiver Hines Ward being the most notable) to make an NFL roster when he was the starting placekicker for the Los Angeles Chargers. Unfortunately, his first two games for the Chargers did not go so well, as his attempt at a game-winning field goal in his first game at Denver was blocked. In his second game, he missed another field goal that would have won the game for the Chargers. After the fourth game of the season, Koo was cut by the Chargers and replaced with a veteran kicker. He was unable to catch on with another team. Hopefully, he’ll be back on the field with another NFL team in 2018.
Jason can be reached at email@example.com.