Yuli Gurriel blasted a Yu Darvish fastball into the left-field stands at Minute Maid Park and social media went into a frenzy.
Not because of the home run, but because of what he did when he returned to the Houston Astros’ bench.
MLB’s international feed caught Gurriel pulling back the corner of his eyes while mouthing the word “chinito,” which translates to something along the lines of “little Chinese boy.” Darvish is from Japan.
My initial reaction: OK, that’s kind of silly, but why is everyone so upset?
Before we go any further, I should probably let you know about my background. My father was born in El Salvador and my mother in Japan. I was born in Los Angeles. So if you have glanced at my picture in these pages and wondered why I have such a strange-looking face, well, there’s your answer.
I was raised by a stay-at-home mother who spoke to my brother and me in her native language. Through middle school, I attended a Saturday Japanese school that was designed for Japanese children who were in the United States for a few years because their parents were here on temporary work assignments. I can speak Japanese, I can read it, and I can still kind of write it.
That included Sundays in Pomona, where my father drove my brother and me to play soccer with Spanish-speaking kids. There, we were “los chinitos.” I wasn’t offended. My brother wasn’t offended. This was a term of endearment.
I still hear the term. My wife was born in Mexico and came to the United States when she was 6. Every now and then, someone in her family will refer to me as “el chino.”
Still, no offense taken.
I’m sure some members of the Asian American community will say that is because I’m not completely Asian, but I don’t think that’s the case.
There’s a significant part of me that identifies as Japanese.
Really, it’s the context. This might be a hard concept to grasp for anyone who is monocultural or monolingual, but believe me when I tell you racial terms aren’t said with the same level of maliciousness in Spanish as they are in English. Even racist-looking gestures, like the one Guerriel made, aren’t made with the same level of vitriol. Not close.
Of course, just because something is done playfully doesn’t necessarily make it OK. Race- and ethnic-based humor typically demonstrates ignorance, as was the case here with Gurriel, and Latin cultures could use less of that. At the same time, it’s hard for me to be offended by words or actions that weren’t intended to be mean-spirited. Remember when Yasiel Puig and Hanley Ramirez used to feed Juan Uribe bananas in the Dodgers dugout?
I’m not naive to think there isn’t racism in Latin America, particularly toward indigenous people. But it would be misguided to view anything race-related from another culture through an American perspective. This country’s history of race relations is particularly ugly.
If you direct a racial slur or make a racist gesture toward an Asian American person, the words carry the weight of the past, everything from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II. Those of us who are ethnic minorities are often sensitive to racially insensitive language because history tells us they are sometimes precursors to legislation intended to disenfranchise people who look like us.
Dodgers’ from left, Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Chase Utley and Brandon Morrow meet on the mound in Game 3.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
The Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger walks back to the dugout after striking out in the fourth inning.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers’ from left, Yasmani Grandal, Josh Fields, Clayton Kershaw and Kenta Maeda stand during Astro introductions before Game 3.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Astros closer Brad Peacock is all smiles after shutting the Dodgers out in 3 2/3 innings and striking out four.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers starter Yu Darvish leaves the game in the second inning after surrendering four runs to the Astros.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Yuli Gurriel hits a second-inning leadoff homer off of Dodgers starter Yu Darvish. Video of Gurriel making an apparent racist gesture in the dugout after the homer surfaced on social media during the game.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Justin Turner of the Dodgers walks back to the bench after popping up against the Astros in the eighth inning.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
The Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig sits quietly in the dugout during Game 3 of the World Series.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Yasiel Puig of the Dodgers chases a ball that goes foul.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
The Dodgers’ Corey Seager loses his helmet as he runs the bases on a hit by Justin Turner in the sixth inning.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish, center, watches the game form the dugout in the ninth inning. Darvish started the game but was relieved in the second inning.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish stands on the mound during the second inning.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Yasiel Puig of the Dodgers strikes out in the ninth inning against the Astros.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
The Astros’ Jose Altuve tags out the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig, who was trying to reach second base on a hit in the fourth inning.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes bobbles the ball as the Astros’ Marwin Gonzalez scores a run in the second inning.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel is greeted by teammate Carlos Correa after homering in the second inning against Dodgers starter Yu Darvish.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
A dour group of Dodgers watch from the dugout as a pop foul sails overhead in Game 3.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. raises a fist to fans as he leaves the game in the sixth inning.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes can’t make the tag on the Astros’ Josh Reddick at home plate in the fifth inning.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
The Dodgers Justin Turner scores on a wild pitch by Astros reliever Brad Peacock in the fifth inning.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers’ catcher Austin Barnes can’t make the tag on the Astros’ Josh Reddick at home plate in the fifth inning.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish walks off the field after being taken out of the game in the second inning.(Tom Pennington / Getty Images)
Astros’ center fielder George Springer makes a diving catch to save a run off the bat of the Dodgers’ Chris Taylor in the fifth inning.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
The Astros’ Jose Altuve tags out Dodgers Yasiel Puig, who was trying to reach second base on a hit in the fourth inning.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa, left, relays to first base in time to complete a double play after forcing out the Dodgers’ Chris Taylor.(Larry W. Smith / EPA)
Yasiel Puig is tagged out by Astros second baseman Jose Altuve after trying to stretch a single into a double during the 4th inning of game 3.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager can’t reach a bloop single by Astros catcher Brian McCann during fourth-inning action.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Dodger Austin Barnes sits after Astro Josh Reddick scores from first base on an error in the fifth inning.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
The Houston Astros’ Yuli Gurriel celebrates his home run as Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes watches during the second inning.(Matt Slocum / AP)
The Houston Astros’ Yuli Gurriel is congratulated by George Springer after hitting a home run during the second inning.(David J. Phillip / AP)
Yu Darvish looks to the outfield as Yuli Gurriel homers in the second inning.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Yuri Gurriel hits a second-inning leadoff home run off Dodgers starter Yu Darvish in game 3.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers centerfielder Chris Taylor chases down a first-inning double by Astros leadoff hitter George Springer.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
The Dodgers’ Logan Forsythe singles in the top of the second inning.(TANNEN MAURY / EPA)
The Dodgers’ Yu Darvish pitches during the first inning.(Jamie Squire / AP)
A giant American flag is held on the field as the national anthem is performed.(Tim Bradbury / Getty Images)
Fans gather along the third base line during pregame warmups before Game 3 of the World Series at Minute Maid Park.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers fans chant and clap in support of the players warming up on the field before Game 3.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Yasiel Puig plants a kiss on his hitting coach Turner Ward during intorductions before Game 3 of the World Series.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Joc Pederson heads to batting practice before Game 3 of the World Series at Minute Maid Park.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez watches batting practice before Game 3.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers players shag balls in the outfield before Game 3.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
There’s a difference between Gurriel doing and saying something stupid and someone using language representing a system designed to oppress certain groups of people.
The Cuban-born Gurriel played in Japan in 2014. He was predictably apologetic after the game.
“In no moment did I intend to make an offensive gesture toward them,” he said. “On the contrary, I’ve always had a lot of respect for them.”
“What happened was that I was commenting how I hadn’t had much luck with Darvish,” he said in Spanish. “I said I thought maybe they saw me as they see themselves and I wanted to see if they would throw me a pitch like that.”
In other words, a fastball.
As for his use of the word “chinito,” Gurriel explained, “It’s because in Cuba and in various places, you don’t say Japanese, you call all Asians ‘chinitos.’”
He apologized for that too.
“I was in Japan and I know they are offended by that,” he said.
Equally as predictable was that Darvish wasn’t offended either.
“I saw it, but for me personally it doesn’t really bother me,” he said in Japanese.
Asked if he was upset, Darvish deadpanned, “I’m very, very angry.”
He laughed and added, “No.”
He acknowledged thinking the Astros could have an image problem, as they are certain to have a decent number of fans with Asian backgrounds.
“As citizens of the world, if we can learn from this and take a step forward, I think this could be a good thing,” he said.
Commissioner Rob Manfred is scheduled to speak with Gurriel on Saturday, leading to speculation the Astros’ first baseman could be disciplined. It feels unnecessary. Context matters. Intentions do too. As Darvish said, let this be a lesson learned. Gurriel sounded and looked sincere when he apologized. The guess here is that if he is told to stop acting like an idiot, he will.
Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez
12:40 a.m.: This column was updated with additional commentary, matching what was published in the final print editions.
This column was originally published at 11:10 p.m.