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What Indian American Kumar Rocker’s historic MLB pick means for South Asians

Moments after the New York Mets made pitcher Kumar Rocker the 10th overall pick of this year’s Major League Baseball draft, South Asian fans began buzzing about the prospect of a bona fide superstar of Indian descent making it in the big leagues.

Rocker, 21, the son of a Black American father and an Indian American mother, first began making waves as a teenager when he was selected for USA Baseball’s 18-and-under team in 2017. The right-hander had a 1.93 earned run average with the team and went on to win the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) U-18 Baseball World Cup gold medal. He later starred in college for Vanderbilt.

“I’ve actually been following him since he was in high school,” Andrew Khan, a writer of Indian and Guyanese descent who covers the draft for the sports site MLB Marathon, told NBC Asian America, adding that he was instantly intrigued when he saw Rocker’s first name on the Team USA roster in 2017.

“I have played baseball since I was 4 years old and I played high school ball, college ball, travel ball, and I’ve never played with another Indian American,” he said.

Khan soon began watching Rocker’s starts at Vanderbilt. “They actually showed his mom in the stands, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it looks like we can be related.’ It just hit a chord because my mom and my aunts used to go to watch me play.”

News coverage of Rocker while he was in college often noted his Indian roots, with his family often stressing both his father’s and mother’s influences on him. His father, Tracy Rocker, is a former college football star who played defensive tackle for Auburn University in the late 1980s. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2004 and is currently the defensive line coach for the Philadelphia Eagles.

His mother, Lalitha Rocker, is an instructional designer and the daughter of Indian immigrants. While many star high school baseball players sign with major league teams shortly after graduating high school, both Kumar and Lalitha told The Tennessean in 2019 that Lalitha’s desire for him to attend college was a big reason why he decided to enroll at Vanderbilt.

“I’m an 18-year-old kid, so I was never going to make a decision like that without leaning on the wisdom of my parents, my elders,” Rocker told The Tennessean.

Lalitha Rocker told the paper that she wanted to name him Kumar (which means “prince” or “young child” in Hindi) as a nod to her Indian heritage. “I want him to be aware of his heritage and for other people to question where his heritage is, and not look at him only as an African American child,” she said.

Baseball observers note that in addition to being South Asian American, Rocker also has the potential to be a prominent Black American at a time when African American participation in baseball is declining. As a mixed race player in New York City — home to one of the oldest South Asian communities in the United States — Rocker “is at a really interesting place where he can not only establish a South Asian presence in the sport,” baseball blogger Navneet Vishwanathan said, “but also be a representative of Black culture in baseball as well.”

Fans also hope that Rocker’s presence in the Mets organization means that the team will make a concerted effort to market the game to the Greater New York area’s South Asian populations.

“I hope that this is an opportunity for the Mets to see themselves as having a real potential market among the South Asian community,” said American University history professor Gautham Rao, a lifelong Mets fan. “You’re going to see little kids with Kumar Rocker shirts on. It’s going to be legions of little Indian and Pakistani kids with that name on their jerseys. I think it can only really be a great thing.”

As a third-generation, mixed-race Indian American, Rocker represents how much the diaspora has evolved since the 1960s and ’70s, when a considerable number of South Asian immigrants like Rocker’s grandparents first began moving to the United States after passage of the 1965 Immigration Act.

Rao said that as a young child in the 1980s he could not fathom seeing a player of South Asian descent playing professional sports because of the lack of visibility of athletes of Asian descent in the American sports landscape.

“It’s been a generational thing. We’ve seen more young, second- and third-generation people of South Asian descent getting more integrated into sports culture,” he said. But even as South Asians have begun to break into hockey, football and basketball, and other Indian nationals and South Asian Americans have been drafted by MLB before, none have been as high-profile or as closely scouted as Rocker, Rao noted. (This year the San Francisco Giants drafted Rohan Handa, a left-hander from Yale who is also Indian American, in the fifth round.)

The lack of marketing geared toward the South Asian American sports fans is also notable because Rao, Khan and Vishwanathan all noted that the communities they grew up in regularly talked about, watched and attended games. “My grandmother barely spoke English, she more or less only spoke Tamil, but she used to love watching [baseball] games,” recalled Vishwanathan. “She passed away a few years ago, but if she knew that there was someone named Kumar Rocker, I think that would make her smile so much.”

As for Vishwanathan, even though he is a lifelong Yankee fan, Rocker’s selection by the Mets is having him consider what was once unfathomable.

“Sometimes in the back of my mind, I’m thinking that I might have to get myself a Kumar Rocker jersey, when he makes the bigs,” he said.

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