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Stephen Nelson Makes History as New Dodgers Announcer

Stephen Nelson Makes History as New Dodgers Announcer

Stephen Nelson has always had a strong interest in history, but because of his new position as a broadcaster for the Los Angeles Dodgers, he is making history this year. Nelson, whose mother is Japanese American, is the first Asian American to work as a play-by-play announcer for a Major League Baseball team. He was hired by SportNet LA earlier this year to broadcast over 50 home and road games when the Dodgers’ primary announcer Joe Davis is unavailable. Stephen, who grew up in Huntington Beach and graduated from Marina High School, views his new position from a historic perspective.

“It’s impossible to convey the emotions that come with this opportunity,” Nelson told the MLB network. “This isn’t simply coming home. This isn’t simply being an announcer for a professional sports team. This is the Los Angeles Dodgers. It’s the best organization in baseball for so many reasons, and I can’t wait to be a tiny part of it and its best-in-class production team.

“Growing up in Southern California, like so many Angelenos,” Nelson elaborated, “I enjoyed a front-row seat to broadcast greatness with Vin [Scully], Jaime [Jarrín], Chick [Hearn], Bob Miller and others. That tradition has continued with Joe Davis. To work with and learn from somebody that has become a friend in recent years is special. This is an honor and blessing that I’ll work tirelessly to earn.”

Stephen with his father

Sports was always a passion for Nelson growing up. He played in the Japanese American community basketball youth leagues on FOR and VFW teams. “That was my life,” he revealed. “I was surrounded by kids that looked like me.” He also played baseball and hockey (using inline skates), a sport his father Scott loved growing up in the outskirts of Chicago.

Another part of Stephen’s childhood was spending time at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) where his mother Flo Kuraoka worked. In those days, JANM was headquartered in the renovated former Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple building in Little Tokyo and Stephen still remembers the hallways, offices and the corner entrance of the historic building.

Stephen with his mother, Flo Kuraoka

He spent a lot of time at JANM because “my mom is such a hard worker,” Nelson observed. But he recalled the benefits of being there, including learning to fold origami from legendary JANM volunteer Rumi Uragami, eating lunch in Little Tokyo at places like Rascals and absorbing Japanese American history. When JANM opened its new Pavilion in 1999, Stephen was selected along with Lauren Babamoto to represent the younger generations of Japanese Americans at the ribbon cutting.

Ribbon cutting ceremony at the opening for JANM’s Pavilion building on January 23, 1999. From left: JANM President and CEO Irene Hirano, Lauren Babamoto, Stephen Etsuo Nelson, LA City Councilwoman Rita Walters, JANM Chair of the Board of Trustees Yosh Uchida, and Fuju Sasaki. Photo by Bart Bartholomew.

“I remember that day fondly,” noted Stephen, who was only 10 at the time. “A big deal. We have the Rafu (Shimpo) clipping still. That’s the beautiful thing about the Museum: the Issei and Nisei are disappearing, so it’s our responsibility that their stories, their pain and their accomplishments are not forgotten.”

The Rafu Shimpo clip (January 1999) that Stephen kept. 

It was soon after that time that Stephen began to have designs on becoming a sports broadcaster. By middle school, he had already quit playing baseball and even though he became a fair golfer (he played at Chapman University), the reality that he wasn’t going to make a living as a professional athlete had sunk in. He took a video production class and realized he enjoyed the visual arts and he was very comfortable speaking and performing in front of an audience.

“My dad always said that you need to find something that you love,” he recalled. “That was sports.”

Making a living in the sports industry is a difficult challenge. But having grown up watching sports anchor Rob Fukuzaki on KABC-TV, Stephen didn’t question that he could get into broadcasting. As he got through high school, he saw enrolling at Chapman University as the perfect choice for developing his media skills. Chapman’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts offers classes on film production, screenwriting, creative producing, news, documentary, public relations, advertising, digital arts, film and television studies and screen acting.

Nelson said that he was fortunate that on the Chapman faculty as an adjunct professor at that time was veteran sports broadcaster Bill Macatee. Macatee had covered everything from the Super Bowl, Rose Bowl, World Series, Wimbledon, the Masters and the Winter Olympics. “As a high school senior, I sat in his class at Chapman and that changed my life,” he revealed.

Asked what he discovered in college, “I learned to do a lot of things. I was a camera operator, worked the tape room, did advertising, public relations. It was a 360-degree immersive experience. I learned the more you know what is going on behind the camera, the better you will be in front of it. I try to apply that to life. I want to get a full view of things before making up my mind. I learned about how big the world is, after growing up in a bubble in Orange County.”

Just as crucial as his broadcasting training, Stephen accrued the biggest personal benefit at Chapman where he met his wife. Cori Coffin was also enrolled in the Dodge College media program, having grown up in Arizona and having previously attended Arizona State. They became a couple, but their careers required a lot of geographic separation. While Stephen was struggling to get an opportunity in sports, Cori was working as a general assignment reporter and anchor in places like Washington, D.C. and Austin, Texas. She currently is a freelance anchor for MSNBC and NBC News.

“She’s already won two Emmys,” Stephen laughs, “to my zero.”

While still in college, Nelson was able to work as a camera operator for the Angels and Ducks in Anaheim, and interned at KTLA, FOX Sports West and Julia Huang’s Long Beach-based interTrend Communications agency. “It was a dose of the real world,” Stephen said. “A good trial run and I learned what I liked and didn’t like. I discovered that some staffs are inclusive and some are not. It allows you to see what you want to become.”

 Nelson had the great fortune of connecting with the Asian American Journalists Association and was awarded the Sam Chu Lin Broadcast Journalism scholarship in 2009. It was at JANM and the AAJA’s annual Trivia Bowl event that he met KTLA anchor Frank Buckley, who became another source of encouragement and motivation as he entered professional life.

If Stephen’s collegiate and internship experiences were filled with promise, looking for an opportunity after graduation was the opposite. “I finished college a semester early,” explained Stephen. “I couldn’t get an interview. I sent out tapes everywhere.”

After a period of being ignored, he heard from one sports organization: the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League (AHL) located in northern Illinois. The IceHogs are an affiliate of and now owned by the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks. “It was the classic unpaid internship,” Nelson observed. “I lived there for one season and shared a place with the other interns.”

While Cori was starting at her first local news job in Grand Junction, Colorado, Stephen returned home and continued to send out tapes, looking for a job. In a classic case of good timing, he sent out an application to television station KEZI-TV in Eugene, Oregon, and he heard back right away. It turned out to be the break Stephen had been seeking.

“It was great,” Stephen remembers with enthusiasm. “I worked as a sports reporter and anchor and I got to cover Oregon and Oregon State and the Portland Trailblazers.” Finally doing the work for which he had prepared, Nelson faced a career choice when he was offered the position of weekend news anchor.

“In college, we were taught to always say yes to everything,” revealed Stephen. “But that position–in news and out of sports–wasn’t what I wanted to do. So, I turned it down.”

Stephen interviewing Shohei Ohtani.

Sticking with his career plan, Nelson took another step up in 2014 when he was hired as on-air talent by Bleacher Report, a website focused on sports and sports culture that was expanding into internet television after being acquired by Turner Sports. Stephen spent 3 ½ years with BR and was named to Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list in 2016. He then moved to the MLB and NHL Networks in 2018. After another three years, he was paired with Kevin Millar as co-host of the Intentional Talk show, a position he held for two years before coming home to Los Angeles.

His play-by-play career expanded when he began broadcasting games for both the MLB and NHL Networks between 2018 and 2022, plus a handful of games for the Chicago Blackhawks. He then became the primary announcer for the MLB-produced “Friday Night Baseball” games on Apple TV beginning in 2022. This year, he became one of the Dodgers’ regular broadcasters.

Nelson has been careful to maintain perspective as he has become more successful. “The avenues are different today with social media,” he explained. “Doing national broadcasts gave me more exposure, but also more access to criticism. I’ve learned how to better deal with it.” 

World Baseball Classic, Tokyo Dome in 2023.

Nelson was grateful that his professional status put him in a position to broadcast the 2023 World Baseball Classic games from Japan’s Tokyo Dome earlier this year. He had previously broadcast the 2018 Japan All-Star Series from a studio in New Jersey and it was not satisfying.

Kumamoto Castle. From left: Stephen, Kai (son), Scott (father), Flo (mother), Cori (wife)

“When I heard they were sending a broadcasting team to Japan (for the WBC), I was ready to beg for it,” Stephen related. “Fortunately, I was someone who could properly pronounce Japanese names (he remembers going to Japanese school in Long Beach when he was a toddler and studying the language in both high school and college). I took my wife, Kai (their young son), my parents, and we went to Kumamoto (where his mother’s family is from). It was validating and really emotional since it was my first time in Japan. To share that experience with my family is a life highlight.”

Only in his thirties, Nelson has been labeled a pioneer, but he expressed discomfort with the title. Recently, Stephen moderated the sold-out JANM public program, “Beyond the Dugout: A Discussion with Japanese American Staff at the Los Angeles Dodgers” which featured Dodger Manager Dave Roberts, Senior Director of Team Travel Scott Akasaki (who organized the program), Analytics and Data Specialist Emilie Fragapane and Performance Operations Manager Will Ireton.

“Beyond the Dugout: A Discussion with Japanese American Staff at the Los Angeles Dodgers” at JANM on July 29, 2023.

During the program, it was mentioned that Nelson was a pioneer, but he quickly told the audience that he didn’t have “enough dirt in my cleats” to qualify for that role. But when an audience member asked about how he had achieved professional success, he explained that the key for him was “finding my own voice.” He then offered to speak to the young man after the program.

When performance artist/actor and long-time Little Tokyo Giants’ baseball player Dan Kwong announced at the program that he was involved with the restoration of the baseball field at the National Parks Service’s Manzanar camp site next year, Nelson asked if the opening ceremony might need an announcer. After the program, Stephen told JANM Governor Joshua Morey (who also plays for the Little Tokyo Giants) that he would very much like to be part of the Manzanar baseball ceremonies.

Nelson is acutely aware of his new position, especially with a growing family. He and Cori (who married in 2018) just had their second child Crews this month. Stephen revealed, “To me, it means everything. Young Japanese American and Asian American kids can turn on Dodger games and see me. That’s heavy. This will be my legacy. What you leave for the next generation is what matters. That’s our responsibility. It’s in my heart every day.”

Nelson Family. Seated in the front row: Kimi (sister), Matt (brother-in-law) holding Luca, Stephen holding Kai, and his wife, Cori. In the back are Stephen’s parents, Flo and Scott.


© 2023 Chris Komai

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