With Jose Reyes’ arrest for domestic violence, Rob Manfred is on the spot

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On Halloween night, Rockies shortstop Jose Reyes was arrested for assaulting his wife. Reyes is accused of grabbing her by the throat and shoving her into the sliding glass door in their hotel room. She suffered injuries to her thigh, neck, and wrist and was treated at a local emergency room.

All reports of domestic violence are awful, but this one is different than most in that it sets the stage for a historic moment: baseball’s first application of its new anti-domestic violence policy.

In August, Major League Baseball, in conjunction with the players union, announced a comprehensive policy regarding players involved in domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse cases. Unlike the drugs policy, the domestic violence policy does not prescribe set punishments which are automatically carried out without the agency or judgment of the league. Commissioner Rob Manfred cannot simply refer to the policy, let its machinery do the work and not take a stand or make a judgement with respect to the player in question. Rather, the policy puts great responsibility on his shoulders to not just act, but to judge.

That’s because, in the absence of a minimum or maximum penalty, the Commissioner must issue the discipline “he believes is appropriate in light of the severity of the conduct.” Discipline will not be contingent on whether the player pleads guilty or is found guilty of a crime. Discipline will also not be subject to pre-policy precedent. Just because a player was not suspended or was suspended lightly in 2007, for example, does not mean that a hefty penalty leveled in 2015 can be overturned based on that precedent. We’re in new territory here.

And, at least for now, as Manfred is poised to issue his first bit of discipline under the policy, Manfred is unshackled by anything other than his conscience. He can set a strict discipline regime from the get-go without seriously worrying about being overturned or, at the very least, without being overturned absent strenuous opposition from Reyes and the union. And, of course, the discipline he does impose on Reyes will have an impact on more than just the baseball-playing fate of Jose Reyes. Pre-policy precedent is meaningless now, but Reyes’ precedent will be the standard from which all future domestic violence incidents are judged. At least roughly speaking anyway, given that the facts and circumstances of each case will be different and must be taken into account.

It’s a precarious place for Manfred to be. The risk of bad optics are legion, as his counterpart in the NFL can attest. Punish Reyes too heavily and he runs the risk of a battle with the union. Punish Reyes too lightly and he runs the risk of appearing to be soft on domestic violence. And, despite the apples and oranges nature of the domestic violence program and the drug program, the comparisons between suspensions under the two regimes will inevitably be made. After all, yesterday a Cardinals minor leaguer was suspended 50 games for smoking a joint. The fact that minor leaguers don’t have a union to protect them goes a long way toward explaining that disparity, but Manfred can’t expect all hell not to break loose if and when Reyes gets a suspension that is a fraction of that for behavior which is far more severe.

So here we are, at the brink of an historic moment. Rob Manfred is no doubt in his Park Avenue office today, surrounded by his advisors, discussing what to do with this shortstop. And knowing full well that what he does with this shortstop will have repercussions that last far longer and which loom far larger than whatever punishment is handed down in this instance.

Take your time, Rob. Get this one right. We’re all watching. No pressure.

UPDATE: Major League Baseball just released a statement about the Reyes case:

“As evidenced by our Joint Domestic Violence Policy, Major League Baseball understands the seriousness of the issues surrounding domestic violence, and our Policy explicitly recognizes the harm resulting from such acts.  Consistent with the terms of this Policy, the Commissioner’s Office already has begun its investigation into the facts and circumstances.  Any action taken by the Commissioner’s Office in this matter will be wholly in accordance with this Policy.”

Given that it’s the offseason and Reyes will neither play nor be paid for months, the league has plenty of time, fortunately, to consider this well and get this right.