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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2018 — No. 14: Roberto Osuna shows how flexible baseball ethics can be

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We’re a few short days away from 2019 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2018. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

On April 10, 23-year-old Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna became the youngest pitcher in Major League history to record his 100th career save. Less than a month later he was arrested and charged with assaulting his girlfriend in Toronto. Osuna was placed on administrative leave by the Jays on May 8 and, on June 22, he was suspended for 75 games.

While the precise details of Osuna’s assault on his girlfriend have not come to light, they were likely serious, as those 75 games represented the second-longest suspension to be handed down since the advent of the league’s Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Policy.

Assault charges were, eventually, withdrawn against Osuna, but not because the incident was less serious than thought. Rather, they were withdrawn because his victim would not return to Canada from Mexico to testify against him. As it was, Osuna was subjected to a one-year peace bond, which is akin to a restraining order, combined with probation. That itself is a pretty major sanction given a lack of on-the-record evidence against Osuna. Something pretty bad appears to have gone down.

In between Osuna’s arrest and his sentencing, he was acquired in a trade by the Houston Astros. This is where, for our purposes, things get interesting.

Purely on the baseball merits, Osuna came cheaply to the Astros, costing the team only Ken Giles and two minor league pitchers. This exposed the Astros to criticism that they viewed his domestic violence as some mere market inefficiency, allowing them to get a bargain. The sense was that they did not mind having a bad egg on the team as long as the bad egg didn’t cost too much. No doubt sensitive to such criticisms, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow offered a statement defending the team for the move. Among his comments included a reference to the Astros’ belief — based on what Luhnow called “unprecedented” due diligence — that Osuna was “remorseful.”

Except there seemed to be no basis for his statements whatsoever. Osuna was still fighting charges in court at the time, denying wrongdoing. Indeed his lawyer specifically said Osuna was not remorseful. Who told Luhnow tha Osuna was remorseful? It certainly wasn’t Osuna’s legal team. Was it Osuna? Doubtful, because lawyers of criminal defendants tend not to let their clients talk to people about the crimes for which they are still being prosecuted, especially in order to say stuff that implies their guilt. Doing that runs the risk of creating new witnesses for the prosecution to call.

Whatever the case, Luhnow’s comments came off like empty platitudes, aimed at giving the impression of Osuna’s redemption in order to cover for the fact that Luhnow acquired a domestic abuser because, hey, domestic abusers come cheaper than other, comparable players. No matter what you think about the “remorseful” talk, Luhnow was already being disingenuous, as he referenced the team’s alleged “zero tolerance” policy toward domestic violence which, by simple virtue of acquiring Osuna, was transformed into a “some tolerance” policy.

The entire episode made it crystal clear that, in Major League Baseball, the ethics of employing or acquiring men who beat or abuse women is purely situational. If the player in question is not valuable on the field — such as Hector Olivera, who was suspended for 82 games after assaulting a woman — his big league career is over. If the player is valuable, like Osuna, the player is treated like anyone else. If the player’s value going forward is not yet crystal clear — say, like Addison Russell‘s — he’ll be given a conditional chance. If he plays well after given that chance, he’ll have been magically “redeemed.” If he doesn’t, he’ll be cast aside.

On a certain level this is defensible. There is nothing in the league’s domestic violence policy that calls for a total ban on offenders from playing. There are set penalties and, once a player serves his suspension, he is eligible to play and a team is free to sign him.

It’s telling, however, that team officials won’t simply come out and say that. It’s telling that, when fans and the media observe that it is troubling to see teams acquire such players and that their doing so may bother people — especially people whose own lives have been affected by domestic violence — that they claim the player has learned their lesson and has turned the other cheek, regardless of whether or not such claims are plausible.

It’s troubling to hear disingenuous claims like Luhnow’s. In some ways it’s worse than if we were to hear someone in his position simply say “he’s probably a bad guy but he’ll help us win games and that’s what we’re all paid to do.” At least that would carry with it the benefit of honesty.

Astros defend barring reporter from clubhouse

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As we wrote about this morning, last night the Houston Astros, at the request of Justin Verlander, barred Detroit Free Press reporter Anthony Fenech from the clubhouse during Verlander’s media availability following the Tigers-Astros game. After Verlander was done talking to the press in the scrum setting — and after a call was placed to Major League Baseball about the matter — Fenech was allowed in.

As we noted, this was done in violation of agreements to which Major League Baseball, the Houston Astros and the Baseball Writers Association of America are parties. The agreements are meant to ensure full access to BBWAA-accredited reporters as long as they have not violated the terms of their credentials.  In no case do the clubs — and certainly not the players — have the right to bar access to BBWAA-accredited reporters. Indeed, the whole point of the BBWAA is to ensure such access and to ensure that teams cannot bar them simply because they are unhappy with their coverage or what have you.

This morning Verlander tweeted, obliquely, about “unethical behavior” on the part of Fenech that led to his request to the Astros to bar him. As we noted at the time, such an allegation — however interesting it might be — is of no consequence to the admission or barring of a reporter. If Fenech has acted unethically it’s a matter between him and his employer and, potentially, between him and the BBWAA. At the very least, if Verlander has a specific concern, it would be incumbent upon him or the Astros to take the matter up with either the Free Press or the BBWAA.

In light of all of this, it’s hard to make a case for Verlander’s request and the Astros’ honoring it. A few moments ago, however, the Astros released as statement on the matter which, basically, says, “so what?”

Which is to say, the Astros have made a decades-long agreement between the BBWAA and MLB regarding reporter access optional, because a player does not like a reporter who is covering him.  Someone without the power to alter the BBWAA-MLB relationship has just done so unilaterally. And they have done so in such a way that any player, should they decide they don’t like a reporter, will now presumably rely on it as precedent. Finally, it should be noted that in issuing this statement, the Astros have given at least some tacit credence to Verlander’s thus far unsubstantiated and unspecified allegations of unethical behavior on the part of Fenech, which seems less-than-ideal at best.

It’s your move, Major League Baseball and BBWAA. Whatcha gonna do about it?