We’re a few short days away from the dawn of the 2020s. So, instead of counting down the Top 25 stories of the year, we’re taking a look at the top 25 baseball stories of the past decade.
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 over the past ten years.
Next up: number 16: Baseball Implements a Domestic Violence Policy
Athletes are human beings and human beings are capable of bad behavior, so it’s no surprise that violent and criminal off-the-field conduct by athletes has long been part of the sports news landscape. It has also long been the sort of thing that sports leagues and teams have punished. Players, coaches and executives have been sanctioned in one way or another for drugs, gambling, and crimes of various types for years.
In Major League Baseball, however, a particular category of bad and even criminal behavior — physical and psychological abuse of wives, girlfriends, partners, sex workers, children, family members and others — is one that was largely ignored. Sure, you may have heard news about a player being charged with battering his wife, for example, but the league generally left it all up to law enforcement and chose to stay out of what it considered a “private matter.” That law enforcement is notoriously ill-equipped to deal with domestic violence cases — and has been historically indifferent to them compared to other crimes — was never, apparently, part of the league’s calculus in this hands-off approach.
That all changed in 2015, when Major League Baseball, at long last, adopted a domestic violence policy.
Violent and criminal off-the-field behavior by athletes appeared prominently in the news in 2015, particularly domestic violence. As tends to be the case, the NFL received the brunt of this coverage for a handful of high-profile incidents, but baseball was not immune that year or in the years prior. Whether it was because MLB finally came around to the notion that it has a role in helping stop domestic violence by its players and employees or whether it was simply a matter of not wanting to look like it as bungling domestic violence cases like the NFL was, in August of that year the league announced the Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Policy, which you can read here.
The policy was characterized by a dual treatment and intervention program along with a disciplinary program. The discipline would not carry a minimum or maximum penalty, but rather, the Commissioner would issue discipline “he believes is appropriate in light of the severity of the conduct.” This required actual investigation and analysis on the part of the league as opposed to a rote punishment-by-numbers approach that would allow the league to, for all practical purposes, look away as much as possible while claiming that it was doing something.
Even more importantly, discipline under the program would not be contingent on whether the player was arrested or was found guilty of a crime, removing the longstanding “let’s just allow the legal process to run its course” excuse and establishing that Major League Baseball would be not limited to the considerably lower standard of caring about domestic violence if and only if an an actual criminal prosecution was launched. Because again, as noted, a vast majority of domestic violence incidents go un-prosecuted, un-charged, un-investigated and, in many instances, unreported. Under Major League Baseball’s policy, the league assumed an affirmative obligation to look into any substantive allegation, whether it was reported to the authorities or not.
To date there have been fourteen investigations into domestic violence allegations, with 12 of them resulting in suspensions, one resulting in no suspension and at least two currently pending. Which, as far as it goes, is a good thing. But it’s also the case that the system is flawed in certain important respects.
One pretty significant flaw is that the nature of the punishment under the system has, perversely, created an incentive of sorts. Unlike violators of the league’s PED policy, who are automatically disqualified from the playoffs, players who violate the domestic violence policy are eligible for postseason play. As a result — which we saw in the case of Aroldis Chapman in 2016 and Roberto Osuna in 2018 — teams are able to, in effect, arbitrage a player’s domestic violence suspension, taking advantage of his persona non grata status on one team and acquire him on the cheap for a postseason run.
Beyond that structural problem, there’s an optics issue that, however unintended and tough to deal with, is a source of ongoing concern.
In multiple instances — most notably with Addison Russell of the Cubs — a player returning from a domestic violence suspension has been greeted warmly by the hometown fans and even given some variation on the “he has triumphed over adversity” treatment from certain corners of the press. Moreover, a team’s willingness to keep a player who has run afoul of the policy is directly related to their ability to help the team with little apparent reflection as to whether or not, as a general policy, continuing to employ and even promote players with domestic violence histories is the right thing to do.
That one, obviously, is a tougher nut to crack. After all, part and parcel of any disciplinary scheme is the notion that, once one has served their time, one is free to return to society or employment or whatever. No one in or around the game has seriously suggested lifetime bans or anything like that and, barring truly egregious of cases or a pattern of escalating behavior, and such a policy, like most zero tolerance policies, is probably ill-advised for a number of reasons. Chief among them being that, if a ballplayer’s career is ended, it could work severe financial difficulty on the victims of his abuse, thereby potentially discouraging them from reporting said abuse.
But it does seem that, in addition to the formal disciplinary scheme in place, a broader, educational and public outreach aspect to all of this is badly needed in the game.
As it is now, returning players tend to offer up empty platitudes in response to questions about their experiences or, in some cases, deflect questions entirely. Teams, meanwhile, don’t seem too interested in engaging the fan base about the player’s acts or the team’s choice to keep him on the roster. Apart from boilerplate references to how “The Mudville Nine take Major League Baseball’s commitment to stopping domestic violence seriously . . .” there isn’t much evidence that teams or the league are sensitive to the fact that there are fans out there who have serious problems rooting for teams or watching a sport which does not think of domestic violence offenses all that differently from violations of rules dealing with health supplements or scuffed baseballs.
In short, there is a sense that, however well designed the domestic violence policy is on its own terms, the league created it as a reaction to bad press and external pressure as opposed to an innate and affirmative desire to combat domestic violence. A sense that, whether or not that’s the case, in practice, it views domestic violence as a matter that begins and ends with a formal investigation and punishment and that it isn’t also a matter of broader, cultural currents that require constant education and discussion beyond the context of specific players accused and punished of violating a given law or policy. An appreciation of how concepts such as upbringing, masculinity, power, fame, empathy and respect for others all touch on violence in various ways and how root causes and prevention are just as much if not more important than punishment after the fact. A sense that a baseball team can be and often is more than just an employer and is, in many important respects, an institution with duties to both the public and its players that extend beyond that employer-employee relationship.
In this baseball is not alone, obviously. All manner of institutions and employers and, really, society as a whole, falls short of what we should consider basic expectations when it comes to these matters. But baseball is our bailiwick and is an institution which, by definition, I and all of you reading this care a great deal about. We should want it to be better. Baseball should want it to be better too.
Maybe — hopefully — in the next decade, it will build on the initial progress it made in this regard in the past decade.
No. 17: Cardinals Employee Hacks Astros’ Database
No. 18: Frank and Jamie McCourt Bankrupt the Dodgers
No. 19: Baseball Embraces Gambling
No. 20: The Hall of Fame Logjam
No. 21: The Bat-flippers Win the Battle Over the Unwritten Rules
No. 22: Astros switch leagues
No. 23: The Strasburg Shutdown
No. 24: Chicken and Beer
No. 25: All-Star Game no longer counts
Honorable mention: Astros Sign Stealing Scandal