On May 8, Toronto Blue Jays fans woke up to disconcerting news. The news wasn’t related to an injury or a sudden trade — instead, star closer Roberto Osuna was arrested for domestic violence. The 23-year-old was charged with assault and put on administrative leave by Major League Baseball (MLB) commissioner Rob Manfred. Osuna later received a 75-game suspension retroactive to his arrest date.
The arrest left Blue Jays fans scratching their heads, wondering how to react. Osuna is the first Blue Jays player to be suspended under the MLB’s new domestic violence policy, effectively allowing him to set a precedent for how the team and fans would react to a similar situation in the future.
Do we, the fans, burn his jerseys? Should the team bring him back? On the scale of ethics and objective athleticism — which side does domestic abuse weigh more?
It’s first important to explore the domestic violence policy that dealt the punishment to the young pitcher.
The official transcript of the policy, established in August 2015, noted that the MLB would conduct an independent investigation into any occurrence of domestic violence, but did not specify how or with what means the investigation would occur.
Since the policy’s debut, only a handful of players have been suspended under its pretense: Aroldis Chapman, José Reyes, Héctor Olivera, Jeurys Familia, Derek Norris, Steven Wright, José Torres, and now most recently Osuna, whose 75-game ban is the third longest given out under the new policy.
Immediately following the arrest, Blue Jays’ General Manager Ross Atkins announced that the team had no interest in trading Osuna and that once his suspension was lifted on August 5, he would be re-integrated into the team. The announcement fueled the cloud of confusion that hung over an already-discouraged fanbase. Osuna was once the bright spot on a team filled with mediocrity.
As a Jays fan, I’ve spent countless evenings at the Rogers Centre listening to a lulled crowd suddenly get jolted by a burst of energy, spirits lifted when saw they a certain relief pitcher exiting the bullpen and the sound of his walk-up music echo throughout the stadium.
Osuna was the cherry on top of the whipped cream: he gave hope to fans and rejuvenated a game. A tie in the 11th? Well, it’ll stay that way because Osuna is on the mound. Up one run in the bottom of the ninth? We’ll get that W because we can always count on Osuna.
The conundrum that took hold of Toronto due to Osuna’s behavior is an indication of the current culture and outlook surrounding domestic violence that is held by the MLB. The league’s new domestic violence policy, though not nearly extensive enough, is a positive step in attempting to correct a culture decades-long in the making. Other leagues, such as the NHL and the NFL, don’t have any specific policy for domestic violence to begin with.
However, the new policy’s mere existence does not erase the dark history of ignoring violence that mires the MLB. The outlook that the MLB had on domestic violence for decades prior to the naissance of the policy reinforced a culture rife with the acceptance of violence, so long as the perpetrator was an asset to a team. This culture is still very much alive to this day. The essential agreement among managers, players, and many fans, has been: who cares what a player does in his personal life as long as he delivers on the field?
The debate about the extent to which players should be punished for actions in their personal lives has turned reporter against colleague, fan against fan, and — possibly — player against player. To dive deeper into this discussion, it is important to first decide what components make up an athlete. Is style important? Personality? Would Mike Trout be lauded more confidently as this generation’s best player if he had more swagger? Do we take into account things other than the objective mechanics of pitching, hitting, or catching when discussing a player?
According to the MLB — and the awards that it gives out — the answer is yes.
The Roberto Clemente Award — most recently awarded to the Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo — is annually given to a “player who best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, and community involvement”. The league very publicly rewards players for their behaviour and community participation off of the field — in effect, affirming the idea that many components make up an athlete, ones that surpass muscle and sweat.
If the MLB wants to publicly reward its players for doing good off of the field, then it should handle opposing manners with the same publicity and vigor. Athletes have long been considered role models. They grace our cereal boxes, talk to us from the screens of our TVs while promoting a new Adidas shoe, and make their presence felt in whichever city they are representing for the given time.
Osuna’s incident isn’t just an unfortunate incident of violence: it is an endorsement of a lifestyle and outlook that has always been promoted within sports culture. It is representative of a culture that surpasses baseball; one that reveres Chicago Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane, despite the disturbing rape allegations that plagued him in 2015 and 2016.
It is a culture that emphasizes charity and community, but buries instances of violence and abuse. It is a culture that teaches young people that they can be violent and receive minimal punishment — because let’s face it: at the end of the day, to Osuna, who is a multimillionaire, a 75-game suspension is nothing.
The most prevalent question is: do we care that a guy beats up his girlfriend if he’s throwing over 100 miles per hour? The answer should always be yes. The rings, the banner, and those frosty, tense, baseball nights in late October should be a reward for good behaviour — not a guarantee.
And thankfully, the Blue Jays’ front office got it right. On July 30, less than 24 hours before the trade deadline, Roberto Osuna was traded to the Houston Astros, for three right-handed pitchers: Ken Giles, David Paulino, and Hector Perez. None of these pitchers have numbers as spectacular as Osuna’s — but none of them have been arrested for domestic violence either.
It is easy to get lost in numbers, statistics, and sabermetrics when it comes to baseball. It is easy to view every player as an amalgamation of averages and percentages. The Blue Jays — in the midst of a season where nothing is going right — did something good. They chose morality over athleticism; a decision that will no doubt cause controversy and be scoffed at by local fans and enemies alike.
It seems ridiculous to trade a young, controllable, skilled player — but this move also breathes some humanity into a league that is obsessed with moneyballing every trade and acquisition. It also sends a clear message: Osuna will not use Toronto’s mound or people as the basis for his redemption. No one is beyond redemption, but Atkins and his associates made it clear that Osuna would not get the satisfaction of forgiveness from a crowd that, prior to May, loved and revered him. The Blue Jays’ stance on violence is therefore unmistakeable: it will not be tolerated.
I, for one, am glad I don’t have to see Roberto Osuna sport a Blue Jays uniform any longer. I will be sporting my own blue-and-white jersey with pride.