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The Blue Jays Will Show Us How Much They Value Roberto Osuna's Arm

Sports teams often value on-field production above all else. But will Toronto welcome back Osuna, who was suspended 75 games for violating MLB's domestic violence policy?

by Drew Fairservice
Jun 25 2018, 9:10pm

Photo by Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto Blue Jays reliever Roberto Osuna won't be back until August, at the earliest. The All-Star closer was suspended 75 games for violating baseball's joint domestic violence policy, which came down more than a month after he had been placed on administrative leave as a result of an assault arrest on May 8. The criminal proceedings in Ontario remain underway but MLB handed out its punishment following an internal investigation that began soon after the 23-year-old was charged, signaling that the league gathered sufficient evidence and information to make its own decision on the matter while Osuna's case remains before the courts.

Osuna, who intends to plead not guilty, won't appeal the suspension and a brief statement by the Blue Jays states that the club "supports" the decision, one that will see the pitcher miss more games than all but two players who have been suspended under MLB's domestic violence policy (Padres pitcher Jose Torres got 100 games earlier this season, while then-Braves player Hector Olivera was banned 82 games in 2016 and hasn't played since).

What happens to Osuna now? And where does everyone go from here?

For the victim, whose identity was kept private by Toronto police for her protection, physically recovering from the assault is only the beginning. Victims are confronted with nuanced and challenging choices, with many layers to parse and obstacles standing before them, from the best interests of children to the threat of financial abuse and despair. One can only hope that she has strong support around her to safely navigate this incredibly difficult chapter in her life.

For Osuna, life is going to be complicated. He'll undergo "confidential and comprehensive evaluation and treatment program supervised by the Joint Policy Board" but still faces criminal charges for an offense MLB deemed serious enough to warrant a 75-game unpaid suspension that will see him forfeit the prorated portion of his $5.3 million 2018 salary for those games missed.

He's fortunate to be well paid and he retains the support of many fans and the resources of his union to aid him as he moves forward with his life. In developing its domestic violence strategy, baseball attempted to find the crucial middle ground between "fairness to the player and respect and safety for the victim," as Mike Vorkunov explained in USA Today when Mets infielder Jose Reyes returned to baseball after his 51-game domestic violence suspension in 2016.

For the Blue Jays, meanwhile, the hard part is just beginning. Rather than couch their public comments in passive language that vaguely supported Osuna, the Blue Jays instead issued short but clear statements accepting the league's findings. It followed the same language pattern used after his arrest, when the team stated "the type of conduct associated with this incident is not reflective of our values as an organization."

They did not mince words with passive language at that time, steering clear of qualifiers like "allegedly," despite individuals accused of crimes, as written in section 11(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, having the right "to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law in a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal." As Sheryl Ring of Fangraphs wrote after Toronto first released a statement following Osuna's arrest, "The Blue Jays, with this one move, appear to have taken a real, if subtle, stand on behalf of women's safety."

We're about to find out the true contents of the Blue Jays' organizational "values" and where the the club stands on this matter. If the Jays prioritize their values over Osuna's on-field production, it will fly in the face of the "just win, baby" conventional wisdom in pro sports.

For generations, pro sports teams demonstrated to audiences that players' conduct away from the field always takes a backseat to their ability to produce on it. Great players aren't always great people, but general managers tend to look the other way in exchange for production that helps put a better team on the field.

Some teams happily embrace players with off-field issues, grabbing "assets" with baggage for pennies on the dollar. In 2015, the New York Yankees cynically gamed the system, acquiring Aroldis Chapman from the Cincinnati Reds following the reliever's arrest for choking and firing a gun toward his girlfriend. Though charges were later withdrawn, as they often are in domestic abuse cases, Chapman was suspended for 30 games after MLB's investigation.

The Yankees rode out Chapman's suspension, traded him at the deadline for a significantly greater return than his acquisition cost, and then signed him to a record-setting free agent deal worth nearly $100 million that winter. They're the Yankees, so the brand damage was minimal. Abusers welcome, just make sure you're clean shaven.

This is not a Yankees-only problem. From Miguel Sano and the Twins to Reyes being welcomed back to the Mets, the list of alleged domestic abusers in baseball is sadly long, with the vast majority of players slinking back into the lineup. In Steven Wright's return to the Red Sox rotation, local media paid more attention to his offseason surgery and the conditions he pitched in than the incident that saw him suspended for 15 games. The headline notes how he pitched "like an All-Star."

The cruel calculus has changed in recent years, as societal conversations shift and professional sports franchises grapple with factors previously ignored. While misdeeds and criminal offenses of some players were rationalized or swept under the rug when convenient, teams like the Blue Jays now appear willing to do things differently.

Any decision made with marginalized segments of the audience in mind makes for a better, healthier professional sports landscape. But there's financial incentive for teams to do the Right Thing.

The Blue Jays are a modern sports business, which is to say they're run with ruthless corporate efficiency. Winning offers the shortest path to profitability, but a well-run team strives to make money through countless revenue streams and corporate interests, eliminating the variance of on-field performance. Providing an inclusive environment and showing emotional intelligence has a direct impact on the bottom line in 2018.

Sponsors buy ads, luxury boxes and season seats, and their guests drink merrily and eat heartedly during a night out at the ballpark. The Blue Jays values must reflect the values of their deep-pocketed customers, lest those organizations take their money elsewhere. Taking a principled stance against a person like Osuna, given the charges he faces, could end up being the right thing from multiple perspectives.

Photo by Jordan Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The team has until Aug. 4 to decide its course of action with the troubled and talented Osuna. Already one of the finest relievers in club history, Osuna was the closer and bullpen backbone of the first two Blue Jays playoff teams in 20 years. He's only the second pitcher to reach 100 saves in his career before his 24th birthday, and was selected to his first All-Star Game last season. Any team willing to stomach the PR and karmic backlash would net a very good pitcher whose best years on the field might well be ahead of him.

Despite his value on the field and his relationship with the team that signed him as a 16-year-old out of Mexico before he became a fan favourite on the most succesful Blue Jays teams since the World Series years, the organization could ultimately elect to release him. Or trade him. Or bring him back but stash him away for the final weeks of the season to allow themselves more time to make a decision. He may never throw another pitch for the Blue Jays, and, although unlikely, could wind up facing jail time. He could also have difficulty receiving work permits for the United States, like the Pirates' Jung Ho Kang experienced. There are still many unknowns when it comes to Osuna's future baseball career, and how the only team he has ever known plans to proceed.

For the Blue Jays, it's either a very difficult decision or a very simple one. Will their stated values guide them or will the cynical nature of professional sports win out again? We'll soon see just what they "value" and why.