For Astros and sports, a ‘messy’ intersection of second chances and accountability
As pitcher Roberto Osuna returns to court Wednesday in Toronto for the latest hearing in a domestic violence case, the Houston Astros, his new employer, are treading the increasingly narrow line that separates the lofty quest for redemption from gritty zero-tolerance reality.
On that point, initially, the Astros are struggling. The defending World Series champions, who acquired Osuna via trade Monday from the Blue Jays, are being described in the national sports media as moral bankrupts, sacrificing a portion of their boundless supply of local goodwill for an arm, no matter how tainted its owner, that can get outs in the ninth inning.
Osuna, who has not pitched since he was arrested in May and is serving a 75-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Policy, is eligible to join the Astros this weekend in Los Angeles, where the team will be wrapping up a series against the Dodgers, their opponent in last year’s World Series.
The Astros, while reciting their zero-tolerance policy for domestic abuse, note that Osuna's troubles occurred before he joined the ballclub and that the 23-year-old will benefit from "great examples of character in our existing clubhouse that we believe will help him as he and his family establish a fresh start."
“They need to make it clear that if you do anything, you’re gone,” said Cindy Southworth, an executive vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, a nonprofit coalition of groups dedicated to eradicating violence against women through social, economic and political reforms.
“But how do you balance redemption and behavioral change with holding people accountable?” she said. “It’s messy. It’s not straightforward. But you can do both.”
How sports leagues deal with domestic violence cases against their players has evolved in recent years.
MLB enacted its first domestic violence policy in 2015 and has suspended six players since, with suspensions ranging from 15 to 100 games. Its policy came after the NFL’s struggle with the case of Ray Rice, a Baltimore running back who was initially suspended two games for striking his wife. The league upgraded that suspension to indefinite after video of the incident was released. Last season, the NFL suspended Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott six games for a domestic violence incident involving a former girlfriend in 2016.
“It is vital that the athletes who are part of the MLB family understand that it is not acceptable to assault your partner,” Southworth said. “It is important for the Astros to say these words in public and that it is not a contradiction for them to acquire a player with a history of violence.”
Osuna will appear in an Ontario provincial court for what prosecutors described as a status conference on the assault case. While details on the allegations are scarce, Osuna is charged with assault under a provision of Canada’s criminal code that could result in a sentence of up to five years.
The more likely legal outcome, according to Osuna’s lawyer, Dominic Basile, is an instrument known as a peace bond that would result in dismissal of the charges in return for Osuna’s agreement to meet certain conditions.
That, however, leaves the court of public opinion and the question of whether Osuna, 23, merits an opportunity to continue his baseball career after serving his suspension and, more to the point for local fans, whether he should be doing so in an Astros uniform.
“(Osuna) does not belong on the Astros team or in the Houston community,” Astros fan Jim Greenwood said. “Why the Astros would commit such a mistake is incomprehensible.”
That matched the reaction from the national baseball media. “Surprising …disappointing … shocking …appalling,” wrote ESPN’s Buster Olney. Yahoo! Sports’ baseball writer Jeff Passan said the Astros, titular darlings of the sports intelligentsia for their innovative approach to the game, have emulated other teams that display “moral bankruptcy” by acquiring a player of tainted character because, in this case, he can get outs in the ninth inning.
The addition of Osuna could cause friction among Astros players as well. Pitchers Justin Verlander and Lance McCullers had made public statements against players who commit domestic violence when the team had released a minor leaguer (Danry Vasquez) who had been charged in 2016.
“Obviously, I’ve said some pretty inflammatory things about stuff like this in the past, and I stand by my words,” Verlander said Monday after the trade was announced. “But I think with an ongoing case as is this one, we’ll see what happens. It’ll be interesting.”
Southworth said she hopes the Astros will align with the Houston Area Women’s Center to advocate against domestic violence and to support victims and their families.
The ballclub under former owner Drayton McLane, who sold the team to Jim Crane in 2012, had a longstanding association with the women’s center through the Astros Wives Association. That group for 23 years sponsored an annual event that raised more than $4 million for the women’s center.
After Crane purchased the team, however, the ballclub withdrew its unofficial support of the wives group, and the Astros Foundation informed the center that its focus would be on at-risk youth and inner-city teens.
Foundation officials said in 2013 that they would “hope to continue to support the center's clients in other ways.” However, the women’s center is not listed among foundation beneficiaries on the team’s website.
While she did not address the Houston Area Women’s Center’s previous relationship with the Astros, Sonia Corrales, the center’s interim president and CEO, said she is encouraged that Astros fans and others are discussing the topic of domestic abuse and zero tolerance in the wake of the Osuna trade.
"People know that this is a problem in our community, when historically, it's been thought about as private — something at home, no one's business,” Corrales said. “So the fact that the community is talking about it shows that people are aware of the issue, and that it really is a community problem, that's good."
Corrales has noticed a surge in victims and survivors willing to seek help since the #MeToo movement picked up steam last fall in the wake of revelations about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.
"There are a few things we've seen with #MeToo," said Corrales. "There's a public accountability that if you're doing something, we're going to hold you accountable. So the message now to survivors is 'I believe you.'
“Now people know that one in three women are domestic violence survivors and one in four girls are sexually abused. So people know that if they've experienced something like this, they're not alone. A huge dynamic of domestic violence is that it is very isolating. So knowing you're not alone, that's an important message."
As for the specifics of the allegations against Osuna, Corrales said, "The fans have a right to know what happened," Corrales said. "The Astros should be transparent about it."
This is hardly the Astros’ first brush with a player accused of domestic violence. After the 1973 season, outfielder Cesar Cedeno was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after he said a 19-year-old woman that he accompanied to hotel grabbed his gun and it discharged, killing her. He spent 20 days in jail and was released after paying a $100 fine.
In 2003, infielder Julio Lugo was arrested after a game and accused of assaulting his wife. He was designated for assignment within 24 hours of the arrest and never again wore an Astros uniform, although he played for another decade for a half-dozen other teams. He was acquitted of the assault charge after his wife testified that she exaggerated her allegations against him.
More recently, goalkeeper Tyler Deric of the Dynamo soccer club was suspended last November by Major League Soccer after his arrest for misdemeanor assault of a family member. He received deferred adjudication on the charge and was cleared to resume play as he completes a year-long diversion program that could lead to charges being dismissed.
The first two incidents, however, occurred at a very different time in the worlds of baseball and public perception regarding abusive behavior.
Communications consultant Kevin Sullivan, a former executive with NBC Sports and the Dallas Mavericks and communications director for President George W. Bush, said the Astros and Osuna both have burdens to shoulder in dealing with the team’s fan base.
“Domestic violence is and should be a zero tolerance issue, and (Osuna) has served his suspension as a first-time offender,” Sullivan said. “Now it’s up to him to convince the fans of Houston that he is sincerely remorseful and has undergone counseling to help ensure this will not happen again.
“It’s not just the apology. It has to be followed with action. You have to demonstrate what you are doing differently and how you are addressing the problem.
The Astros, Sullivan said, “need to reassure their corporate partners and fans that they approached this in a thoughtful way and that (Osuna) has earned a second chance. Traditionally sports fans are forgiving, but domestic violence is an important and difficult issue.”
Staff writer Maggie Gordon contributed to this report.