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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Astros' trade for Osuna puts MLB domestic-violence policy in spotlight

HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 09: Roberto Osuna #54

HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 09: Roberto Osuna #54 of the Houston Astros pitches in the ninth inning against the Seattle Mariners at Minute Maid Park on August 9, 2018 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images) Credit: Getty Images/Bob Levey

Major League Baseball’s suspension of Roberto Osuna earlier this season for domestic-assault charges wasn’t the first of its kind, unfortunately. Osuna was, in fact, the seventh player to be disciplined under the policy instituted in 2015 by virtue of a joint agreement between new commissioner Rob Manfred and union chief Tony Clark.

Manfred and Clark had the foresight to act relatively quickly compared with the other professional sports leagues, prompted no doubt by the NFL’s glacial pace of addressing a number of its own ugly cases, which in turn created a firestorm of public backlash for commissioner Roger Goodell.

Clearly, the goal should be to deter such abhorrent behavior and not merely dole out punishment for the sake of containing the public relations fallout, even though that’s part of this process. From what we’ve seen so far in these instances, Manfred has worked within the policy’s parameters to broker suspensions that are not challenged by the union, then left the rest up to the individual teams as far as making their own judgments.

Or in other words, determine their individual tolerance for the offenders. That’s become an even thornier issue moving forward, with the Astros’ recent trade for Osuna taking this debate to another level.

Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow made the Osuna deal before the Toronto closer had even completed his 75-game suspension — and with the criminal charges still unresolved in Canada.

That’s where Osuna’s situation differs from the two most prominent local cases involving Aroldis Chapman and Jose Reyes. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman traded for Chapman knowing the extent of the allegations, but the former Reds closer never was charged and received a 30-game suspension before throwing his first pitch for his new club. Reyes served what amounted to a 51-game ban (without his wife’s cooperation, the charges were dropped), and the Mets brought him back to Flushing when his ban was up.

Another important distinction: Both the Yankees and Mets had a grasp of what they were dealing with. The details of those allegations already were public, based on the police reports, so each front office was dealing with a known quantity — going on the belief that the players were being forthright as well with that information.

Even with the heinous nature of the accusations, Chapman and Reyes were welcomed back from their suspensions by the home crowds, or at least to a degree that any vocal objection was mostly muted by applause. Put bluntly, Chapman throws 100 mph and is one of the most intimidating closers in the sport, so it’s not as if his Bronx reception wasn’t anticipated.

Not only that, but Cashman flipped him to the Cubs for a package of players that included young star Gleyber Torres. Chapman was instrumental in ending the Cubs’ World Series drought, which dated to 1908, and later returned to the Yankees for a five-year, $86-million contract, the richest ever for a closer.

The Mets’ repatriation of Reyes hasn’t been quite as spectacular, but they did sign him back last offseason to a one-year, $2-million deal that should mark his farewell tour in Flushing.

It’s important to note that a big part of MLB’s domestic-violence policy goes beyond the punitive aspect in providing counseling, education and other resources for the families. And to date, there has been no evidence of any repeated offenses since the players involved have returned to the sport. While that certainly doesn’t mitigate any past behavior, it seems to be the best that MLB can do in trying to move forward.

With Osuna, however, there exists an awkward limbo, and that’s what turned the Astros into accomplices — at least according to public opinion. The details of the allegations against Osuna have been kept sealed by the Toronto court and might never be released, depending on the judge’s discretion. The next court date is Sept. 5, but Osuna’s attorney, Domenic Basile, told reporters last week that he is hopeful a resolution in favor of his client will be reached before then.

In the meantime, Osuna is pitching for the defending world champions, and the Astros are putting their best spin on the proceedings, just as the Yankees and Mets did before them. Luhnow’s initial statement immediately after the trade appeared to be ripped from the playbooks of the New York teams.

“The due diligence by our front office was unprecedented,” Luhnow said. “We are confident that Osuna is remorseful, has willfully complied with all consequences related to his past behavior, has proactively engaged in counseling, and will fully comply with our zero-tolerance policy related to abuse of any kind. Roberto has some great examples of character in our existing clubhouse that we believe will help him as he and his family establish a fresh start and as he continues with the Houston Astros. We look forward to Osuna’s contributions as we head into the back half of the season.”

Luhnow took particular heat for mentioning a “zero-tolerance policy” that he himself violated by trading for a player facing assault charges and serving a suspension for them. In addition, Osuna’s attorney made sure to correct Luhnow in saying that his client was not apologizing for anything — just “remorseful” for the circumstances, an important legal distinction.

Osuna made his first relief appearance for the Astros on Monday and threw a perfect eighth inning in a 3-1 victory over the Giants at AT&T Park. The five-pitch outing was his first since May 6 for the Blue Jays, for whom Osuna had a 2.93 ERA in 15 games and was 9-for-10 in save chances.

Unlike the Blue Jays, however, the Astros are a lock for the playoffs, and Osuna will be eligible for the postseason, something that PED offenders are not, according to MLB’s drug policy. That provision enabled Chapman to help the Cubs to their historic title, and looking at the bigger picture, probably allows MLB greater latitude in getting players to accept their punishments rather than seek messy appeals.

The playoff loophole could always be closed eventually. The PED policy, in its early stages, did not prohibit players from participating in the postseason if their suspensions had been served. It took a decade and finally was installed in 2014, ushered in by a wave of stricter penalties.

By that timeline, MLB’s domestic-violence policy remains a work in progress, and could evolve to include more broader discipline, if the two sides feel an urgency to negotiate for it.

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