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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Domestic-violence policy is a tough at-bat for MLB

Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred answers a question as

Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred answers a question as he speaks at news conference during baseball's annual general managers meeting Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016, in Scottsdale, Ariz. Credit: AP / Ross D. Franklin

The most troubling aspect of any domestic-violence policy, as Major League Baseball’s own program enters its 19th month, is the need to have one in the first place.

But since its inception, commissioner Rob Manfred already is conducting his fourth investigation. The Mets’ Jeurys Familia is likely to be suspended, with the penalty to be announced at some point during spring training.

MLB’s policy is not just about punishing players for their actions. Counseling and raising awareness also are critical parts, with so many other people affected, and a wide scope of victims, too. That leaves the commissioner’s office, in conjunction with the Players Association, to pick up where the criminal justice system often ends.

Only one player, Hector Olivera — suspended by Manfred for 82 games last May — ultimately was found guilty of a misdemeanor domestic-assault charge. He was sentenced to 10 days in prison. The three others, Familia, Jose Reyes and Aroldis Chapman, never were tried in court. With Familia and Reyes, their wives refused to cooperate with prosecutors, which led to the charges being dropped. As for Chapman, he wasn’t arrested despite firing a gun repeatedly into a garage wall during an alleged fight with his girlfriend.

Regardless, MLB further examined each of those cases, and in two of those instances, handed out lengthy suspensions to Reyes (52 games) and Chapman (30), with another expected to follow for Familia. In Manfred’s view, the program has been effective, as unfortunate as it is that he’s had to put it to the test.

“I’m pleased with the way the policy has worked,” Manfred said Friday at the MLB owners’ meetings in Palm Beach, Florida. “I do understand that we have largely had offseason incidents, and that’s helpful, because it gives you time to complete an investigation. I understand we may get into situations that could be more difficult in-season, but in general, we’re really pleased with the way it’s worked so far.”

Olivera was arrested in April. The other three occurred at the end of October, which gave Manfred a big window that he won’t have for any in-season problems. With Reyes, Manfred had to wait until the judicial system had run its course in April before rendering his decision in mid-May. With Chapman, the commissioner announced his verdict on March 1, about two weeks into spring training.

Although Familia’s case was dismissed Dec. 15, Manfred didn’t anticipate completing his investigation until spring training, with any suspension not scheduled to begin until the start of the regular season anyway. The commissioner described the investigation as “ongoing” when asked about Familia’s status on Friday, but he added that he will let the player and team know “well in advance” of Opening Day.

Any disciplinary action, however, is not the end of the story when it comes to domestic violence. Counseling can prevent such behavior and might help repair some of the damage, but there is no undoing what already has been done. Even though Reyes and Chapman returned from their suspensions and flourished, they still carry the stigma of domestic violence, a label that time can’t erase in some people’s minds.

It also can stick to the teams that employ them, as Hal Steinbrenner was reminded this past week at the owners’ meetings. The Yankees faced heavy criticism when they initially traded for Chapman last year — in the midst of MLB’s domestic-violence investigation — and it continued, to a slightly lesser extent, during his four months in pinstripes before he was dealt to the Cubs. That obviously didn’t deter the Yankees from bringing him back with a stunning five-year, $86-million deal in December. But Steinbrenner may have underestimated some of the lingering animosity toward the closer, and a slight misspeak on his part quickly sparked that smoldering fire.

In talking about Chapman’s behavior during his Yankees tenure, Steinbrenner described how the closer “admitted he messed up” and “paid the penalty.” Steinbrenner got tripped up, however, when he added, “Sooner or later, we forget, right? That’s the way we’re supposed to be in life.”

Shortly afterward, when asked about the quote, Steinbrenner clarified that he meant to say “forgive” — not “forget” — and was surprised when told that’s how it came out initially. He thought he had said “forgive” all along.

The fact that the original quote sparked so much immediate outrage on social media again showed the volatility of this matter and highlighted the vigilance to which the team and player will be subjected. For Major League Baseball, the increased awareness is a positive step. And the only thing better than having a domestic-violence policy is never having to use it.

Paying the price

In the span of 18 months, or as long as Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy has been in existence, three players have been disciplined by the commissioner’s office with a fourth — the Mets’ Jeurys Familia — to be added next month. Here’s a quick glance at the penalties.

Hector Olivera: The Braves’ outfielder has so far received the harshest penalty of 82 games, and after a midseason trade to the Padres, was released by San Diego. The suspension cost him $3.89 million, but he still is owed roughly $54 million on his original contract, which is being paid by the Padres and Dodgers.

Jose Reyes: The Rockies released Reyes before his 52-game suspension began, despite the $48 million left on his contract, and the ban cost him $6.25 million. The Mets then signed him to a two-year deal, at the $508,000 minimum, through 2017. Colorado is on the hook for another $26 million this season.

Aroldis Chapman: The Yankees’ closer received a 30-game suspension, at a cost of $1.86 million, but still amassed the service time to become a free agent at the end of last season. Chapman helped the Cubs win their first World Series since 1908, then signed a five-year, $86 million deal to return to the Yankees, a record for a relief pitcher.

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