And so the conclusion is inescapable: in the world of Major League Baseball, failing a drug test is deemed to be a more serious transgression than domestic abuse. How else to digest the fact that a suspension for a first failed drug test is 80 games – a minor leaguer just recently received 50 games after testing positive marijuana, for pete’s sake – compared to a 30-game suspension without pay for Aroldis Chapman?
That was my initial reaction – as well as that of others – when commissioner Rob Manfred handed down the first ruling using the broad powers given to him under baseball’s newly-adopted domestic violence policy, and suspended the New York Yankees reliever for a period of time just less than 20 per-cent of the regular season and which will cost Chapman upwards of $1.7 million in salary.
Chapman is alleged to have choked his girlfriend after an argument, then proceeded outside to a garage where he fired eight shots from a handgun, one of which went through a window an into an open field. Yet Broward County Police failed to press charges, citing inconsistent witness testimony and insufficient evidence.
This, of course, is where Chapman’s case diverges from that of another Major Leaguer, Jose Reyes, who is has been put on administrative leave from the Colorado Rockies until the resolution of a criminal case in Hawaii, where he was accused of assaulting his wife.
Manfred has shown a deft touch with most issues in a little more than a year as commissioner. His statements and demeanor have, thankfully, been more in keeping with NBA commissioner Adam Silver than those of the empty-suit NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, the latter of whom seemingly can't get out of his own way. So, those of us who believe that 30 games lets Chapman get away much too easily were naturally taken aback.
Despite what some have contended, it matters not whether Chapman’s free-agency would have been delayed by a year had he been suspended for more than 46 games, a move that would have helped the Yankees by giving them another year of service time. Morally, a players contractual status should not enter into the discussion when it comes time to mete out justice.
But in reality? The guess here is it was a topic of consideration, and here’s why: despite having the ability to use powers on his own, Manfred wisely decided to include the Major League Baseball Players Association in the process, as was revealed Tuesday night by the New York Times.
This was a much more nuanced debate than was originally suspected. Manfred likely wanted to make sure that his first ruling had an impact while not initiating an appeal from the players association. The reason for that is simple: the appeal process would open the possibility of the suspension being decreased, which would hamper the commissioner in future dealings. But there was something at stake for the players association, too: it is well known in baseball circles that MLBPA executive director Tony Clark was concerned about the optics of rushing in to defend a player cited for domestic abuse.
As several observers noted in the hours after the commissioner’s ruling, it is indeed possible that Manfred has simply established a minimum with this ruling; that the maximum might be produced by Reyes’ case. Manfred is a lawyer, and so it is possible that he feels beholden to come down harder on a player with the weight of the law behind him. It is about establishing parameters, and what if Manfred decides after the conclusion of legal action involving Reyes that the shortstop is suspended for – I don’t know – 80 games or more? Will that be enough?
It seems morally suspect to discuss matters of domestic violence against the backdrop of negotiation and labour relations, but the simple fact is that is the environment in which Manfred was considering Chapman’s case. Baseball and its union is about to embark on a new round of collective bargaining, and one of the keys to the games recent labour peace has been a shared sense of responsibility emanating from the fact the sides were forced to become allies as a result of Congress’ criticism of the manner in which the game's steroid scandal was mishandled. The game is healthy economically, but that means that there are complicated financial stresses and strains on the relationship than in recent negotiations. The bigger picture has been largely taken care of, so more than ever the devil is in the details.
And so about that comparison between suspensions for failed drug tests and domestic assault? Let’s remember that those suspensions have lengthened since they were originally instituted; let’s remember that the system of punishment has proven to be a living, breathing, thing subject to being overhauled. The guess here is that is what we will see with baseball’s domestic violence policy – and the hope is that Manfred’s eventual ruling on Reyes’ case gives us better insight than his ruling on Chapman into where it’s going.