TORONTO – On Aug. 29, 2002, Felix Heredia, a middling left-handed reliever in the midst of a non-descript season for the Toronto Blue Jays, was arrested and charged with assault and assault with a weapon, which was a baby stroller. The case drew little attention, Heredia was back on the mound a week later, became a free agent at season’s end and signed with the Cincinnati Reds afterwards. About a year later, the charges against him were dropped when the complainant refused to travel from New York City to testify, and the whole thing disappeared.
Heredia’s case and the contrast between then and now came to mind after Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna was arrested by Toronto police Tuesday and charged with assaulting a woman. Details of the alleged incident weren’t made public and Constable Jenifferjit Sidhu said such information is kept private to protect the identity of the victim. Osuna is scheduled to appear in court June 18 and was placed on a paid “administrative leave” by Major League Baseball while league officials conduct their own investigation.
While the calibre of player involved in the two arrests are certainly different – Heredia was a journeyman, Osuna an all-star who recently became the youngest pitcher to ever record 100 saves – the far more significant difference is in the handling of and reaction to both cases.
Increasingly over the past few years, amplified by the #MeToo movement in recent months, any lingering tolerance for violence against women is thankfully, but belatedly, being chipped away at. Major League Baseball and the players’ association have moved with the times, as well, introducing a joint policy in 2015 to cover any such incidents.
Convicted or not, for Osuna this means there will be no seamless re-entry like there was for Heredia, in part because the Blue Jays said in a statement that “the type of conduct associated with this incident is not reflective of our values as an organization.”
What will that mean in practice once he’s back?
Osuna has been one of the most popular Blue Jays since his emergence as a dominant 20-year-old reliever in 2015, one who drew sympathy and praise last year when he revealed he experienced anxiety issues that kept him from taking the mound one night in Kansas City.
Popular players to have been disciplined by baseball for violations of the domestic violence policy like Aroldis Chapman, Jose Reyes and Jeurys Familia have, to differing degrees, all been rehabilitated with their teams.
Can the same thing happen for Osuna? Should it?
“You’re dealing with human beings, regardless of walk of life. Hopefully there’s nothing there,” said manager John Gibbons. “I love the kid, not because of what he’s done for us on the field, but because of who he is and my relationship with him over the years.
“Really, society in general, there’s got to be a zero-tolerance policy, you’ve got to protect the vulnerable and those who can’t protect themselves. Hopefully when it’s all said and done, he’s back with us, it’s behind him and things turn out fine.”
At this point there are two concurrent processes running on Osuna – the legal proceedings against him and the baseball investigation.
On the legal side, the next step is the June 18 court date at Old City Hall in Toronto and it’s unclear whether terms of his release would prevent him from travelling with the team if eligible to play. The outcome in court could potentially impact the status of his work visa, as well. For now, that doesn’t matter as he’s ineligible to play while on leave which, under terms of the domestic violence policy, can last up to seven days.
What happens beyond that is contingent on what Major League Baseball learns over the next week.
“There are scenarios where this leave could be extended, this leave could be shortened, it could be seven days. The seven-day is the default,” said general manager Ross Atkins, who later added of his reaction to the news: “You can’t express it in words, the feeling you have. It’s a physical feeling, an emotional feeling that you hate to get and hate to have.”
MLB officials could issue discipline after the seven days are up, defer a decision on discipline pending legal proceedings or extend the leave with the agreement of the players’ association, which is what happened in 2016 with outfielder Hector Olivera, then of the Atlanta Braves.
He was placed on leave right after he was arrested when a woman told authorities she was assaulted at the team hotel. Once the seven days were up, his leave was extended and on May 26 he was handed an 82-game suspension without pay before his case had been adjudicated.
That September he was sentenced to serve 10 days in jail after being found guilty on a misdemeanour domestic assault charge.
Asked if there were any precedents the Blue Jays were looking at is it relates to Osuna, Atkins replied: “It’s too early for that, for us to be looking at it, because we still have so little information on the actual incident. And as I said, it’s an ongoing investigation.”
Other players have been suspended under the policy without a conviction: Reyes (51 games), Chapman (30 games), Familia (15 games) and Steven Wright (15 games).
Derek Norris, a free agent at the time, was suspended last September for the remainder of the season after his ex-fiancée wrote that she was “physically and emotionally” abused by the catcher in an Instagram post.
Players have the right to appeal any discipline to an arbitration panel.
“MLB takes all allegations of this nature very seriously,” the league said in a statement. “We are investigating the circumstances and have placed Roberto Osuna on Administrative Leave in accordance with the Joint MLB-MLBPA Domestic Violence Policy.”
The Blue Jays, now in their 42nd season, have had relatively few player incidents with the law.
Perhaps the highest profile one, at least until Osuna’s arrest, occurred in February 1994 when pitchers Dave Stewart and Todd Stottlemyre were arrested after scuffling with police outside a Tampa night club. Willie Horton was charged with assault related to a fracas outside Exhibition Stadium in 1979. Benito Santiago was charged with speeding related to a car crash in January 1998. Gustavo Chacin was charged with driving under the influence in March 2007.
And, of course, there’s Heredia.
Osuna was released in the late morning and later met with Atkins, Gibbons and other team officials at the Rogers Centre. He cannot be around the team while the leave is in effect. Jake Petricka was recalled to take his spot on the active roster. A planned giveaway of Osuna T-shirts at Thursday’s game was replaced with a promo of Yangervis Solarte tees.
On the field, Gibbons said Tyler Clippard, Ryan Tepera, Seung-hwan Oh and John Axford could each potentially fill in for Osuna as closer.
“We’ll see how the game develops, see what it takes to get to that ninth inning,” said Gibbons.
Osuna will be missed by the Blue Jays on that front, but as Gibbons pointed out later: “This is our profession but you’re talking about life here – not just his life but other people involved – which far outweighs this stuff.”