One year later, Osuna case still raises uneasy questions

astros-relief-pitcher-roberto-osuna-runs-on-field

Houston Astros relief pitcher Roberto Osuna (54) runs onto the field and is met with a chorus of boos from fans during ninth inning action against the Toronto Blue Jays in Toronto, Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO – Whispers that police were looking into something that involved a member of the Toronto Blue Jays began filtering out early in the morning. Before long, the whispers turned into suggestions of a domestic assault allegation involving Roberto Osuna. The official word came down at 12:55 p.m., when Constable Jenifferjit Sidhu, a media relations officer with the Toronto Police Service, sent out the following email:

Good Afternoon,

On Tuesday, May 8, 2018, Jose Roberto Osuna Quintero, 23, of Toronto has been charged with:

1. Assault

He is scheduled to appear in court on Monday, June 18, 2018, in room 114.

Thank you.

The arrest set into motion a chain of events in which Osuna was placed on administrative leave by Major League Baseball, suspended 75 games under the joint domestic violence policy instituted with the players association in 2015, and, eventually, traded to the Houston Astros before the criminal proceedings against him had been resolved. The assault charge was withdrawn on Sept. 25 when he agreed to a peace bond, the Crown telling the court there was no “reasonable prospect” of conviction after the complainant said she wouldn’t testify.

Exactly one year onwards from the arrest, a dubious anniversary marked Wednesday, the incident remains among the most jarring and emotionally fraught in franchise history, reflective of the growing seriousness with which society now treats the issue of domestic violence.

Details of what happened between Osuna and Alejandra Roman Cota, with whom he has a son, never made it to court. A peace bond is not an admission of guilt, but it carries conditions that must be fulfilled to avoid further criminal charges. That’s the purview of the Astros now, who took sharp criticism for making the July 30 trade despite GM Jeff Luhnow’s supposed “zero-tolerance policy related to abuse of any kind.” Baseball-wise, Osuna has delivered the goods, although Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle recently detailed the club’s ongoing efforts in the community that are a direct result of his acquisition.

The Blue Jays, meanwhile, haven’t explicitly said they traded Osuna because of the arrest, but they continue to leave enough grey to interpret it that way. Asked to share some of his thoughts on all that’s happened one year on, general manager Ross Atkins offers this: “Any time you trade a player, it’s a complicated decision, one that involves everything that happens on and off the field. In the case of Roberto, it was a multi-layered decision involving him, as well as the players coming back. The situation that led to his suspension is something that factored into the discussion, as did our valuation of the three players (Ken Giles, David Paulino and Hector Perez) we received in return. In the end, we felt the trade made sense and was one step in our continued effort to add to our overall pitching depth.”

***

Given where the teams were in their competitive cycles, the motivations for the trade are clear on both sides. Even without the arrest, the Blue Jays would have explored dealing Osuna last summer because they were entering into a rebuild. Had they kept him, he would have returned this year as an asset to flip before the trade deadline, like Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez.

The Astros needed a lights-out closer to fuel their post-season aspirations, especially given the issues they’d had with Giles. They’d long coveted Osuna, engaging in trade talks with the Blue Jays about the right-hander in the summer of 2017, as well. Warts and all, there was no one better available.

Still, taking on Osuna was risky. “In this day and age, I wouldn’t touch him,” a scout for one team in need of bullpen help told me at the time. After the deadline, then Los Angeles Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi said, “you can draw your own conclusions,” when the Los Angeles Times‘ Bill Plaschke asked him why Osuna wasn’t pursued when relief help was an obvious need. Boston Red Sox GM Dave Dombrowski declined to talk about other teams’ players but told reporters that “we did not pursue that situation.”

Even for these polarized times, the social media discourse was viscerally divisive.

All of which is unfair, according to Barbara MacQuarrie, community director for Western’s Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children. An Order of Ontario recipient, she specializes in the impacts of domestic violence in the workplace and a couple of years ago, she and colleague Dr. Peter Jaffe did some training for Blue Jays staff.

She believes ostracizing perpetrators of domestic violence is counterproductive for a number of reasons, first and foremost because it means missing an opportunity for rehabilitation.

“I mean, what do we think is going to happen to that person? They’re not walking off the face of the earth, they’re still part of our communities,” she says. “Just getting rid of the person is avoiding the problem, essentially, right?”

MacQuarrie and her colleagues haven’t studied sports teams extensively, but have followed events in the news. Incidents like those involving Osuna, or more currently, Chicago Cubs shortstop Addison Russell, who is at triple-A Iowa working toward a return after serving a 40-game suspension stemming from a series of allegations detailed publicly by his ex-wife Melisa Reidy, are “helping the rest of us to think more broadly about the problem and to really think about how it can impact workplaces.”

“I think because sports teams are so much in the public eye, that if they’re able to handle these processes well, they can actually be role-modelling for other workplaces on how to do this,” says MacQuarrie. “It can be difficult and there are always questions about protecting confidentiality. But if the initial offence was very public, then a public response that is about remediation and is about rehabilitation sets a good example.”

What does that look like?

It can start with an apology from the perpetrator, not only to the victim survivor, but also to “everybody in the workplace who fell under the shadow of this bad behavior,” says MacQuarrie.

There needs to be an agreement to engage in counselling or education training, and a commitment to taking concrete steps toward change.

Sometimes the sides can agree to some sort of behavioural contract.

And workplaces shouldn’t feel like they should go at it alone, instead drawing on the expertise of community groups “whose whole working life is about effectively addressing the problems of relationship violence.”

Pivotal, she says, is for organizations to have a policy or code of conduct to operate from, so that employers aren’t making things up on the fly. The entire process for Osuna from his arrest to his return, for instance, was governed by Major League Baseball’s policy. The treatment program developed for him by the Joint Policy Board sufficed as the counselling required of him under terms of his peace bond.

Education for the entire workplace is necessary, as well, to help supervisors or co-workers recognize warning signs or perhaps start conversations when concerns about negative behaviours in the workplace or the job not being done properly come up.

Ultimately, positive engagement is better than casting perpetrators aside.

“I do not support and the people I’m working with do not support zero-tolerance policies. We don’t think they’re helpful,” MacQuarrie says. “It absolutely can create more risk for the partner. Unemployment is a risk factor for an escalation of violence, so we don’t want to be doing that. Additional stresses, retribution, just having more time to focus on potentially obsessive thoughts about the person, more time to be stalking and monitoring, all of that. If your first response is to fire somebody, you really can be creating a lot of additional problems.

“That should be our last resort,” she continues. “I understand there may be situations when there’s no other choice but we should able to have a whole lot of strategies to go through before we get there.”

***

Soon after Osuna’s arrest was confirmed, the Blue Jays issued a statement that said “the type of conduct associated with this incident is not reflective of our values as an organization.” Hours later, Atkins stood on the field at Rogers Centre surrounded by media and delivered a similar message, saying somberly that, “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.”

The arrest and eventual departure of a player widely adored and closely tied to the best times the team has had in recent memory was a shock to many fans and created difficult, uncomfortable feelings that linger. Fans booed him heavily upon his return last September, a day before he entered into a peace bond. Since the trade, the Blue Jays have watched Giles rebound into the elite closer he once was while also adding a big-armed prospect with erratic command in Perez and a depth piece in Paulino in return for Osuna, now dominant as ever for the Astros.

One year later the game has moved on, life has moved on, none of it any easier to reconcile.

Comments are turned off for this story.