Aroldis Chapman received a 30-game suspension from Major League Baseball on Tuesday. In some ways, his case is a lot like many other domestic violence cases: Witnesses gave conflicting statements; the details were alarming, but hard to parse. It is obvious something happened, but local authorities didn’t believe whatever that was merited criminal charges. But because Chapman struck out 41.7 percent of the batters he faced last year, his case isn’t like a lot of other domestic violence cases. He was traded to the Yankees in December, at which point it became clear the Yankees had worked their way into a deplorable win-win: If MLB chose not to suspend Chapman, the Yankees would enjoy his services for a full season. If he were suspended, it might stunt his service time sufficiently to delay his free agency for another year. The 30 games avoid that question, and Chapman’s decision not to appeal avoids a potentially ugly arbitration.
I do not have a strong opinion on whether 30 games are too many or too few. But it strikes me as incredibly strange, and concerning, that Rob Manfred imbued this case with the power of precedent, because this first case is one in which the length of the punishment might be as much about other things as it was about domestic violence. The 30-game suspension seems to be as much about Chapman agreeing not to appeal, as the fact pattern of the case. It’s seems to be as much about the MLB and the MLBPA avoiding a nasty fight over service time and free agency, as it is about how many rounds were discharged in Chapman’s garage. It’s as much about sidestepping our uncomfortable squirming over a team treating two people’s darkest moment as a market inefficiency.
Domestic violence cases are hard. These are the worst moments of people’s lives. Sometimes it’s an awful aberration; sometimes it’s a terrible ritual, replicated over years. The causes for those moments stretch back over hundreds of smaller, formative frames, and reach forward into the futures of families and children. The fracture and damage abusers cause alter their victims, and the path back to normalcy, to repair, is daunting, to the extent it can ever be accomplished at all. It inspires witnesses and victims and perpetrators to lie, and rework their stories. Sometimes victims turn back to those who have hurt them. Often, confronted with the sheer tonnage of institutional failure, and societal doubt, victims remain silent.
Into all of that human complication, we have injected an employer disciplining an employee. We’ve asked an employer to do the investigative work the system often neglects, and mete out judgment for crimes society could address but often doesn’t. We’ve asked them to do so because they told us they would. And so, faced with all that dark, inherent complication, why use this case as the benchmark? Why take this already hard thing and make it harder by loading it up with so much additional, and specific, subtext? It would be one thing if this was the only case we had. We’ll have to find ways to tackle the hardest cases eventually, and doing so will involve uncomfortable conversations during which we reduce acts of violence to games served. But we didn’t have to do that on the first one. We could have waited, and sorted out the aftermath of Jose Reyes’ trial. We could have sent a much cleaner, clearer message about where we are going with all this. Not to bloviate about the moral hazard of unpunished violence, or our earnestness in the face of abuse, but to clarify. To make the next one easier to predict, and its punishments simpler to assess. Some of us would have registered complaints that it was too much or too little, but we would have been talking about domestic violence. Not service time, or the culpability of the Yankees, or market inefficiencies better left unexploited, but domestic violence.
Chapman's case doesn't really tell us that much about the practical application of the policy because, clouded as it is by pressing labor questions, it isn't representative. And this hard case, defined by its exceptions even as it is used to set the rule, will shape our expectations of discipline going forward. The League will face other incidents, and it will engage in a dance of particulars and circumstance and precedent with the MLBPA to dole out suspensions. But as fans and observers, Chapman’s 30 games will stick with us. We’ll find Jose Reyes’ punishment excessive or wanting by its terms. This murky precedent will mollify us, or inspire opprobrium. We’ll tick and tally facts and harms, and smooth out the differences so that we might compare like to like. We’ll invoke the exception, without having fleshed out the contours of the rule.
It feels like this was as much about other things as it was domestic violence. That might be honest, but it's still concerning. Not because the decision was too harsh or too lenient, but because in the face of predictable complexity, we failed to answer the relevant questions and set the relevant standard. We needed to establish what we couldn’t and wouldn’t give away, the points where compromise would be untenable, and those where we might choose to educate or advise or counsel. We could have set out a theory of punishment to inform future cases. Instead, future cases may find us frantically trying to backfill this punishment’s internal logic, so that we might arrive at more everyday applications of fairness. Chapman’s punishment seems to ask how to grapple with a team taking advantage of domestic violence as an aspect of a player’s biography, as much as how to deal with domestic violence itself. That first question is no doubt an important one to ask, but it wasn’t the one the first case needed to answer. We needed to ask what a baseball player’s violence would cost him. Not anything else, just his violence. We needed to answer that question. Instead, baseball chose to talk about other things.
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