In trading for Roberto Osuna, the Houston Astros show they have no conscience

As long as Roberto Osuna is able to close games, some team will be willing to employ him. (Getty)
As long as Roberto Osuna is able to close games, some team will be willing to employ him. (Getty)

Certainly Jeff Luhnow heard the same stories as everyone else. The disgusting, abhorrent ones about what happened the night Toronto Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna was arrested and charged with domestic assault. He heard about the brutality Osuna allegedly inflicted. About the picture of the victim’s face that police officers in Toronto still talk about. He heard the details that have circulated around the game for months, details that prosecutors in Canada have not confirmed but are so ugly, so off-putting that anyone with a conscience could not, in good faith, place him on a major league roster.

And then Jeff Luhnow, architect of the world champion Houston Astros, traded for Roberto Osuna.

What came next Monday was a clinic in arrogance, tone-deafness and doublespeak, proof that the Astros, like plenty of other professional sports organizations, believe so little in the public’s ability to parse their rhetoric that they’ll peddle blatant falsehoods to excuse their moral bankruptcy. From a feckless “zero-tolerance policy” to an “unprecedented” level of due diligence that sounded like little more than an exercise in confirmation bias, the attempts by Luhnow to rationalize the trade were amateur-hour spin that couldn’t cover up the truth. He didn’t just deal Ken Giles, David Paulino and Hector Perez for Roberto Osuna. He traded the goodwill built up by a clubhouse full of likable players who soon will be sharing a uniform, field and dugout with one currently standing trial for beating a woman.

Osuna is due in court Thursday for his latest hearing, then is expected back on the field Saturday when his 75-game suspension ends. That Major League Baseball levied such a significant suspension – the third-longest in the nearly three years of its domestic-violence policy – supports the idea that even without the case’s facts public, the severity of the incident disturbed the league.

Like the Blue Jays, who themselves revoltingly held on to Osuna in hopes of extracting trade value rather than simply releasing him, Luhnow, the Astros’ president and general manager, was unmoved. In trying to explain the team’s motivations, he addressed the obvious duplicity of the so-called “zero-tolerance policy.” For an organization as wedded to objective data as the Astros, you’d think they could tell the difference between zero arrests for domestic assault and one arrest for domestic assault. But no. That’s not what the Astros’ zero-tolerance policy means. It’s zero tolerance for those in the Astros’ organization and plenty of tolerance for those arrested elsewhere.

“Quite frankly,” Luhnow said, “I believe that you can have a zero-tolerance policy and also have an opportunity to give people second chances when they have made mistakes in the past in other organizations. That’s kind of how we put those two things together.”

Quite frankly, that is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever heard.

Luhnow essentially said the Astros’ willingness to look past a man allegedly abusing a woman depends on his employer. If it is one of 29 other baseball teams, the Astros will welcome him. If he already plays for the Astros, the player is persona non grata. Luhnow invoked the 2016 case of Danry Vasquez, a former Houston prospect who was released after he viciously beat his girlfriend in a stairwell at a Double-A stadium. This was a proper decision by the Astros, and when the video of the incident came out four months ago, two Astros pitchers tweeted their feelings about it.

“I hope the rest of your life without baseball is horrible,” Justin Verlander said.

“We must fight for the victims,” Lance McCullers Jr. said, “video or not.”

Not once in his statement nor in the 15 minutes he spoke in English during a teleconference did Luhnow mention the victim. Before an Astros senior vice president cut off questioning, I had asked if the team’s “unprecedented” due diligence included seeking out the story of the alleged victim, any of the witnesses or simply someone outside baseball.

Jeff Luhnow explained away why the Astro’s zero-tolerance policy didn’t include what Roberto Osuna allegedly did as a Toronto Blue Jay. (AP)
Jeff Luhnow explained away why the Astro’s zero-tolerance policy didn’t include what Roberto Osuna allegedly did as a Toronto Blue Jay. (AP)

“There is still an active case, and I cannot comment on the work that we did,” Luhnow said, “except to say that we did a lot of background work on whatever we were able to do as third parties.”

Thing is, Luhnow was happy to comment on the work the Astros did on the baseball side. He met with some Houston players to take their temperature on the potential deal. And he sought counsel from other former teammates and friends of Osuna. He even received permission to speak with Osuna himself, and that conversation – at least the version Luhnow relayed – went just swimmingly.

“I wanted to get to understand Roberto as a person a little bit more,” Luhnow said, “and hear more about his thoughts, where he was today, what his plans are for the future, what he plans to do when he gets to Houston.”

Conspicuously absent was any discussion of the past. Because the past is difficult and the past is unsightly and the past is wrong and any exploration of the past takes Luhnow to a place where the opacity of his cover stories dissipates to reveal the core of his purpose. Luhnow’s desire to win baseball games knows few bounds, and now the world knows one of them isn’t an allegation of domestic violence – so long as the player is as good as the 23-year-old Osuna, who happens to be one of the best closers in baseball.

At times, Luhnow spoke with such certitude that a number of people inside baseball wondered if he knew something they didn’t – like the alleged victim not cooperating or the details from the trial never seeing the light of day. Because to give up a strong package of players when Osuna could theoretically face more discipline – well, that would be atypical for Houston, an organization that games out endless permutations of deals to ensure it receives proper value.

Never have outsiders’ opinions, be it his peers’, journalists’ or fans’, mattered to Luhnow. His single-mindedness and devotion to what he and his front office believed led the Astros to a championship last season and in prime position to capture another this October. Especially since Osuna’s suspension does not disqualify him from participating in the postseason.

Yes, there’s a chance Roberto Osuna will be trying to close out a World Series this year, just as Aroldis Chapman, suspended 30 games for what the league deemed a less severe domestic incident, attempted to do for the Chicago Cubs in 2016. When they instituted the policy, the league and union agreed that because domestic incidents are categorized as off-the-field incidents, they shouldn’t preclude postseason participation.

It’s a laughable conceit, the latest in a grim stretch for baseball that included the surfacing of racist, sexist, homophobic and bigoted tweets from young standouts Josh Hader, Trea Turner and Sean Newcomb. Problematic though they are, the tweets are words of the immature and stupid, of the profoundly ignorant. Roberto Osuna, a fully grown man, allegedly struck a woman. And then the Houston Astros welcomed him. And then MLB said he could stand in the middle of the diamond on its greatest stage.

The pattern is reprehensible, and yet it’s of no surprise, because for all of the lip service the game pays wanting to snuff out mistreatment of women, it’s at the mercy of teams that don’t pretend to have some kind of zero-tolerance policy. The Astros are far from alone, though this is no time for whataboutism. Because this is fresh, and it felt positively gross. The visceral details, the clumsy deceit, the haphazard explanations. The entire production just a reminder that the sports we watch, the teams we love, are ready to feed a steady diet of nonsense in hopes that allegiance might obfuscate something so obviously wrong.

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