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Odubel Herrera and Domestic Violence in MLB

A fan’s response to having an alleged abuser “on my team,” consideration of MLB’s domestic violence and assault policy, and what we can do.

Odubel Herrera by Arturo Pardavila III is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Odubel Herrera and Domestic Violence in MLB


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Estimated Reading Time: 14 Minutes

On Tuesday, May 28, MLB placed Odubel Herrera on administrative leave, after the Phillies organization received information about domestic violence charges. Herrera and his girlfriend were staying at the Golden Nugget Casino in Atlantic City, and the alleged assault took place in their hotel room at around 8:30 PM.

The victim, the most important person in this narrative, remains unidentified in the media because her name has been redacted by the police. She has not responded to messages left for her by media outlets, an understandable reaction. But we know that she is 20 years old, 7 years Herrera’s junior, and, like Herrera, from Venezuela. And we know that she had “small scratches” on her arms and “hand-print markings” on her neck.

I Didn’t Want to Write About This

I didn’t want to write about this. But not writing about it, after years of exultation and frustration at Odubel’s life on the field, felt like turning the proverbial blind eye. And we all need to look, unflinchingly, at this problem, especially the knottier the ramifications become.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner physical violence, while 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced some form of physical aggression by their partners. This amounts to 20 people per minute being physically abused in these relationships.

This is not just a problem for Major League Baseball, this is a problem for humans. But when a person in the public eye, like a baseball player, is charged with domestic violence, it’s an opportunity to put a spotlight on something that affects a staggering percentage of the population.

The Fan Response

That said, it’s a problem that affects MLB, and it should affect its fans.

Last Monday, the same day Herrera and his girlfriend were in Atlantic City, I had turned to my husband, as we sat in the brilliant Memorial Day sunshine at Yankee stadium. Aroldis Chapman was coming up to pitch in the top of the ninth, amidst those really obnoxious air-raid sirens and graphics of leaping flames on every available video board.

“There’s really not a single player I root against more,” I said to my husband. “For all of the reasons.” He agreed.

One of the reasons, of course, is my well-documented fundamentalist hatred of the Yankees. More importantly, though, in 2016, Chapman allegedly choked his girlfriend, Cristina Barnea, and fired eight shots into the wall of his garage. He was the first player to be penalized under MLB’s Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Policy. He ultimately served a suspension of 40 games.

To be clear, my hatred of the Yankees, however profoundly I may have felt it over my lifetime, is still a kind of play-hatred; that’s what makes it fun. But I feel like I can’t even fully process the distaste I have for players accused of violence. To say ‘I’m not rooting for them,’ the same way I would when I’m talking about a player’s laundry, feels reductive. I have a rule for my fantasy baseball teams: no drafting players accused of violence. Strangely, this takes a disproportionate number of closers off the board (Chapman, Roberto Osuna, Jeurys Familia in past years). But this is just another comparatively lame response. It’s easy.

Forgetting and Remembering

On the other hand, there’s nothing to make my hatred of the Yankees organization not feel like play-hatred when I rediscover a gem like this:

This infuriates me. Shouldn’t at least remembering be the very low bar that we set for ourselves? Seeing a woman wearing a Jose Reyes shirt at Citi Field always baffles me. He grabbed his wife by the throat and shoved her into a door, and you couldn’t decide to turn your shirt into a rag? But maybe those women just don’t remember. And I’m not sure which is worse, not caring or not remembering.

Although, I admit it’s unfair of me to be more shocked by women sporting Reyes attire. Men shouldn’t wear it, either. I didn’t subtitle this “a female fan’s response to having an alleged abuser ‘on my team.'” Women aren’t the only ones affected by domestic violence. And no matter the gender of the victims, women aren’t the only ones who should care about it.

On My Team

And so now, indeed, I have to come to terms with this happening to a player on my team. (Although it has happened before; more on that in a minute). I don’t have an Odubel Herrera shirsey, but I’ve always liked him. I enjoyed his bat flips, and his “El Torito” finger-horns after smacking a double, and showing up to spring training with his hair in the best shape of its life.

Granted, he was maddeningly inconsistent as a player, for example, proving in the spring of 2016 that he had the eye to work an astonishing number of walks, but apparently deciding never to do it again. Watching him bat, it was clear at times that he had decided to swing at a pitch before he’d seen it. But when Asdrubal Cabrera joined the Phillies for a hot minute last year, I rejoiced that my favorite hypothetical celeb couple name, Asdrubodubel Cabrerarrera, was a reality.

I was always rooting for him. And now I don’t want him on my team.

The Phillies Organization and Domestic Violence

MLB has come a long way on this issue since the last time this happened to Phillies fans. In 2006, Brett Myers punched his wife in front of witnesses and the Phillies organization not only let him pitch the next day, but signed him to a three-year, $25.75 million contract extension that offseason.

But Phillies fans have reason for optimism that this situation might be handled more acceptably, given that Gabe Kapler and his wife started a foundation to raise awareness about domestic violence.

Of course, Kapler’s record on this subject as a manager is hardly perfect, given that he mishandled two allegations of sexual assault against minor league players in the Dodgers organization when he was their director of player development. My hope, though, is that this makes him more committed to avoiding a similar mistake. And not just because the allegations concern a more highly visible player in the majors.

Innocent Until Proven Guilty

Let me be clear: I understand that Odubel Herrera has not been found guilty of the alleged simple assault. And I understand that it’s unfair to condemn a person, even in personal judgment, before all the facts are clear. It would delight me to learn that this was conclusively and genuinely the product of a misunderstanding.

The problem is, with domestic violence, the facts are often inconclusive in terms of a guilty verdict—or proving that it didn’t happen. Statistics suggest that only half of domestic violence is reported to the police, and only 30% of incidents that get a police visit culminate in a prosecutor filing a criminal case. If there is an arrest, conviction rates are much higher. However, a survey of the incidents in MLB’s past do not frequently seem to lead to guilty verdicts.

For example, Jose Reyes’ charges were dropped when his wife Katherine didn’t want to cooperate with the police. Prosecutors dropped charges against Aroldis Chapman due to insufficient evidence that they weren’t confident would lead to a conviction. Roberto Osuna wasn’t tried for his assault charge because the mother of his child would not travel from Mexico to Toronto to testify. The case against Jeurys Familia was dismissed due to insufficient evidence, his wife, Bianca Rivas, asserting to have gotten her injuries by other means. And Kim Myers didn’t press charges against Brett.

In fact, in a study done by Bethany Withers for the Harvard Law School Journal, out of 64 incidents of domestic violence and sexual assault reported against athletes from MLB, the NBA and NFL, only one resulted in a conviction for the alleged crime. This study looked at allegations from 2010 to 2014, before the institution of MLB’s policy.

To me, this doesn’t mean that these assaults didn’t happen. As a matter of the law, I appreciate that it’s better to let one hundred guilty people go free than condemn a single innocent human being. But I also don’t think that Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown weren’t murdered just because the legal system didn’t render that result. To be clear, I’m not equating these incidents; I understand I’ve gone quite deep on an alleged simple assault by a baseball player on my favorite team. But I don’t personally believe we can count on the legal system to make up our own minds.

The Court of MLB

And more to the point, neither does Major League Baseball. Of the thirteen players investigated by MLB since their domestic violence policy was created in August of 2015, only two were actually found guilty in a court of law—Hector Olivera and Jose Torres—and two others were not penalized. Two more remain unresolved, Herrera being one. This means that MLB still saw fit to censure players that the law did not, and I approve.

The question in my mind is, does the policy go far enough? It’s ridiculous to me that players get an 80 game suspension without pay for, as it always turns out, ‘not knowing’ that they were drinking a protein shake containing steroids, while Chapman got 30 days for choking his girlfriend and firing a gun into the wall. I understand that one of these offenses concerns the game, and one does not. But one of them also concerns causing physical harm to another human being, and one does not.

And the notion that the suspension itself is supposed to carry weight doesn’t necessarily carry water. Reyes’ suspension in 2016 caused Bob Nightengale to proclaim in USA Today that Reyes was going to become the poster child for domestic violence suspension. “Major League Baseball has demonstrated that it has a zero tolerance policy for domestic violence…Reyes will forever be proof,” he wrote. But when the embarrassed Rockies shipped him to the Mets, fans at Citi Field greeted him with an ovation. If he was supposed to be the poster child, I guess they didn’t get the posters.

One Strike and You’re Out?

On the other hand, I don’t believe in a lifetime ban for players suspected of misconduct under the policy. This may come as a surprise, given the opinions I’ve espoused so far. My gut still says I still don’t want those players on my team, fantasy or real-life. But there are a couple of reasons that I don’t believe a formal ban is the solution.

The truly good reason for this is practical. Erin Matson, an anti-domestic violence advocate, and Cindy Southworth, the executive vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, explain the conundrum in this USA Today article. If players are afraid that they might lose their vocation forever for a single incident, it creates a few potential risks.

Firstly, the incidents of violence or assault might get reported even less frequently by partners or teammates who don’t want to see the players lose their jobs–or don’t want to face the repercussions, both personal and social, of having been ‘involved’ in the player’s lifetime ban. Secondly, it might cause a greater escalation of violence. Players terrified of losing their livelihood could be capable of even more severe violence in an effort to prevent their partner from reporting. Or an out-of-work player could retaliate with more violence.

Additionally, I have another, more emotional reason: I simply don’t believe anyone is irredeemable. I strongly believe in forgiving people and holding no grudges in my own life. I am a weepy snowflake bleeding heart pinko liberal and don’t think anyone deserves the death penalty. And I don’t believe that a person should be forbidden from doing the thing they love, if that thing causes no harm to others. And let us imagine that thing even brings joy to others. Just hypothetically. What then?

The Good Art/Complicated Artist Problem

In thinking about the allegations against Herrera this week, I have been forced to confront the belief I have always had about art: that you should be able to enjoy a piece of art independent of your opinion of the artist as a human being.

This is not necessarily a popular opinion in 2019, when it seems that the more complete your criticism, the more defensible your position. But I’m prepared to assert it in print. Woody Allen has made excellent movies. Louis C.K. has some hilarious jokes. Raphael painted some nice frescoes. William Shakespeare left his wife the second-best bed, but I still think his plays are pretty good. Or most of them, anyway.

Partly I’ve formed this opinion because the person punished the most by not enjoying a piece of art is oneself. I understand not wanting to give someone my money if they do something I don’t agree with. But if I deny myself the impulse to dance to Michael Jackson or vibe with Kanye West when their songs come on, who is actually hurt? Not them. One of them is not even with us (arguably more than one). But I acknowledge that there is a line, and it exists for everyone. I don’t want a painting by Hitler in my living room, not even if it’s the most beautiful painting I’ve ever seen.

But I also have this opinion because what made the art, and what made the art compelling, is part of what is good about the life of the artist in question. And I don’t want to ‘throw out’ what is good about a person along with those parts I dislike. Remember that guy who wrote sonnets to a couple of people who weren’t his wife? Well, in All’s Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare writes: “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together: our virtues would be proud, if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair, if they were not cherished by our virtues.” And the art that I’ve always appreciated most has been that which reflects back that humans are not categorically bad or good, but a complicated amalgam.

I know I have mingled myself into a messy web. But believing that fans should dispose of certain jerseys, or that Jose Reyes should’ve been met with silence and not an ovation, is not incompatible with believing that you can appreciate art independent of the artist. Players are the artists, but it’s not their individual play that is the art. It’s the game.

Improving MLB’s Policy

So, what else can the game do? As I alluded to earlier, I do think that longer average suspensions would be warranted, compared to the lengths mandated by MLB’s drug policy. Perhaps players should be ineligible for postseason play the season of their suspension. I also appreciate that the policy includes the idea of rehabilitation. Players suspected of wrongdoing are required to go to counseling or attend additional programs, on top of the educational sessions that all players receive.

But I think that there’s another step that MLB could take. Some teams have donated the amount of the player’s forfeited salary to charitable organizations; the Tampa Bay Rays did so when Derek Norris was suspended in September 2017 for the rest of the season. Many press releases seem to indicate that players are required to agree to donate “time and money” to organizations fighting domestic violence, but besides Jose Reyes‘ well-publicized $100,000 donation, I didn’t uncover much that was specific.

And while we should commend the Rays organization, it raises the question as to whether all the other clubs have been pocketing the cash. The $7 million that Reyes forfeited in the time he missed with the Rockies would have made, shall we say, more of an impact than his $100,000.

My Proposal for MLB

So, I propose that MLB include in its penalty that an announced percentage of a player’s future salary would be given to charities that support victims of domestic abuse or assault. They set suspensions with no minimum and no maximum, and this could also be flexible. The circumstances would dictate whether it’s, say, 25% or 0.25%.

But this wouldn’t be a lump sum, mentioned in the initial media uproar. Crucially, it would be ongoing. Maybe the players could choose a new charity that they’d be supporting every year; maybe the kinds of eligible charities could expand after a year or two. Maybe they’d be required to do a small publicity event to announce their charity of choice every year, highlighting the issue. And importantly, it would be for the duration of their career.

This way, the players could still play. But with every paycheck, they would have the memory of the severity of what they did. More importantly, I hope, they would have the sense that they were atoning for what they did–tithing, in a sense–by playing. Meanwhile, the organizations that take on these players could know that they were putting some money in the right place. Even if they’re also exploiting the market inefficiency of taking on an undesirable player. And in my opinion, the fans should still shake their heads when their team acquires them. But when they see the players out on the field, at least they could know those contracts were doing some good.

And maybe, the most important people, the victims–not just the battered partners of famous athletes, but victims of violence and assault whose stories we’ll never read–would end up benefiting from the funds and the positive visibility of the tithing athletes. Maybe it’s a lot to hope for, but what else can we do, with a story that breaks our hearts?

What Else We Can Do

As long as I’m obnoxiously answering my own question, allow me to provide myself an extension of what I propose for Major League Baseball.

I would love it if the players had to know that a portion of their weekly paycheck was going to abuse or assault victims. I would love it if they had to have yearly events announcing the organizations their penalty was benefiting. Think of it as the Forgive, Don’t Forget Policy.

But any fan with a crisis of conscience about having a player On Their Team who has been found worthy of censure by MLB could elect to do the same thing.

And so, if Odubel Herrera is found in the wrong by either the justice system or by Major League baseball’s investigation, and remains in the Phillies organization, I will donate a dollar for every run he scores or bats in to a charity that supports victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or child abuse. For as long as he remains on my team.

At least that gives me something to root for.

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  1. Pingback: Effectively Wild Episode 1392: All the Phils | The Baseball Bat Reviews Blog

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