HOUSTON — Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred issued Yuli Gurriel a five-game suspension on Saturday with full knowledge that some segments of the baseball community — and perhaps people who have never even seen a baseball game — would be upset by the timing or the message or the perceived inadequacy of the response.
This is an occupational hazard of holding a position of authority in a $10 billion industry in which events play out every night on a live stage. One minute, you’re sitting in the crowd with 43,282 fans showering Texans defensive end J.J. Watt with love as he throws out the ceremonial first pitch while on crutches. And two innings later, your cell phone is buzzing with a heads-up that Houston’s first baseman has responded to a home run off the Los Angeles Dodgers’ starting pitcher with racially insensitive behavior in the Astros’ dugout that was captured for all the world to see.
And then you have a few hours to interview Gurriel to gauge his level of contrition, determine Yu Darvish’s willingness to move on, weigh the interests of the two teams and consider the historical implications of the decision — all before asking the folks at the Major League Baseball Players Association for their opinion on the topic.
Sometimes, leadership is all about threading the needle and making the best of a bad situation.
Manfred made the best of a bad situation Saturday afternoon, when he announced that Gurriel would be suspended for five games without pay at the start of the 2018 season. To his credit, Manfred didn’t bury the lead. Upon taking his seat in a packed interview room four hours before Game 4 of the World Series, Manfred laser-focused on the heart of the matter.
“There is complete unanimity — me, my office, both owners, both clubs and the MLBPA — that there is no place in our game for the behavior or any behavior like the behavior we witnessed last night,” Manfred said. “There is no excuse or explanation that makes that type of behavior acceptable.”
This is not a situation anyone wants or could have possibly foreseen. The Astros are raising the spirits of a city and a region that were devastated by Hurricane Harvey less than two months ago. Game 3 was a veritable lovefest at Minute Maid Park before Gurriel cast a blemish on the proceedings.
MLB always has to be vigilant for replay glitches, fans leaning over outfield fences to catch fly balls or even the impromptu beanball confrontation that takes the focus off events on the field. But there’s not much of a roadmap to navigate the problem of racially insensitive behavior being dispensed from the dugout.
People are free to draw their own conclusions about Gurriel and what he did. He’ll have to live with the fallout of opinions expressed on social media. As Astros manager A.J. Hinch recently observed, questionable bullpen decisions are enough to subject people in his profession to a “public slaying” on Twitter. Racially insensitive expressions, regardless of intention, are a completely different ballgame.
The reactions of the two main parties helped lower the temperature. Gurriel was remorseful and contrite over his actions, and Darvish took the high road, and his reasoned and sensitive response quickly advanced the notion that everyone is best served to use what transpired at Minute Maid Park on Friday night as a teachable moment.
So what could baseball do to send the proper message? If Manfred had tried to drop the hammer immediately, the union could have appealed, and the machinations of a grievance proceeding would have become an unwelcome sideshow to the sport’s crown jewel event. Gurriel has already agreed to not appeal, and we’ll be spared any news updates involving MLB’s independent arbitrator, Mark Irvings, over the coming days.
Given the examples on the books, a five-game suspension for Gurriel seems like a logical progression. In 2012, Toronto shortstop Yunel Escobar received a three-game suspension for displaying a homophobic slur on his eye black. This year, Toronto’s Kevin Pillar and Oakland’s Matt Joyce were both hit with two-game suspensions for anti-gay slurs in May and August, respectively.
Gurriel will take part in sensitivity training as part of his discipline, and Manfred hopes that will be viewed as more than just a footnote to the story. “I think it’s important,” he said. “I think we all need continuing reminders and education in this area as to what’s appropriate and not appropriate.”
No amount of training or counseling can ensure we won’t see similar situations down the road. But the public censure for Gurriel’s transgression was strong enough that the next player who crosses the line will have only himself to blame. Manfred’s response was authoritative and pragmatic in a way that marked his tenure as baseball’s labor lawyer under Bud Selig and bodes well for his commissionership.
For a few hours Saturday, Manfred’s job became less about shaking hands and presenting awards than setting an example for crisis management. His leadership skills were tested on the fly, and he passed the test.
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