NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Whereas NFL commissioner Roger Goodell appeared to be inconvenienced by the domestic violence incidents that damaged his and the NFL’s credibility, Joe Torre is defined by it.
Whether the issue was Ray Rice or Adrian Peterson or Greg Hardy, Goodell treated domestic violence as an annoyance to the money-churning machine, and that lack of personal conviction made him look small, his league inconsistent, indecisive — and worse — uninterested. Now, like the NFL, Major League Baseball, at its farmers’ market of deals that is the annual winter meetings, has been derailed by news of player aggression toward women. The Los Angeles Dodgers‘ deal for Cincinnati Reds pitcher Aroldis Chapman was placed on hold because of an October domestic incident between Chapman, his girlfriend and her brother. The Chapman incident follows incidents this offseason with Colorado Rockies shortstop Jose Reyes as well as Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig.
Torre, the Hall of Fame manager turned executive, is not the commissioner, but he is the key to baseball succeeding where the NFL failed. It was the public and not the suits who rewrote the NFL’s domestic violence policy after Rice initially received just a two-game suspension from Goodell. Then the public outcry led to an indefinite suspension that as of today has not seen Rice return to the league, even though the NFL has reinstated him. The end result has been a league that doesn’t seem to know what it believes on the subject.
Torre’s credibility, however, is public and personal. He is open about living in a violent household as a child, about its effects on him and his family, about being aware of the generational implications with his own children. For Torre, it is not a topic for a PR firm to bury, but a personal component of his life. His foundation, the Joe Torre Safe At Home Foundation, is dedicated to domestic violence fundraising, awareness, eradication. With Torre, baseball has an opportunity for a better, more comprehensive and more authentic response.
Goodell benefited from the withering myth that commissioners are the caretakers of a public trust, custodians of a national heirloom that belongs to the public as much as it does to financiers. It is a myth that leads to the dangerous territory that the public should look to people who are essentially CEOs for moral guidance. Goodell received a moral elevation he clearly did not deserve. Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, used the same gravitas to gloat that his league did not have a domestic violence issue — shortly before Los Angeles Kings defenseman Slava Voynov pleaded no contest to beating up his wife, was suspended indefinitely by the NHL, faced deportation, and two months ago returned to Russia with his family.
None of which is to suggest that baseball is any more insulated from its business considerations than the NFL. Puig allegedly was involved in an incident with his sister, yet baseball is counting on him to attend its goodwill trip to Cuba (along with Torre and another Hall of Famer, Dave Winfield). Torre said Tuesday that he was made aware of the Chapman situation only two days before, but another report surfaced that the Red Sox had done a background check on Chapman and were already aware of the October incident. If true, the Red Sox’s competitive advantage needed to come second; the team had a responsibility to alert Torre and the commissioner’s office about what it knew, and commissioner Rob Manfred should be demanding to know why Boston did not share the information.
Several conversations require unpacking. Reyes was arrested. Puig and Chapman were not, even though Chapman admitted to police that he fired eight shots from a handgun while sitting alone in his garage. Police said the Chapman case was dropped not because a crime wasn’t committed but because of insufficient evidence and cooperation
Police reports are only one account of an incident and can never be taken as the whole truth, and Torre is right not to rush into reckless comment and recommend suspension, nor can MLB rely only on the actions of law enforcement. Just as an arrest should not necessarily be cause for discipline, neither should law enforcement’s decision not to proceed be proof of absolution.
“As awful as this situation is, there are still rights that have to be protected, and so we’re very careful in making sure that we respect that and get all the information and then we will proceed accordingly,” Torre said.
There are the generational, professional and gender alliances that must be confronted. In his news conference, new Nationals manager Dusty Baker was asked about Chapman. Baker was Chapman’s manager when he first arrived from Cuba. Baker is, for his lifetime, part of the baseball fraternity. He largely knows Chapman as a professional who saved baseball games for him. He referred to Chapman, admittedly having not read the news reports of the incident, as “a heck of a guy.” Baker, as so many others have done by including the Hope Solo and Ronda Rousey situations into the larger issue of domestic violence, also mentioned women who abuse men as part of the problem.
On a macro level, these are false equivalents. Domestic violence, in a physical sense primarily, is overwhelmingly about men abusing women, and is especially true in physical industries. Studies have shown the rate of domestic violence to be at its highest in some cases among police officers. Women are the target of what is a societal epidemic.
Yet Baker should not be dismissed as simply misspeaking, being clumsy or glib, for women can and do kill men and sometimes other women. Baker could have handled his news conference better. He could have made the distinction between the domestic violence policy conversation that Torre and the game must address, and the real, individual, personal events that do not follow data spreadsheets, and do not hurt less because they are generally statistical anomalies. After former major leaguer Darryl Hamilton was shot and killed by a female acquaintance in a June 21 murder-suicide, it was Baker who spoke at Hamilton’s funeral, eulogizing his former player. It was Baker who held Hamilton’s kids when they looked at him and said they would never see their father again.
Tuesday, amid the hundreds of millions of dollars changing hands and the players changing uniforms and addresses, was a reminder that the baseball bubble is not sealed from reality, nor is how men and women treat each other a football problem. Goodell has already shown how not to proceed. Manfred and Torre, and hopefully several women and public policy experts, will have a seat at the table as MLB takes its turn.