The Toronto Blue Jays haven’t got much right in the past couple of years, but ridding themselves of Roberto Osuna ahead of Tuesday’s non-waiver deadline qualifies.
As they kicked Osuna out the door, the Jays stuck to their usual agit-prop script. In quotable terms, their executive sounds like a Pravda broadcast about tractor production.
“We are human beings, and everything is a variable as we’re making decisions,” general manager Ross Atkins said on Monday evening. “But ultimately, this was a good baseball deal that makes sense for us.” Well, no.
Swapping a 23-year-old closer with real upside for a 27-year-old apparent malcontent who does the same job (Houston’s Ken Giles, plus prospects) isn’t “a good baseball deal.” It’s probably a bad baseball deal. If so, it’s the best bad baseball deal ever made in this country. It’s the one that proves the Jays franchise still has a soul.
Under current management, the Jays have been run like an MBA classroom hypothetical. How do you translate a crummy product into maximum profit? By hoodwinking customers.
If you tell people over and over again that what they’re consuming is good, some will be foolish enough to continue buying it. That sort of nonsense is all in the game – and we’re talking business here, rather than any moral consideration. If fans want to be rooked, it’s their money. They’ve been happily rooked since late 2016.
But the cynicism got a little too thick when it came to Osuna.
He was charged in early May with assault. The scanty details amounted to a serious accusation of domestic violence. Major League Baseball suspended him immediately. The Jays hid behind a before-the-courts veil of “no comment.”
When it became clear that Osuna would be allowed to return to work on Aug. 4 – and this was before his charge was resolved in a courtroom – the Jays chose the business angle over the human route.
“Roberto is our closer,” Atkins said back in June. “We’re running a baseball team, and our goal is to win a championship. Roberto could potentially be very much a part of that.”
At that point, we still had no idea what did or didn’t happen. Nobody bothered to explain it. Whatever it was was a lot more important than an imaginary baseball championship.
Atkins is a lovely person. One on one, he’s as likable a guy as works in Canadian sports. But this was someone letting work targets get in the way of common sense. It was also a bad misreading of the cultural temperature.
People may want to be shined on about the disappointing production of their team’s hitters. They don’t want to be patted on the head when it comes to people being really, actually brutalized by someone they admire. They’d like to be talked to straight in that regard. This team was at first incapable of figuring out the difference.
Had the Osuna charge been a bad misunderstanding, someone would have said that in the press. Nobody did.
This is not to guess at Osuna’s guilt or innocence. It’s just to say that people aren’t stupid. If you’re not saying anything, they will make assumptions.
Professional sports are built on assumptions – that the player you cheer for is a likable person you’d enjoy spending time with. It’s true in many cases, but far from all. The pros are like the rest of us – flawed, weak and out for themselves.
Just a decade ago, fans overlooked those flaws. They wanted the team to win, period.
In fairness, fewer of those missteps came out. Many professional sports franchises have full-time professionals – usually former cops – whose job it is to massage over non-felonious indiscretions. The Jays used to have one of those guys. They let him go after last season.
But the world has changed. People are still forgiving of the one-bad-night-in-a-bar sort of screw-up. They are less willing to stand up and clap for a guy who’s done something that requires the summoning of an ambulance.
Based on their own statements, the Jays initially put this issue through the Sabermetric9000 – a guy who has 3.0 WAR and several controllable years left ought to be kept.
At some point in the interim, they did the more subjective math – maybe people who root for this team will hate us if we roll this guy out again, even once. It doesn’t matter how good he is.
They made the right choice. It’s the rare instance of a team choosing people over customers.
On a very basic level, this trade is about redemption. Not the usual sports redemption, where a player no one’s ever rated gets to show everyone how great they are when it matters. That’s fun, but facile stuff.
It’s about an athlete doing the human work of convincing people that he either hasn’t done the thing he’s accused of doing, or is willing to make up for it somewhere other than a diamond. That’s what Osuna gets to do now, if he chooses. Somewhere else.
Everyone who seeks redemption is redeemable, but you don’t get to decide where you do it. You certainly don’t get a free pass because you can throw a wicked sinker.
Had Osuna taken the mound again in a Toronto jersey, that’s what the Jays would have been saying. It wouldn’t have gotten them anywhere near a championship, although it would have been a victory for sports cynicism.
Instead, they get a player who has his own problems – Giles was made expendable because of a profane mound outburst – in exchange for one with more elemental ones.
This isn’t a fair deal. The Jays lost it.
It’s still a very good deal for everyone involved. And by that I mean far more than the rosters of baseball teams.