A person can be very good at baseball and also have done awful, violent things. Both of these statements can be true. Hal Steinbrenner thinks that the first one negates the second one. He’s wrong.
On Thursday, USA Today published an interview with Steinbrenner, in which the Yankees’ principal owner boasted about the crown jewel of the team’s offseason: the return of Aroldis Chapman, who pitched for New York for part of last season before being traded to the Cubs, and who signed a five-year, $86 million contract in December to rejoin the Yankees, the biggest deal ever given to a closer. Asked about the pitcher’s history off the field, and specifically a 2015 accusation of domestic violence, Steinbrenner seemed to suggest that the past had little bearing on the present: “Look, he admitted he messed up. He paid the penalty. Sooner or later, we forget, right? That’s the way we’re supposed to be in life. He did everything right, and said everything right, when he was with us.”
This much is accurate: Chapman is a force on the mound. People are fond of saying he throws a baseball harder than anyone in history, which is true — he has made a habit of hurling fastballs that travel up to 105 miles per hour, and was dubbed “a math problem in a baseball uniform” by the Chicago Tribune last July. But this still does not quite capture the raw kinetic power of the way he unleashes balls into the air, cleaving them forward as though one or a couple of the laws of thermodynamics do not apply.
He also once so thoroughly terrified his girlfriend that she hid in the bushes outside his Florida home and dialed 911. On October 30, 2015, more than a dozen police officers responded to her call. The couple had an argument, she explained, according to a police report. She said that Chapman had choked her and pushed her into a wall, that he then went into the garage, retrieved a handgun, and fired eight bullets into the window and wall. She fled, calling for help, while their infant child remained inside.
In the end, charges were never brought against Chapman, in part due to the lack of cooperation of witnesses. Major League Baseball, empowered by a revamped domestic-violence policy that gave the league the ability to punish players in the absence of a criminal conviction, conducted an investigation of its own. Chapman became the first player to be punished under the new policy, receiving a 30-game suspension (which was later cut to 29 games) for his “use of a firearm and the impact of that behavior on his partner.” The Dodgers, who had been on the cusp of acquiring the pitcher from the Reds when news of the incident broke in early December 2015, backed off; the Yankees orchestrated a trade later that month, Chapman was suspended in March of last year, and he finally suited up in pinstripes in May.
“Certainly, there are some serious issues here that are in play,” New York general manager Brian Cashman said at the time. “I acknowledge that’s an area clearly of concern, and I think it certainly is reflective of some of the acquisition price, and there’s risk, and I understand that.”
Some issues. Concern. Risk. But not the risk Chapman’s girlfriend allegedly faced when it seemed like her life was in danger — rather, the risk the Yankees were taking by buying low on a player who had been suspended for domestic violence, which in the sports world often gets reduced to nothing more than baggage.
So now we have Steinbrenner — who before MLB had even finished its investigation insisted that Chapman was “innocent until proven otherwise” — again defending the pitcher. Or, perhaps more aptly, telling people to look past Chapman’s domestic violence situation in favor of improving the Yankees’ bottom line. “There are so few baseball players that I feel can really get fans to buy a ticket and brings their kids to their game,” he told USA Today, “and he’s one of them.”
How do we respond when our sporting heroes are accused of doing horrible things to the people in their lives? How can we balance the ideal that everyone should get a second chance with the reality that domestic abuse is almost never an isolated act, and is much more frequently a piece of a pattern of disregard for women, one typically characterized by escalating incidents of violence? What should we ask of our sports leagues as they attempt to litigate in place of a judicial system that struggles to properly address domestic abuse, where the existing difficulty of prosecuting these types of cases is compounded by the vast sums of money paid to athletes, adding another reason for victims to not come forward? What do we do when we know that the hand that helped carry the Cubs to their first World Series victory in 108 years is also a hand that allegedly grabbed the throat of a woman, picked up a gun, and fired eight — eight — shots out of anger?
One thing we do not do — should not do, must not do — is suggest that a person’s athletic talent excuses or in any way makes up for incidents of violence. Steinbrenner said that Chapman’s talent will make fans “forget,” that the victories he will help bring to the Yankees over the next five years will wipe away that night in 2015. They won’t. Aroldis Chapman is very good at baseball; he has also been said to have shown himself capable of inflicting desperate terror, if not outright violence, on the people around him. These things are true at the same time. They are not transmutable, and they are certainly not forgettable.