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Manfred Whiffs on Gurriel Suspension

The commissioner’s decision to delay punishment is offensive in its own way

MLB: World Series-Los Angeles Dodgers at Houston Astros Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday night, Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel had the latest in a string of outstanding postseason performances—he went 2-for-5 with a second-inning home run off Yu Darvish that opened the scoring and a brilliant third-inning double play that helped keep the Astros out in front, en route to a potentially series-turning 5-3 win.

All of that, however, was overshadowed by what Gurriel did when he returned to the dugout. TV cameras caught the 33-year-old Cuban infielder tugging at the corners of his eyes, mocking Darvish, who’s Japanese, and using the word “chinito,” which in Spanish loosely translates to “little Chinese boy” and is used as a catch-all slang term for people of Asian descent.

MLB routinely suspends players for using identity-based insults during games (even if they immediately apologize as Gurriel did), but after 18 hours of inaction, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred announced that he’d suspend Gurriel for five games at the start of the 2018 season, but not during the World Series. In explaining his decision, Manfred cited a desire to impose a financial penalty on Gurriel, a hesitance to punish his Astros teammates for one man’s actions during the World Series, and the hope that the league would move on.

The first point is fair enough but not particularly important; the second is misguided; the third would’ve been served better by suspending Gurriel now, not next April. Manfred bungled this in a way that’s offensive all its own.

It’s important to remember that when Americans think of capital-R Racism, it’s usually white-on-black racism. Gurriel’s case is much more complicated, as it involves two players who live not only under the cultural norms of the United States, but the countries in which they were born, raised, and started their baseball careers. Los Angeles Times columnist Dylan Hernandez, the son of a Salvadoran father and a Japanese mother, wrote in the aftermath of Friday’s incident that the gestures and language Gurriel used, while shocking to American spectators, aren’t as malicious in Spanish-speaking countries, and how in Cuba, they wouldn’t be interpreted that way. It’s a perspective worth considering.

Darvish’s perspective is also worth considering. In the early hours of Saturday morning, Darvish tweeted a statement urging fans to “stay positive and move forward” rather than vilify Gurriel. Darvish was gracious when he didn’t have to be, particularly considering he’d just gotten torched in the biggest game of his life. But Darvish has a unique perspective on prejudice in baseball—when he was playing in Japan, Darvish was a controversial figure for many reasons, some of his own creation, some because others considered him an outsider due to his half-Iranian ancestry.

Then there’s the suspension process itself, which is necessarily an adversarial procedure between the league and the players’ union. Part of Manfred’s calculus in pushing the suspension to April was to avoid an appeal that might drag on through the last few days of the Fall Classic—now that Gurriel’s only missing regular season games, he won’t appeal. It’s the union’s job to check the league’s power to take players off the field and take money out of their wallets, even when what they’re being punished for is as offensive as what Gurriel did.

Like I said, it’s complicated.

But it’s also not nearly as complicated as Manfred is making it out to be. Darvish is taking the high road, but that shouldn’t be the expectation for someone who’s been the victim of racist language—that puts pressure on the aggrieved party to forgive. More importantly, Darvish isn’t the only victim. Gurriel’s gesture and language—however benign he claims his intent to have been—is a verbal attack on every Asian and Asian American player and fan watching the game. How can you be comfortable watching this game if such behavior is tolerated? How can you feel like you’re a part of that community when one of its most prominent members is sending that message on its biggest stage?

And insofar as the union has a duty to protect Gurriel from suspension, it also has a duty to Darvish—and every player of every race—to ensure that they’ll be able to work with dignity, rather than having to face insults for who they are. Yes, the original mission of the labor union was economic, but it takes profound ignorance to believe that economic power and race aren’t inextricably linked in this country. In protecting Gurriel, they’ve failed many of their other members.

Finally, even if Gurriel isn’t a consciously hateful person—and I believe he said and did what he did out of thoughtlessness rather than racial animus—what he did was still wrong, and he still should’ve known better. And he should still be punished immediately.

“I believe we should put our effort into learning rather than to accuse him,” Darvish wrote. “If we can take something from this, that is a giant step for mankind.”

True enough—nobody’s calling for Gurriel to be banned for life or put in the stockade, just to miss one World Series game. When someone does wrong, we expect him to apologize, atone, and not do it again. Gurriel apologized, and missing a World Series game would’ve been a fitting atonement precisely because it would have had the effect Manfred wanted to avoid: It would have penalized Gurriel’s teammates for his ill behavior.

Athletes live in an insular community and work in an environment that would be unrecognizable to any of us as a place of business—but it is. And the best way to change the hurtful language that gets tossed around casually in that environment is to provide an incentive for the players to police themselves: Incentives don’t come much bigger than losing a middle-of-the-order hitter for a World Series game. Facing that punishment, players would choose their words more carefully in the future. It would have been an opportunity to learn and move on, just as Darvish said.

But now we can’t move on. If Gurriel had been suspended for Game 4, it would’ve been a story for a day or two, then we’d have gone back to watching what’s so far been a thrilling and well-played World Series—absent the racial slurs. Now this is going to be a story until Gurriel comes back from his season-opening suspension in April. If Manfred wanted to move on, he could not have chosen a worse course of action.

There are two kinds of actions MLB punishes people for: sins against baseball (beanballs, PEDs, gambling, international bonus shenanigans) and sins against society at large. Gurriel’s gesture and language are the latter. By pushing Gurriel’s suspension to the regular season, Manfred is saying that promoting a world free of racist language is a less important goal than preserving the Astros’ best chance to win the World Series. And it isn’t, by any standard with any perspective about the real world. It just isn’t. This isn’t about baseball—it’s about showing what kind of behavior you tolerate when the eyes of the world are upon you.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be so shocking from a league that allowed a team called the Indians to put its redface caricature mascot on national TV throughout last year’s playoffs. Chief Wahoo is just as offensive as what Gurriel did, even if we’re desensitized to it by exposure, and MLB’s stance could not be a better example of all talk, no action. Even while discussing Gurriel, Manfred called Chief Wahoo “an issue I intend to deal with in the offseason.” If history is any indication, that rhetoric will be accompanied by zero actual change. But even if it’s not shocking, it’s still disappointing.

What could have been an embarrassing 72-hour story that offered the opportunity for growth and self-reflection is going to simmer in the background for six months. Manfred wanted the league to move on, but now that we know what kind of behavior he’ll tolerate, this is exactly where the attention of the baseball world needs to remain.