Goodbye, good riddance, good luck

2019-10-25 BrandonTaubman

Now-former Astros assistant general manager Brandon Taubman.

Some time during the 1980s, I remember picking up a magazine story and seeing a university president quoted from a board of trustees meeting. Exactly how it came up escapes my memory, but his remark doesn’t. He told his board that, dammit, he wanted a school his football team could be proud of.

It’s not unreasonable now to think it’s possible that those who play baseball in Astro uniforms might like a front office their players can be proud of. One that knows better than to shoot the messenger who exposed an assistant general manager as clueless about domestic violence.

Astro fans are in the discomfiting position of rooting for their team while clutching their stomachs over the Brandon Taubman affair. Much the way they were when the Astros acquired relief pitcher Roberto Osuna while he was still under suspension for a domestic violence incident that was yet to be resolved legally at the time of the deal.

They don’t have Taubman to trouble their stomachs any longer, at least. Perhaps getting ahead of baseball government’s investigative curve, the Astros fired Taubman on Thursday.

All that remains of the affair now, seemingly, is for the Astros’ administration to fire those in the team’s public relations department who decided upon initial exposure of Taubman’s brain damage that it was all the fault of the Sports Illustrated reporter who exposed it in the first place. And, for that administration to learn at last that winning doesn’t sweep some things under the proverbial rug.

In a near-empty Astro clubhouse, following their surrealistic pennant clinch last Saturday night, and with no Astro players known to have remained at the moment, three female reporters including SI‘s Stephanie Apstein stood adjacent to Taubman when he let fly with, “Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so [fornicating] glad we got Osuna!”

Osuna was rocked in the top of the ninth of American League Championship Series Game Six when Yankee first baseman D.J. LeMahieu hit a two-run homer off him to tie the game at four. Astro second baseman Jose Altuve won the pennant in the bottom of the ninth with a more electrifying two-run homer—ironically enough, off Aroldis Chapman, the Yankee closer with his own domestic violence history.

A team executive looking to console or brace up a pitcher humiliated in a moment like Osuna’s on the mound wouldn’t necessarily thunder like that but, rather, take the pitcher aside privately to reassure him how glad the team was to have him. Or, say it while his teammates were still in the clubhouse celebrating the pennant win.

Such an executive wouldn’t wait, as Taubman did, until he was almost alone with three women doing their jobs, one of whom (who insists her name be kept out of coverage of the affair) wore a purple domestic violence awareness bracelets worn by lots of people to whom domestic violence is a grotesque crime, to holler that kind of remark about a player who was guilty of it at the time the Astros acquired him.

Apstein was one of the women on the job. And to her credit, she first sought comment from others in the Astros’ front office apparatus before writing her original story about it. Only after getting none did she publish her story early this past Monday, the day before the World Series began.

A formal team statement played the fake-news card at once, calling her story “misleading,” “completely irresponsible,” and written by someone trying to “fabricate” it. But as radio host Larry Elder would say, the fit hit the shan not just from the moment Apstein’s story hit the Internet running but from when it transpired that others aside from the three women reporters happened to be there, happened to see, and happened to hear.

Including two Houston Chronicle reporters, Chandler Rome and Hunter Atkins. “The three female reporters were approximately eight feet away and one was visibly shaken by the comment . . . eyewitnesses said,” wrote Rome. “There were no players in the area and no interviews were being conducted at the time.” Atkins pounced on the original Astro denunciation after the “fabricate” accusation emerged. “I was there,” he tweeted. “Saw it. And I should’ve said something sooner.”

The Astros hit the damage control button faster than Altuve’s pennant-winning homer flew off the barrel of his bat. The office of commissioner Rob Manfred jumped immediately into investigating the Taubman incident, as well it should have considering the game’s domestic violence policy in place since 2015 and the controversy when the Astros dealt for Osuna in the first place at the July 2018 trade deadline.

Finally, come Thursday, the Astros had no more choice. Their formal statement probably has no better description than that by Deadspin‘s Gabe Fernandez:

While the statement offers a meager apology to Apstein, and acknowledges that the organization was wrong with its initial response, noticeably absent is any explanation for why Houston released a strongly worded comment decrying the legitimacy of the Sports Illustrated report, allowed an employee to pull the “as a father of daughters” card while offering a non-apology of his own, and based these decisions on an investigation whose conclusion proved to be far from reality. Who were those “witnesses” who lied to smear Apstein and the other reporters present as fabulists? Who crafted that first statement? What consequences will they face?

Osuna was available in the first place because the Blue Jays couldn’t wait to be rid of him when he was hit with his domestic violence suspension, involving an assault on the woman with whom he has a now four-year-old son. Astro players, particularly ace pitcher Justin Verlander, were not exactly comfortable with the acquisition when it happened.

What a surprise. Verlander himself thundered on Twitter after Astro minor leaguer Danrys Vasquez was shown on video attacking his girl friend on a staircase, for which the Astros released him post haste. And now the Astros dealt their own beleaguered closer Ken Giles to acquire Osuna?

And, yes, Chapman caused a few temperatures to run the scales when the Yankees first acquired him, then dealt him to the Cubs in 2016 (for Gleyber Torres), then re-signed him as a free agent, all after Chapman’s incident with his lady that prompted the Dodgers to back away from a deal acquiring him during winter 2015-16.

Before you suggest that the Astros simply had no choice considering Giles’s ongoing troubles with the team creating the immediate need for an available reliever who could close, be reminded that they actually had a choice if they wanted it, at or just before the 2018 non-waiver trade deadline. (The deadline is now a single one, waiver and non-waiver alike, for all season.)

Giles’s frustrations in the 2017 World Series carried over into the 2018 season and the Astros needed to move him for his own and the club’s sake. At the same time, the Orioles going into rebuild mode were shopping Zack Britton, rehorsing after forearm issues bothered him in 2017.

The same Zack Britton who pitched to a 1.91 regular-season ERA this year and performed respectably in five ALCS appearances against the Astros, surrendering no runs to them despite walking five batters while still striking five out. Compare that to Osuna’s 2.63 ERA this season, his 3.60 ALCS ERA, and getting credit for the Game Six win as a gift from Altuve despite surrendering the game-tying bomb.

The Yankees would acquire Britton instead. Osuna’s ERA was 2.63 when the Astros traded Giles to get him from the Jays. Britton’s was 3.45 when the Yankees dealt for him, but he actually looked closer to his old self in his final eight gigs as an Oriole—his ERA in those eight single-inning gigs was 0.00. And he’d had only two appearances thus far in which he surrendered any runs all season until the trade.

The Astros could have dealt for Britton easily enough without any baggage, domestic violence or otherwise, instead of Osuna whose domestic violence case was far enough from being resolved in the Canadian courts when he finally signed a legal document in which he agreed to have no contact with his victim for a full year to follow.

But they went for Osuna. He was a “depressed asset,” as so many stories about l’affaire Taubman have described. Making the Astros look to too many people as though they, too, put baseball ahead of moral and ethical considerations. Verlander was put in the discomfiting position of straining to be diplomatic about the deal, and it was also known that the Astro front office wasn’t exactly unified about the deal, either.

There were Cub fans uncomfortable with the idea of Chapman having a role in their staggering World Series run. There remain Yankee fans uncomfortable with his presence now. But no Cub or Yankee executive was ever heard, so far as is known for certain, to have thanked his Maker for acquiring a woman beater, in listening range of any reporters.

And the Cubs were caught completely flatfoot after shortstop Addison Russell’s wife, with Russell’s domestic violence suspension carrying from the end of the 2018 season into the beginning of the 2019 season, gave a December 2018 interview in which she described the gory details of what she’d suffered at his hands.

They stood by their man regardless, though with a few qualifiers, and looked just as ridiculous. And Russell’s 2019 season, identifiable by injuries and less than stellar performances when he did play, may end up making him an ex-Cub after all. Not exactly the same thing as sending a powerful message against wife beating.

Remember: there’s no inherent, God-given right to play professional baseball. And there’s no concurrent obligation for any baseball team to tolerate crimes like domestic violence for the sake of winning, whether committed by a player or appearing to matter little to those who hire him.

Firing Taubman only begins resolving the Astro dilemna. The front office isn’t anywhere near off the hook yet. And with the Astros about to face World Series Game Three in Washington and in the hole 2-0 to the Nationals, the absolute last thing the organisation needs is a front office that looked for too long this week as though domestic violence was just a nuisance instead of a very real issue.

And, like it or not, Osuna is still an Astro. Even though the way the Series has transpired so far he hasn’t poked his nose out of his bullpen hole once yet. It’s still possible that the Astros won’t go down to the Nats without a battle, and that Osuna will yet be seen loosening up in the pen for a late-game entry.

And, that Astro fans will be torn as they didn’t have to be between rooting for their team with Osuna on the mound and wishing the front office didn’t lack the common sense God gave a turnip when dealing for a woman abuser when they could have had a late-game reliever who wasn’t one.

“It would be great if this was a case of the Astros committing to an organizational overhaul in response to not just what Taubman did, but also what others around the ballclub did to protect this employee,” Fernandez observes of the Taubman firing. “But considering how much blowback had to occur before anything of substance happened, the Astros’ delay in acting responsibly should be remembered at least as much as the fact that they eventually did.”

Should be? It probably will be. Especially by Astro fans who wish with all their hearts that they had a front office their team can be proud of.

The Astros trip on their own banana peel

2019-10-22 BrandonTaubman

Brandon Taubman.

For an organisation as intelligent as the Astros’ organisation, even they trip on banana peels now and then. But what do you think when one of their own drops the banana peel on which they trip?

Assistant general manager Brandon Taubman dropped this peel, apparently, toward the end of the Astros’ pennant-winning celebration Saturday night. And it exploded into a small firestorm when Sports Illustrated reporter Stephanie Apstein revealed it Monday night.

With three female reporters in earshot, at least one of whom wore a bracelet promoting awareness of domestic violence, Taubman hollered, “Thank God we got [Roberto] Osuna! I’m so [fornicating] glad we got Osuna!” He may or may not have aimed his outburst at those three reporters directly. But this is more than just a terrible look. “Grotesque” may only begin to describe it.

The Astros got Osuna when the Blue Jays couldn’t wait to be rid of him while he was under suspension for domestic violence in mid-2018. The case was withdrawn after the trade to the Astros, when the woman—with whom Osuna has a now four-year-old child—refused to return from Mexico to testify against him and Osuna signed a legal document agreeing not to have contact with her for a year to follow.

“The three female reporters were approximately eight feet away and one was visibly shaken by the comment, the eyewitnesses said,” writes Houston Chronicle reporter Chandler Rome. “There were no players in the area and no interviews were being conducted at the time.” And one Astro staff member reportedly apologised for Taubman’s quick rant.

Taubman’s outburst might seem somewhat bizarre even if Osuna didn’t have a domestic violence case in his recent past. With the Astros leading and hoping to avoid a seventh American League Championship Series game, and thus avoid burning Gerrit Cole in favour of him starting the World Series, Osuna surrendered Yankee first baseman D.J. LeMahieu’s game-tying two-run homer in the top of the ninth.

It took Yankee manager Aaron Boone electing to let his faltering closer Aroldis Chapman try to finish what he started—pitching to Astros second baseman Jose Altuve on 2-1, with outfielder George Springer aboard and a late insertion good-field/spaghetti bat on deck—to get Osuna off that hook. Altuve hit the shot heard ’round Astroworld and sent the Astros to the World Series.

“If [Taubman] wanted to offer support for Osuna, he would tell Osuna,” writes ESPN’s Jeff Passan, “not yell it in front of reporters and cameras.” He’d have taken Osuna to one side, put an arm around him, and reminded him, listen, we wouldn’t have gotten here without you in the first place, and, hey, we won the pennant, my friend, now let it out and shake it away, because we still need you in the World Series.

This was more than an empathetic executive trying to comfort a subordinate whose best-laid plans exploded in his face. And in the middle of the purely baseball mayhem it was too easy to forget one domestic abuser in an Astro uniform got thatclose to blowing the game for the Astros in the top of the ninth while another domestic abuser in a Yankee uniform threw the pennant-losing pitch in the bottom.

Taubman barking his support for Osuna in earshot of others and in the words that he chose was a horror. Not for standing by his man after he’d been humiliated on the mound, but for the implication that in acquiring him in the first place the Astros put a game ahead of a moral and ethical issue.

The Astros responded to Apstein’s story by denouncing it in a statement as a “misleading and completely irresponsible . . . attempt to fabricate a story where one does not exist.” (That would be “fake news” in today’s lingo.) When Apstein tweeted the story and the Astros offered that response, another Chronicle reporter, Hunter Atkins, tweeted in response that it wasn’t misleading at all: “I was there. Saw it. And I should’ve said something sooner.” He wasn’t alone in what he saw.

Neither are the Astros alone in putting the game ahead of moral and ethical issues.

That was the same implication attached to the Cubs when they dealt for Chapman for the Yankees in 2016 and the Yankees for first acquiring, then trading (for middle infielder Gleyber Torres), then re-signing him as a free agent. The Yankees traded Chapman to the Cubs as the Bombers slipped out of contention; they got him in the first place after the Dodgers backed out of a deal with Chapman’s original team, the Reds, upon Chapman’s domestic violence suspension the previous winter.

Chapman’s presence and contribution to the Cubs’ staggering 2016 World Series win put the Cubs on the proverbial horns of a dilemna. Even Cub fans had a difficult time reconciling the 108-years-in-waiting return to the Promised Land to the fact that a pitcher accused of domestic violence helped get them over the mountaintop at last.

The Cubs’ dilemna was resolved only partially when Chapman returned to the Yankees. Forgotten were the small details of Chapman’s case: police didn’t press formal charges against him because of “contrasting stories” as well as concerned of evidence. Also forgotten, alas, was Chapman initially apologising only for having a gun, not necessarily for the incident itself.

Dealing for and eventually re-signing Chapman left the Yankees with a bad look, too. It left them looking as though morality and ethics could just step aside when there were baseball games and pennant races to plan. But unless some New York beat writer is sitting on it even now, nobody in the Yankee organisation to anyone’s knowledge ever hollered, “Thank God we got Chapman! I’m so [fornicating] glad we got Chapman!” and got away with it, either, with or without reporters female or otherwise in earshot.

Yankee owner Hal Steinbrenner spoke about forgiveness and second chances. So did the Cubs, though with a lot less sanguinity, after shortstop Addison Russell’s case exploded last offseason, when—as Russell’s suspension for domestic violence was to carry into this season’s beginning—his former wife gave an interview in which she ran down the details of love turned to infidelity, suspicion, and finally violence.

Chapman’s case dropped for lack of evidence and clashing stories was nothing compared to Russell’s ex-wife delivering the gory details. But standing by Russell even with qualifiers didn’t do the Cubs any favours this season. After returning from his suspension, Russell had an injury-marred season and may not even be a Cub for 2020 after September callup Nico Hoerner made a big impression.

That won’t be the same as it would have been if the Cubs had rid themselves of Russell when the details about his abuse came to light. The Blue Jays knew enough about Osuna to want him out of their sight, the sooner the better; the question of how soon and how much the Cubs really knew about Russell remained open. And Steinbrenner told reporters about Chapman, “He admitted he messed up. He paid the penalty. Sooner or later, we forget, right?”

That’s sort of what the Mets said, too, when relief pitcher Jeurys Familia returned after his brief 2017 suspension for domestic violence. They traded him to the Athletics in July 2018, then re-signed him as a free agent last winter.

Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said the Osuna deal might actually help raise awareness of domestic violence in due course. And, in fairness, as Apstein herself observed, the Astros have since “made some gestures to demonstrate how seriously they took domestic violence, referencing in a statement their “zero tolerance policy,” donating $214,000 to various shelters and hanging fliers with hotline numbers in every women’s restroom at Minute Maid Park.

Few spoke up about one flip side of those coins—that there’s no such thing as an inherent right to play professional sports.

Maybe the Astros, the Yankees, and the Cubs should have asked former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice about that. He lost his career after he was caught on video attacking his fiancee. In due course Rice’s fiancee became his wife. And the couple together sat for interviews in which Rice candidly admitted he had the end of his football career coming.

When the Astros first acquired Osuna, it put several Astros on the spot, particularly pitcher Justin Verlander. The future Hall of Famer has been outspoken against domestic violence. Two months before Osuna’s acquisition, Verlander tweeted angrily when an Astros minor leaguer named Danry Vasquez was caught on video hitting his girlfriend several times.

“I hope the rest of your life without baseball is horrible. You deserve all that is coming your way!” Verlander thundered. The Astros released Vasquez and he joined the independent Lancaster Barnstormers. The Barnstormers released him when they saw the video. He now plays in the Mexican League for the Rieleros de Aguascalientes.

But when Osuna joined the Astros, Verlander said on the record, “It’s a tough situation. I think the thing for us to remember here is that the details have not come to light. We don’t know the whole story. Obviously, I’ve said some pretty inflammatory things about stuff like this in the past. I stand by those words.”

So far, Verlander’s been right about the actual details never coming to light. But baseball government knew enough to slap Osuna with what was the third-longest domestic violence suspension since its policy was born three years earlier.

Taubman gave the Astros a grotesque look with his late Saturday outburst, which those who were there seem to believe came entirely out of nowhere and without being asked. With the World Series about to begin the timing is worse, but the Astros can and need to do more than just wipe the egg off their faces.

They were foolish enough to lock themselves into a cage over their hair-trigger defense of Taubman and their likewise hair-trigger accusation that Apstein’s story was nothing more than a hit job. There’s also no inherent right to work in a major league baseball organisation off the field, either, whether you’re an assistant general manager or a peanut hawker in the stands.

When then-Cardinals scouting director Chris Correa was caught red-handed hacking into the Astros’ scouting computer database, commissioner Rob Manfred slapped the Cardinals with the maximum allowable $2 million fine and banned Correa from baseball for life, while Correa was sentenced to more than three years in prison.

Acquiring Osuna in the first place discomfited more than just Astro players. Assorted published reports say that not everyone in the Astros’ organisation was thrilled, either. You wouldn’t be wrong if you think those same less-than-thrilled Astro people wish Taubman would go away and fast. I’m betting a boatload of Astro fans feel likewise.

Because those same Astro people now must ask whether the organisation and baseball itself really wants to say computer espionage deserves a lifetime banishment but a man so publicly ignorant about domestic violence, by comparison, is no great shakes.

UPDATE, 11:41 pm Pacific time: Brandon Taubman and Astros owner Jim Crane released statements:

2019-10-22 AstrosTaubmanCrane

Note the phrasing: “if anyone was offended.” There’s no “if” about it. At least three in direct earshot and who knows how many more reading all about it were offended. And, there’s no appropriate language in which to thank your Maker for a man known for domestic violence.