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Yuli Gurriel’s delayed suspension makes sense for Major League Baseball, even if it’s disappointing

The appeals process was going to keep Gurriel from missing any World Series games, so Rob Manfred had to go against the established precedent.

World Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Houston Astros - Game Four Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Yuli Gurriel was going to be suspended. That much was obvious. He was caught on camera using his fingers to pull his eyes back in reference to Yu Darvish while mouthing a controversial term. The only questions were how onerous the suspension was going to be, and if it was going to start immediately.

The answer: Five games, without pay, starting next regular season.

Is this too light? Too harsh?

Let’s start with everything that shouldn’t be in dispute:

  1. Singling out the ethnicity of another person and reducing him to his physical characteristics is racist as hell. Not only that, it infantilizes Gurriel to suggest that his unfamiliarity with American culture excuses him. It’s wrong, and we’re past plausible deniability.
  2. There is debate over the offensiveness of the word mouthed by Gurriel while making the gesture. I’m not qualified to wade into this debate, but Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times, born to a Japanese mother and El Salvadoran father, is qualified. His column on the context of the word Gurriel used is required reading.
  3. However, Gurriel spent a year in Japan and is acutely aware the term isn’t appreciated, and he admitted as much. That awareness makes a difference.

The gesture sucked, and Gurriel admitted the word wasn’t the best choice.

Now to the more disputable items, starting with Gurriel’s explanation that he was making the gesture in a baseball context — saying that the fastball-heavy approach made him wonder if Darvish was pitching him like a Japanese player.

Gurriel explained his gesture by saying that he was joking with his teammates about never having success against Japanese pitchers in the major leagues, and wondering if in this instance Darvish had pitched to him differently — as if he, too, were from Japan.

This seems plausible to me, though your mileage may vary. And it while it doesn’t excuse the gesture, which is still racist as hell, it’s at least more forgivable than the alternative explanation, which was that Gurriel was gloating over his home run and using Darvish’s ethnicity to do it. The explanation given makes Gurriel racially insensitive. The alternative makes him a flaming racist. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Which brings us to the suspension. There is a precedent for slurs and offensive gestures: two or three games. It’s what Kevin Pillar and Matt Joyce, received in recent years. Yuñel Escobar received three for wearing a slur written in his eye black. The easiest thing that Commissioner Rob Manfred could have done would have been to suspend Gurriel for two or three games. Hey, that’s the precedent, and my hands are tied, whatareyagonnado? It was what I expected, at least.

But what’s the exchange rate, here? Two regular season games is just over one percent of the season. Two World Series games would be at least 29 percent of the possible games, and the suspension could have been as high as Gurriel missing 40 percent of the series. That’s before you get to the part where World Series games are clearly more important than regular season games. While I’m sure Pillar and Joyce used those days off for reflection, I’m going to guess they weren’t exactly crushed by the forced rest. That wouldn’t be the case in a World Series game.

So halve the suspension because of the regular-season-to-postseason exchange rate and go with one game. Except that doesn’t look good. The precedent is two games. All of a sudden the insensitivity is less important because the games are more important? That doesn’t make sense, either.

What Manfred did, then, was as elegant of a solution as he could have come up with. He took that exchange rate and applied it in reverse: The magnitude of the stage meant the old precedent didn’t apply, which meant Gurriel got more than double the suspensions that Pillar, Escobar, and Joyce received.

As for Manfred’s explanation — that he didn’t want the other 24 players to be punished — get the hell out of here. That explanation didn’t come up when Chase Utley was suspended for two games in 2015 for a dirty slide. But what happened in that case is instructive to why Gurriel received the suspension he did. Utley appealed his suspension and won. He didn’t miss any games in the postseason. He didn’t miss any games in the regular season. While this is a different scenario, and Gurriel’s suspension probably would have been held up in some capacity, the timing wasn’t on MLB’s side. There would have certainly been an appeal, and that probably would have meant that Gurriel wasn’t going to miss any World Series games anyway.

That would have been a miserable look for baseball, and it wouldn’t have looked good for Gurriel, either. Manfred said as much before Game 4:

Last, when I originally began thinking about the discipline, I thought that delaying the suspension would allow the player the opportunity to exercise his rights under the grievance procedure. It now appears, and I have every expectation, that he will not be exercising those rights.

It was something of an unofficial plea bargain, then. Gurriel got more games, but he didn’t have to look worse than he already did. Also, if Manfred suspended Gurriel for the World Series and forced him to appeal, it would have made the MLBPA and the rights gained through collective bargaining look bad. I’m for those rights, even if the application of them isn’t always agreeable.

There was going to be a suspension. It was unlikely that suspension was ever going to be served during the 2017 World Series. The middle ground, it appears, is to tack three games onto the top of the established precedent because of the national stage and the gesture being directed at another player.

Darvish’s response has been described as “classy,” but I think it’s important to remember that such a description unwittingly sets up an angrier response as being “not classy” by definition, which isn’t fair. Darvish had every right to be pissed off. He waived that right, but that shouldn’t mean that someone less forgiving should be seen as less than classy in the future.

Instead of focusing on Darvish’s tone, focus on his words. He said, “I believe we should put our effort into learning,” and that’s spot on. If the cameras aren’t trained on Gurriel and broadcasting at that second — or if Darvish’s slider and command weren’t broken all game — this discussion would never have happened. There wouldn’t be discussion on the term Gurriel used. There wouldn’t be the appreciation of just how crappy that gesture is, and there would be players (other than Gurriel, I’m sure) who would never have realized what a big deal it is to reduce an entire ethnicity to their physical characteristics.

No one wins here, but at least there’s a chance for evolution.