An International Showcase
Tomorrow, the Houston Astros face off against the Los Angeles Angels (of Anaheim) in a two game series in Monterrey, Mexico. These regular season MLB games played outside of the United States and Canada have been played in Mexico, Japan, Australia, Puerto Rico and in the future, the United Kingdom. They are part of an effort to increase the popularity of Major League Baseball on an international stage.
There is no shortage of international star power in this series. Between Venezuela’s Jose Altuve, the Dominican Republic’s Albert Pujols, the USA’s Mike Trout and Justin Verlander, Puerto Rico’s Carlos Correa and Japan’s Shohei Ohtani (unfortunately still on the IL), there are 7 MVP awards and 5 Rookie of the Year Awards spread amongst five nations.
There is a lot to showcase and celebrate in this series. Host country Mexico will have their most talented active player playing in the series as well: Roberto Osuna.
But will Osuna be showcased and celebrated? What reception awaits the Astros’ All-Star closer and Sinaloa, Mexico native?
A Premier Mexican Talent
Roberto Osuna is the most talented active player in the major leagues from Mexico. It is not particularly close. Only 127 players born in Mexico have played in the majors. There are only twelve who are active. Of the twelve, only Osuna and Oakland A’s pitchers Marco Estrada and Joakim Soria have All-Star nods to their resume. Neither Estrada’s nor Soria’s are as recent as Osuna’s in 2017.
Osuna has a legitimate claim to being the most dominant closer in baseball today. Since his arrival to Houston at the 2018 trade deadline, he has converted every single save opportunity. Through 12 appearances this season, he has a miniscule ERA and WHIP of 0.73 and 0.24, respectively. In 10 of his 12 appearances, he did not allow a single baserunner.
On the field, he is as bright a star as any. He is the youngest Houston Astro on the 25-man roster at age 24, and already has 123 saves to his name.
Off the field, personal issues and controversies cause that shine to lose luster.
Prodigy of Pedigree
Roberto Osuna grew up in the crime-ridden Mexican state of Sinaloa. He dropped out of school at age 11 to help support his family, picking vegetables. His uncle, Antonio Osuna, pitched in the major leagues for 11 seasons, primarily with the Los Angeles Dodgers. His father, also named Roberto, pitched in the Mexican League but the money he earned from his playing days ran out within four years of retirement. After days working in the fields, the elder Osuna spent the evenings teaching the younger Osuna to pitch.
By the age of 16, Osuna was pitching in the Mexican League himself, a boy striking out men. Scouts took notice of the prodigy and he was signed as an international free agent that same year by the Toronto Blue Jays, with a $1.5 million signing bonus.
Despite having to undergo Tommy John surgery at age 18, Osuna rose through the ranks quickly. By age 20, before the 2015 All-Star break, he had established himself as the Toronto closer.
By 2016, he was a national hero. Mexican President Enrique Pena presented Osuna the 2016 National Sports Award, handed out by the Mexican National Commission for Sport. Osuna was ready to accept his role as a representative of Mexican baseball. “When I take the mound,” he told La Vida Baseball, “I’m thinking of two things — helping my team and making my country proud.”
The Fall of Osuna
Success continued for Osuna in 2017. He was named to his first All-Star game. Now in his third year as a closer, he would finish second in the American League in saves, with 39.
Off the field, personal problems and controversies began to overshadow his baseball career. In 2017, a child support lawsuit was filed by a Sinaloan woman with whom Osuna had two 3 year old daughters. Reportedly, a source close to the mother suggested Osuna had been reluctant to take care of the children; his father warned that they would affect his future in baseball.
In early 2018, in an interview with the Toronto Star, Osuna proclaimed his affection for Mexican drug czar Joaquin Guzman, more commonly known as “El Chapo.” “People where I live love that guy. We all love that guy because he was a really kind person to us,” he told the Star, “He’s a hero in Mexico. I respect that.” Growing up poor in Sinaloa, where El Chapo had more authority than the actual authorities, Osuna viewed El Chapo as a Robin Hood figure, without much regard to where their Robin Hood’s money originated.
Then in 2018, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred announced that Osuna was being suspended for a whopping 75 games for violating Major League Baseball’s Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse policy. If the previous reports and stories were not enough to eradicate Osuna’s popularity, this was the nail in the coffin.
The Blue Jays stopped shipment of 15,000 Osuna stadium giveaway T-shirts. Osuna had quickly turned from one of the game’s brightest young stars to a player the Toronto Blue Jays wanted to sever ties with by any means possible.
The Cost of a Trade
1500 miles south of Toronto , the Houston Astros were heading into the 2018 trade deadline, actively looking for solutions for the back end of their bullpen. Despite a strong 2017 regular season, their closer Ken Giles struggled in the postseason. Manager A.J. Hinch was forced to resort to less conventional ways to close out games en route to a World Series championship. Giles’ problems with command continued to plague him in 2018. This culminated in a very public confrontation between Giles and Hinch, where Giles cursed at Hinch for removing him from a game in which he was ineffective. Giles was optioned to AAA shortly after.
On July 28, 2018, the Houston Astros traded for the Twins’ Ryan Pressly, now the best setup man in the majors. This trade was met with praise from fans and baseball writers alike. Two days later, they traded away Giles in a package for All-Star closer Osuna. In stark contrast, this trade was met with near universal scorn. The Houston Astros, a team full of amicable and endearing personalities, actively sought out a player in the midst of serving a 75-game suspension for domestic violence.
Fans had difficulty reconciling their love for their team with their disdain for a player’s character. Critics questioned the integrity of an organization who acquired a player serving punishment for domestic violence, while maintaining they still had a “zero tolerance” policy. Osuna’s new teammates, some of whom were very vocal opponents of domestic violence, answered questions about Osuna professionally, but it was hard not to notice the lack of enthusiasm.
There were few details surrounding the incident for which Osuna was suspended. As it occurred in Canada, the specifics were not made for public release. Major League Baseball conducted an independent investigation and determined that the appropriate punishment was a 75 game suspension. The length of suspension is generally considered to be commensurate to the severity of the violation. Another star closer, Aroldis Chapman, was accused of choking his girlfriend and firing gunshots in a garage in her presence. Chapman received a 30-day suspension. Without any additional details, the public was left to speculate what Osuna might have done to merit a suspension two and half times that of Chapman’s.
The Canadian police ultimately dropped the charges on Osuna. But whose verdict is there left to believe? The judgment of Canadian law enforcement? The judgment of the Major League Baseball Commisioner’s Office? The judgment of the court of public opinion?
While the Houston Astros front office wanted Osuna on the mound, their public relations department wanted nothing more than to keep their distance. The previous year, after acquiring star pitcher Justin Verlander from the Detroit Tigers, Astros Team Stores were stocked with Verlander T-shirts and jersey within days of the trade. You would be hard pressed to find an Osuna T-shirt in the team stores today. (They’re there, but you won’t trip over them the way you would Alex Bregman merchandise.)
There are no planned Osuna bobblehead nights or Osuna jersey stadium giveaway games. Larger than life posters of Osuna don’t adorn Minute Maid Park, the way other players’ posters do. On a 2018 Astros game television broadcast, Osuna was omitted as a possible response to a “‘Stro Poll” of “Which Astro newcomer has made the biggest impact?”, even though as closer, the most impactful newcomer was probably Osuna.
The Astros do not schedule him for public appearances, and post-game interviews are uncommon. The Astros do not really want you to get to know Roberto Osuna. Many fans have no interest in getting to know him, and truthfully, it is hard to blame them.
The Return Home
Osuna is genuinely excited to be playing this series in Mexico. “We are going to live and experience all that Mexico has to offer,” Osuna stated in Spanish in a Mexican MLB office video.
The 2019 series in Monterrey, Mexico between the Astros and the Angels ought to have been a coronation for Osuna. Osuna assuming the mantle of the face of Mexican baseball from fellow Mexican greats Fernando Valenzuela, Vinny Castilla and Adrian Gonzalez should have been a lead story for this homecoming. Clouds have obscured the shine of Osuna’s star. Roberto Osuna is left to wonder what it would take to clear them. Mexico’s son returns not as a conqueror, but humbled.