HOUSTON — Houston Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel was suspended for five games at the beginning of the 2018 season for the racially insensitive gesture he directed at Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish on Friday night — a punishment that goes well beyond Major League Baseball’s precedent but that spares the Astros from losing one of their top hitters for one or more World Series games.
“There is no place in our game for any behavior like the behavior we witnessed last night,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said at a news conference announcing the suspension Saturday, about four hours ahead of Game 4. “There is no excuse or explanation that makes that type of behavior acceptable.”
Gurriel, a 33-year-old of Cuban descent, had just homered off Darvish, who is of Iranian and Japanese descent, and who grew up in Japan, in the bottom of the second inning of the Astros’ eventual 5-3 victory and was sitting on the dugout bench when a television camera caught him pulling back the skin at the corners of his eyes to make them appear slanted. He also appeared to say “Chinito” — or, “little Chinese boy” — to a teammate.
The gesture spread quickly on social media as the game went on, and Gurriel apologized after the Astros’ victory.
“I didn’t try to offend anybody,” Gurriel told reporters through a translator. “I was commenting to my [teammates] that I hadn’t had any good luck against Japanese pitchers. … I didn’t think anybody would think about what I meant [in that way]. I offer my apologies to baseball and anyone offended. If [Darvish] feels offended, I want to apologize to him.”
On Saturday, the MLB Players Association said in a statement that Gurriel would not appeal the punishment; he almost certainly would have appealed had Manfred suspended him immediately. Gurriel himself issued a statement through the Astros, saying, “I sincerely apologize to everyone I offended with my actions. I deeply regret it. I would particularly like to apologize to Yu Darvish, a pitcher that I admire and respect.”
At his news conference Saturday, Manfred cited several factors that went into his decision to delay the punishment until next season. The first was that he wanted it to include a financial penalty, which will be five days’ worth of Gurriel’s 2018 salary; players do not accrue salary during the postseason. Manfred also cited Darvish’s gracious handling of the situation and stated desire to “stay positive and move forward” from the incident.
“He handled this in probably as classy a way as a player could possibly handle [it],” Manfred said. “It was a factor, but not a driving one.”
Manfred also said it would have been “unfair to punish” Gurriel’s teammates for his individual actions, by losing his services during one or more World Series games. The Astros said they would donate Gurriel’s lost salary to charity. Additionally, as part of his punishment Gurriel will be required to undergo sensitivity training.
In past years, MLB had established a precedent of two to three games for similarly insensitive slurs and incidents, but Manfred said he decided on the larger punishment as “a statement of our disapproval of this behavior.”
Manfred met with Gurriel earlier Saturday and said Gurriel “understood both the language and the gesture were offensive.”
“He maintains that he did not intend to be offensive,” Manfred said. “But he understands that it was.”
Asked how MLB squares its stance against insensitive behavior with the Cleveland Indians’ continued use of its Chief Wahoo logo — a smiling Native American face with a feathered headband, which many have said is offensive — Manfred said the two are separate issues, but acknowledged both are “problematic” and reiterated his plans to address the Chief Wahoo issue with the Indians this offseason.
“I see a difference between behavior from one player directed specifically at a player and a logo,” Manfred said. “While both are problematic, I don’t see them as the same issue.”
Gurriel, who is hitting .340 this postseason with a homer and five RBI, was in the Astros’ starting lineup for Saturday night’s Game 4, playing first base and batting fifth.
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