Work in Sports
Braves closer gets suspension and fine reduced
Posted: Thursday March 02, 2000 02:52 AM
KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) -- Now comes the hard part for John Rocker - making amends with teammates, fans and society in general.
The Atlanta Braves reliever was cleared for spring training Wednesday when his suspension was cut in half by an independent arbitrator, who ruled that Rocker should sit out the first 14 days of the regular season for offending gays, minorities and foreigners. His $20,000 fine was also cut to $500.
The decision, the first by baseball's new arbitrator Shyam Das, was criticized by commissioner Bud Selig. He said it 'completely ignores the sensibilities of those groups of people maligned by Mr. Rocker and disregards the player's position as a role model for children.'
On Jan. 31, Selig banned Rocker from all 45 days of spring training and the first 28 days of the season for his comments in Sports Illustrated. Rocker and the players' association asked the arbitrator to overturn the decision, saying it was out of line with past sanctions.
Rocker planned to be at the Braves' training complex, just south of Orlando, on Thursday for a private meeting with his teammates prior to Atlanta's first exhibition game. He also was scheduled to hold a news conference.
"He can issue all the apologies he wants. That's the easy thing to do," Braves pitcher Tom Glavine said. "But we'll see if he means it by how he acts every day after that."
While most in the Braves organization said they are willing to give Rocker a second chance, it's clear he returns on shaky ground. Teammates have grumbled privately that his bombastic, self-centered persona was annoying even before the magazine interview in December.
"He has to be more mature dealing with certain situations and dealing with his teammates," said outfielder Brian Jordan, one of Rocker's most vocal critics. "He's got to learn to control his anger. I think that's a big reason he said what he said."
General manager John Schuerholz, who is notoriously tightlipped about trade talks, conceded there was interest in Rocker from other teams and implied a deal could be made if the reliever continues to threaten clubhouse harmony.
In any trade, the Braves would likely insist on another top-level reliever to replace the 25-year-old left-hander who saved 38 games a year ago - one short of the franchise record.
"We're going to see if John can make the kind of corrections that are expected," Schuerholz said. "This gives us an opportunity to see if he and his teammates can become a cohesive unit again."
Rocker's first order of business likely will be a one-on-one meeting with first baseman Randall Simon, who believes Rocker was speaking about him when he referred to a teammate as a "fat monkey."
"I deserve an apology," Simon said. "He made a mistake and I hope he regrets what he did. I hope he's mature enough in his mind to treat people better so we can move on."
Rocker joins a long list of players whose suspensions have been overturned or reduced by arbitrators, a group that includes Willie Aikens, Steve Howe (twice), LaMarr Hoyt, Ferguson Jenkins, Jerry Martin, Pascual Perez, Tony Phillips, Gilberto Reyes and Willie Wilson.
"I think this is good all the way around," reliever Rudy Seanez said. "At least John will have some of spring training to get ready. If he had to sit out the whole month, it would be tough to get in shape and then he takes a chance on throwing out his arm."
Selig said Das' ruling "does not reflect any understanding or sensitivity to the important social responsibility that baseball ... has to the public."
But some lawyers who work for baseball were pleased Das established a precedent that speech can be punished and that he didn't cut more of the penalty.
Gene Orza, the union lawyer who argued the case for Rocker, said "we are disappointed" the penalty was not reduced even more. Das accepted the union's claim that the most players can be fined for off-field behavior is $500.
"Obviously, we thought from the beginning that the penalty was excessive," union chief Donald Fehr said. "Hopefully, everybody understands what has happened and we can put closure on this issue."
Atlanta city councilman Derrick Boazman, leader of a coalition of minority groups that has called for the Braves to release Rocker, was unhappy with the arbitrator's decision.
"Hate and bigotry and homophobia and racism have a place, evidently, and that place is in major league baseball," Boazman said.
Shortly after the ruling, a group of protesters gathered at Turner Field in Atlanta. An Orlando-based activist group planned a similar demonstration Thursday at one of the main entrances to the Disney World complex where the Braves train.
Rocker, who signed a one-year contract for $290,000 on Tuesday, will wind up missing the first 13 days of spring training and the first 12 games of the regular season. Atlanta's first game after the suspension is against Philadelphia at Turner Field on April 18.
Rocker told the magazine he would never play for a New York team because he didn't want to ride a subway train "next to some queer with AIDS." He also mocked foreigners.
But some of less publicized comments were just as upsetting to teammates, including his assessment that the Braves' clubhouse was too laid back, "like a doctor's office."
"There are issues that go beyond some of the things said in that article," Glavine said. "Certainly, that was a big part of it. But it was also a big part that he criticized our club for how we do things."
Selig's original penalty was believed to be the longest against a player for an action not related to drug use since Lenny Randle of Texas got 30 days in March 1977 for punching his manager, Frank Lucchesi.
Bobby Bonilla, a native New Yorker now playing for the Braves, said he could only recall one other incident that came close to creating the furor caused by Rocker's comments: Roberto Alomar spitting on an umpire in 1996.
"This is even bigger than that," Bonilla said. "It's not just when he goes back to New York. Wait until he gets to Cincinnati, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles. This is not going to be isolated."
Rocker was repeatedly taunted by New York Mets' fans during the pennant race and NL championship series, and then by New York Yankees' fans during the World Series. Several fans threw objects at the pitcher and some spit at him.
In his most extensive comments since the magazine interview, Rocker told ESPN he lost his cool and said things he didn't mean about New York fans because he wanted "to inflict some emotional pain in retaliation to the pain that had been inflicted on me."
Glavine was among a group of Braves players who met in January to discuss Rocker. They decided to give him an opportunity to redeem himself.
"John should have a chance to explain himself," Glavine said, "and show that the way he was portrayed in the article was not his real mindset."