Rocker forced out for a month

Baseball suspends pitcher until May 1

he objects, may appeal

February 01, 2000|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig moved decisively yesterday to repudiate outspoken Atlanta Braves relief pitcher John Rocker, suspending him for the first 28 days of the 2000 season and slapping him with a $20,000 fine.

Now, it's a question of whether Major League Baseball can make the harsh disciplinary action stick.

Rocker, whose comments about gays and immigrants in a recent Sports Illustrated article ignited a firestorm of controversy, has been declared ineligible to participate in Braves workouts or compete in regular-season games until May 1. He also has been ordered to undergo sensitivity training, but the disciplinary measures likely will be appealed by the Major League Baseball Players Association.

"Major League Baseball takes seriously its role as an American institution and the important social responsibility that goes with it," Selig said.

"We will not dodge our responsibility. Mr. Rocker should understand that his remarks offended practically every element of society and brought dishonor to himself, the Atlanta Braves and Major League Baseball. The terrible example set by Mr. Rocker is not what our great game is about and, in fact, is a profound breach of the social compact we hold in such high regard."

Rocker released a statement through his agent's office indicating that he did not agree with Selig's decision.

"I do not believe that it is appropriate that I should be harshly disciplined for my misguided speech unaccompanied by any conduct on my part," he said. "I have previously apologized for my unfortunate remarks and stand by my apology."

Braves president Stan Kasten said he hoped Rocker will not appeal.

"I hope we can separate the legal ramifications from John personally," Kasten said. "It's most important to get through this thing and get through it successfully. That's much more important than winning a couple of days."

Selig and the Braves have been under pressure from gay rights advocacy groups and civil rights organizations to punish Rocker for his offensive comments about New Yorkers, particularly a mean-spirited description of the inhabitants of a theoretical New York subway car.

"It's the most hectic, nerve-racking city," Rocker told Sports Illustrated. "Imagine having to take the [No.] 7 train to the ballpark, looking like you're [riding through] Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who's just got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to a 20-year-old mom with four kids. It's depressing."

Rocker also railed against "foreigners" and referred to a black teammate as a "fat monkey." He later apologized for his comments and agreed to undergo a psychological evaluation ordered by Selig, but that was not enough to satisfy his critics.

Major League Baseball remains highly sensitive about its image with regard to civil rights and diversity. Baseball has been under a microscope since late Los Angeles Dodgers executive Al Campanis went on national television in 1986 and said blacks might not "have the necessities" to be successful major-league managers.

In the 1990s, former Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott became baseball's poster girl for political incorrectness when she made several racially insensitive statements. Selig, then the interim commissioner and head of baseball's ruling Executive Council, invoked his power to act in the best interests of the game and suspended her.

It remains to be seen whether that power applies to Rocker's case. Selig has sweeping authority to discipline club officials under the terms of the Major League Agreement signed by all 30 franchises, but his ability to discipline players is restricted by the collective bargaining agreement with the union.

Players association associate general counsel Gene Orza described the punishment as "unprecedented" and expressed confidence it would be overturned by arbitrator Shaym Das on appeal.

"Under the Basic Agreement, discipline of this type is appealable to an impartial arbitrator," Orza said in a statement released by the union. "We have been in consultation with Mr. Rocker, and it is our present intention to appeal.

"It is literally unprecedented to impose a penalty on a player for pure speech, offensive though the speech may be. That, coupled with the magnitude of the penalty -- just as unprecedented -- makes us optimistic about the outcome of the appeal."

The players union has never been afraid to champion an unpopular cause. The union successfully used the arbitration process in 1997 to force the Anaheim Angels to put veteran outfielder Tony Phillips back on the field after he was arrested in a crack cocaine sting.

MLBPA lawyers figure to make an even stronger case that Rocker cannot be deprived of making a living simply for exercising his First Amendment right to say the wrong thing.

Rocker may go to extended spring training starting April 3 and will be allowed to pitch in the minor leagues during the first month of the season.

The penalty is believed to be the most severe levied on a player for a non-drug-related incident since Texas Rangers infielder Lenny Randle was suspended for 30 days in 1977 for punching manager Frank Lucchesi.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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