Embattled Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker, whose infamous diatribe against gays, immigrants and minorities made him the off-season poster boy for political incorrectness, got a limited reprieve from arbitrator Shyam Das and is expected to report to the Braves' spring training camp today.
Das cut the 28-day suspension imposed by baseball commissioner Bud Selig to two weeks, ended Rocker's spring training ban effective today and reduced his $20,000 fine to $500 in a controversial decision that was condemned by both Major League Baseball and the players union officials who had asked the arbitrator to strike down the penalty entirely.
"I disagree with the decision of Arbitrator Das," Selig said in a statement. "It does not reflect any understanding of or sensitivity to the important social responsibility that baseball has to the public. 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."
Major League Baseball Players Association lawyers had argued that there was no precedent for punishing a player for pure speech. Das accepted the union's claim that the most players can be fined for off-field behavior is $500. But union associate general counsel Gene Orza said yesterday that union officials were "disappointed" the suspension was not reduced even further.
Rocker has been the target of widespread criticism since he escalated his personal war with New York baseball fans into an attack on homosexuals, immigrants and even one of his black teammates in an interview with Sports Illustrated. Selig suspended him on Jan. 31 for all of spring training and the first month of the season, fined him $20,000 and ordered him to undergo sensitivity training. Though Das dramatically reduced the suspension and fine, he upheld the order for sensitivity training.
Rocker, 25, already has made a public apology for his comments, but is expected to meet with his teammates and explain himself soon after he reports to the Braves' Kissimmee, Fla., spring training site. He was scheduled to hold a news conference there today.
Though a two-week suspension is considered harsh by baseball standards (Roberto Alomar got five days for spitting in umpire John Hirschbeck's face), the ruling did not please civil rights advocates who have called on the Braves to give Rocker his unconditional release.
"Hate and bigotry and homophobia and racism have a place, evidently, and that place is in major-league baseball," said Atlanta City Councilman Derrick Boazman, the leader of a minority coalition that has been highly critical of the way the Braves and Major League Baseball have handled the situation.
Former National League president Len Coleman, once the industry's highest-ranking minority official, also decried the ruling.
"Baseball must be a socially responsible institution," he said. "The arbitrator's ruling undermines the disciplinary system and sends precisely the wrong message."
Though many of Rocker's teammates have been critical of the volatile reliever, they seemed eager to get beyond a controversy that has cast a cloud of uncertainty over the club for the past two months.
"I think it's fair," said Braves pitcher Tom Glavine. "It allows him some of spring training to get ready for the season. If not, you run the risk of John ruining his career. No one wants that. That would be unfair."
Rocker still figures to miss about half of the exhibition season and will not be available for the first 12 regular-season games. He will be eligible to return to action on April 18, when the Braves face the Philadelphia Phillies at Turner Field, if he still is a member of the Braves organization.
There has been speculation that the team will try to trade the lefty now that his status has become certain. Club officials have confirmed that they have received queries from other teams, but general manager John Schuerholz said yesterday that the Braves first want to give Rocker (38 saves and a 2.49 ERA in 72 1/3 innings in 1999) the opportunity to make him welcome again in Atlanta.
Rocker's first challenge will be to persuade his teammates that he is a different player than the one that embarrassed them with his outrageous behavior during the playoffs and offended them with his published comments.
First baseman Randall Simon, who Rocker referred to as "a fat monkey" in the SI interview, said he is willing to forgive the comment if Rocker personally apologizes to him.
"He's one of my teammates," he said. "Everybody makes mistakes."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.