- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 2, 2000

Would John Rocker have been better off punching someone?

That may be one of the key questions facing an arbitrator after the Major League Baseball Players' Association filed a grievance on Rocker's behalf yesterday.

Rocker, an Atlanta Braves pitcher, was suspended by baseball Monday from spring training and the first month of the baseball season for remarks he made last year about people from other countries, minorities and homosexuals.

His punishment a suspension until May 1, a $20,000 fine and mandatory diversity training is far more severe than what past incidents of on-field physical violence incurred.

And according to some legal experts, that will be a major issue confronting arbitrator Shyam Das, who is expected to hold Rocker's grievance hearing within the next week or two.

"One of the things the union is trumpeting is that in terms of off-field, non-drug, non-gambling related incidents, there hasn't been a suspension of this magnitude since Lenny Randle slugged his manager," said Jeffrey Rosenthal, a New York-based sports attorney and chairman of the New York Bar Association's committee on professional sports.

"They'll argue that speech is not something that rises to the level of punching your manager. And I think that argument will be very persuasive," Rosenthal said.

Many suspensions by baseball commissioners have been overturned or shortened.

"It is literally unprecedented to impose a penalty on a player for pure speech, offensive though the speech may be," said Gene Orza, the players' union's No. 2 official. "That, coupled with the magnitude of the penalty, just as unprecedented, makes us optimistic about the outcome of the appeal."

Rocker's suspension, which effectively covers 73 days starting with the opening of spring training, is believed by MLB to be the longest for a non-drug related player action since Texas Rangers infielder Randle was suspended for 30 days in 1977 for punching his manager, Frank Luchessi.

Moreover, Rocker's suspension is longer than the suspensions incurred by many other past incidents of on-field violence:

* Oakland Athletics shortstop Bert Campaneris earned a $500 fine and a suspension for the remainder of the American League Championship Series as well as the first seven games of the 1973 season after throwing his bat at Detroit Tigers pitcher Lerrin LaGrow in Game 2 of the 1972 ALCS.

* Cleveland Indians pitcher Jose Mesa and Cincinnati Reds first baseman Hal Morris were suspended three games in 1993 after engaging in a on-field fight during spring training.

* Randle was suspended after punching Luchessi, who was hospitalized with a fractured cheekbone.

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

According to Rosenthal, baseball need only prove to Das that Selig acted with "just cause" in punishing Rocker that is, that the commissioner had a "reasonable basis" for both administering discipline and picking the type of discipline.

"If the league can do so, then the arbitrator cannot substitute any independent judgment for Selig's," Rosenthal said. "Essentially, what the arbitrator will look at is past situations. And one thing that baseball can point to is that when it comes to racist speech, they've always been harsh."

In 1993, baseball suspended Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott for one year after Schott made a series of racial comments. The league also fined Baltimore Orioles outfielder Albert Belle then with the Cleveland Indians $50,000 for a locker room tirade before Game 3 of the 1995 World Series, the largest single-player fine in MLB history.

"The first thing baseball will say is that if Schott was suspended for a year, why shouldn't we have a right to punish Rocker?" Rosenthal said.

Rocker said in a Sports Illustrated story published last month that 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 said, "I'm not a very big fan of foreigners… . How the hell did they get in this country?"

He also called a black teammate a "fat monkey."

"Baseball felt they had to do something," Rosenthal said. "And this gives them a chance to tell the fans, 'We did something, we took strong action.' Then when it gets reduced, it's 'Don't blame Major League Baseball. Blame the arbitrators and the union. They're the ones that got it reduced.' Meanwhile, the league gets to send a message."

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