- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 2, 2000

KISSIMMEE, Fla. An independent arbitrator reinstated Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker yesterday, clearing the reliever to start spring training immediately and cutting in half a suspension for remarks that offended gays, minorities and foreigners.
Rocker was suspended in January by Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig for all 45 days of spring training and the first 28 days of the regular season. Baseball's new arbitrator, Shyam Das, ruled yesterday that Rocker should sit out only the first 14 days of the regular season. Das also reduced Rocker's $20,000 fine to $500.
The decision, the first for baseball by Das, was criticized by Selig and praised by many of Rocker's Braves teammates.
"I disagree with the decision," Selig said. "It does not reflect any understanding 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."
Said Braves pitcher Tom Glavine: "I think it's fair. 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 planned to be at the Braves' training complex today for a private meeting with his teammates before Atlanta's first exhibition game. He also is scheduled to hold a news conference.
The controversy began after Rocker was quoted in a magazine article in December saying he would never play for a New York team because he didn't want to ride a subway train next to "a kid with purple hair, a queer with AIDS, a dude out of jail for the fourth time and a 20-year-old mom with four kids." He also mocked foreigners.
Homosexual and minority groups called on the Braves to release Rocker, and he was suspended by Selig on Jan. 31. The players union immediately appealed, saying it was out of line with past sanctions.
Gene Orza, the union lawyer who argued the case for Rocker, said yesterday "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."
Homosexual and minority groups were angered by the decision. Shortly after the ruling, a group of protesters gathered at Turner Field in Atlanta. Another group planned a demonstration today at the Disney World complex where the Braves train.
Rocker's immediate task will be to make amends with his teammates particularly 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."
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.
"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 said there is interest in Rocker from other teams and implied a deal could be made if the reliever threatens clubhouse harmony.
"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, 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.
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.
Rocker warred with New York fans in last season's playoffs, and he later told ESPN he lost his cool and said things he didn't mean about New York because he wanted "to inflict some emotional pain in retaliation to the pain that had been inflicted on me."
"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 mind-set."

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