Rocker's Penalty Trimmed Severely

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An arbitrator reduced one of the longest suspensions in baseball history to a wrist slap Wednesday, freeing relief pitcher John Rocker to join the Atlanta Braves in spring training and prompting an angry response from Commissioner Bud Selig.

Rocker, whose derogatory comments regarding gays, foreigners and minorities in a Sports Illustrated article led Selig to levy a $20,000 fine and 73-day suspension encompassing all of spring training and the first month of the season, is expected to arrive at the Atlanta training complex this morning.

He is also expected to apologize to teammates who 1) have faced a daily barrage of questions regarding his comments and 2) indicated Wednesday they are willing to accept him back if convinced he is truly not the bigoted person those comments would indicate.

"As I've said before, John Rocker has said all he needs to say to me," veteran pitcher Tom Glavine said, referring to several conversations they have had since the article came out. "I'm more interested in how he acts every day, how he goes about his business when he doesn't think anyone is looking. As they say, actions speak louder than words. I mean, it's not hard to see when somebody's not sincere about their feelings--good or bad."

Responding to a players' association grievance seeking to overturn Selig's sanctions, arbitrator Shyam Das virtually cut them in half, although he did far more than that to the fine, reducing it to $500, about a week's worth of meal money.

He gave Rocker permission to join the Braves immediately, ruling that the two weeks of training he had missed were penalty enough, and reduced the regular-season suspension to 14 days. Rocker will miss 12 games and be eligible to pitch April 18 against Philadelphia, provided he is not traded before than, a possibility.

The ruling was not a total surprise to many baseball executives who believed Selig had made a public relations statement by heavily nailing Rocker and had nothing to lose if his discipline was reduced.

Nevertheless, Selig released an unusually strong statement in which he said the decision "does not reflect any understanding of or sensitivity to the important social responsibility that baseball . . . has. It completely ignores the sensibilities of those groups maligned by Mr. Rocker and disregards [his] position as a role model."

The union, acknowledging the offensive nature of Rocker's remarks, said Selig's penalty was excessive and beyond the scope of the collective bargaining agreement, particularly since Rocker had not been guilty of bad conduct, only disparaging speech. The arbitrator's ruling was a clear victory for the union, although associate general counsel Gene Orza released a statement expressing disappointment because Das failed "to accept all of our arguments" and didn't totally throw out the sanctions--thus setting a precedent where only speech is involved.

General Manager John Schuerholz said the Braves will abide by the decision and were relieved because "it puts us a step closer to resolution. We need to put this as far behind us as we can and focus on the good of the team."

He cited the Braves' "veteran and ethnic leadership" and said he didn't anticipate problems as Rocker tries to mend relationships.

With all of that, however, there is speculation Schuerholz is trying to trade Rocker, a left-handed closer who saved 38 games in his first full major league season, and that both the Cleveland Indians and Montreal Expos have interest.

Schuerholz wouldn't comment except to acknowledge interest in Rocker and say any decision would be based "strictly on what's best for the team."

He also hinted that there will be a waiting period to see if Rocker can make "the needed corrections" with his teammates.

The hyper southpaw was ordered to undergo sensitivity training by Selig's ruling, and it is believed Das did not tamper with that.

All of the Braves participated in a sensitivity seminar Tuesday, but Glavine said it was several weeks ago that a core group of players decided that "the course of action we should take is to forgive the guy for what he said and give him a chance to make amends. I think we all still feel that way. The mind-set is to let him explain and prove to us that what was portrayed in the article is not really who he is."

Rocker's comments in Sports Illustrated were perceived to be a rip at New York for the verbal abuse he received--and to a large degree fomented--during last year's World Series against the Yankees and playoffs against the Mets. Several Braves who were minor league teammates--and some who roomed with him--have insisted that Rocker is not a racist. However, Glavine said Rocker definitely "needs to make changes" and that "the issues go beyond what he said in the article."

"The other part is that he has criticized the team and how we go about our business, and that has to be addressed," Glavine said, adding that he "wouldn't be surprised" if some Braves didn't forgive him.

One of those might have been Randall Simon, the first baseman from Curacao who has concluded that he was the player Rocker referred to in SI as a "fat monkey." Rocker cited the expression as an example of clubhouse humor, but Simon did not take it lightly and indicated initially that he could not forgive or forget.

On Wednesday, however, Simon said he is "not the one to judge" because "we all make mistakes" and his initial anger subsided on the advice of his mom, wife and friends at home--"Some of them said to hit him and some said not to."

Simon has decided to forgive rather than fight.

"I need to be shown respect and I expect for him to apologize, but we're all a little bit tired of this and want to put it behind us," he said. "The games are starting, and we have more important things to think about."

In an editorial for Thursday's editions of The Atlanta Constitution, Rocker apologized to those he offended and said comments about his teammates were "totally unprofessional and out of line."

Some of the Braves' compassion is rooted in Rocker's importance to the bullpen. In noting that it is better to clear the air of what has been a "pain-in-the-neck issue" now, rather than when the results count in April, Glavine said the Braves "need to focus on the things we need to do to win another championship, and [Rocker] certainly will help in that regard."

In other words, justice was served by the arbitrator's decision? "I'm not in position to decide," Glavine said, "[but] I think it's fair to have some form of spring training. You have to allow the guy some kind of conditioning to get ready to play [or otherwise] you're running the risk of a possible career-ending injury and I don't think anyone wants to see that happen."

Not, at least, before hearing what he has to say today.

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