ATLANTA -- With history on its side, the players' association on Wednesday will attempt to overturn John Rocker's suspension for offensive comments against homosexuals, minorities and foreigners.
Baseball commissioner Bud Selig banned Rocker until May 1, saying the Atlanta Braves' top reliever "offended practically every element of society" with his comments in a December issue of Sports Illustrated.
The players' association quickly appealed the decision, setting up the hearing in New York before Shyam Das, baseball's new arbitrator.
Das will hear testimony from Selig and Braves president Stan Kasten. Gene Orza, the union's chief lawyer, will argue on Rocker's behalf, and union head Donald Fehr is expected to testify on on past suspensions.
Rocker will attend the hearing, but it's unclear if he'll be asked to testify. He told Sports Illustrated in December 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 mocked foreigners and called a black teammate a "fat monkey."
Time and time again, the players' association has convinced arbitrators to reduce or overturn suspensions imposed by baseball.
In 1981, St. Louis shortstop Garry Templeton was suspended and fined $5,000 after making a series of obscene gestures toward heckling fans at Busch Stadium. Two days later, an arbitrator ruled the suspension should be lifted when Templeton checked into a hospital for treatment of depression.
In 1992, Yankees pitcher Steve Howe was suspended for life after pleading guilty to attempting to buy a gram of cocaine. An arbitrator ended the suspension later that year, saying Howe had attention deficit disorder.
Minus Rocker, the Braves are holding a pre-spring training pitching camp at Turner Field.
Kerry Ligtenberg, who held the closer's job in 1998 and is trying to come back from an elbow injury that kept him out all of last season, hopes the Rocker situation will be settled quickly.
"It's a big distraction for the team," Ligtenberg said Tuesday. "We need to get this resolved sooner rather than later. If we push it to the side and bring it up two months later, it's not going to be any better. We need to deal with John as a team and go from there."
For now, the Braves are facing the possibility of heading to Florida next week without the pitcher who saved 38 games last season, one short of the franchise record.
Selig's suspension covers all 45 days of spring training and the first 28 days of the season. He also fined Rocker $20,000 and ordered him to undergo sensitivity training.
There's no indication how quickly the arbitrator might rule, but the union will likely ask for a decision by the start of spring training. The Braves' pitchers and catchers report to camp at Kissimmee, Fla., on Feb. 17.
Richard Moss, the association's top lawyer for 11 years, predicted last week that Rocker's punishment is likely to be reduced.
"For the commissioner's office to just do something without consulting the players association, without consulting Rocker and without reaching agreement on what was acceptable to everybody was kind of stupid," Moss said.
According to research by the players' association and the commissioner's office, this is the first time a player was disciplined for speech since 1938. New York Yankees outfielder Jake Powell was suspended for 10 days by commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis for disparaging blacks on a radio interview.
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