NEW YORK -- With several dozen protesters -- and a large inflatable rat -- outside baseball's offices, John Rocker's attempt to overturn his suspension began Wednesday with commissioner Bud Selig as the leadoff witness.
The Atlanta Braves reliever, banned by Selig until May 1 for his comments about gays, foreigners and others, was largely silent as he walked into the Park Avenue skyscraper with union lawyers on the warm winter afternoon, saying several times: "Just be patient."
Selig testified on the rationale of his decision and was questioned by union lawyer Gene Orza on what precedents he considered, according to several participants in the hearing who spoke on the condition they not be identified.
Selig, one source said, testified he made his decision because he thought it was the correct penalty and did not consider past suspensions. Selig didn't publicly discuss what he said.
"I just completed somewhere between five and six hours of testimony," Selig said as he left the building in the early evening. "I issued my suspension. It is what it is. Now it's in the hands of the arbitrator."
Atlanta City Councilman Derrick Boazman, who has been critical of Rocker, and Braves president Stan Kasten were the other witnesses to testify before Shyam Das, baseball's new arbitrator.
Kevin Hallinan, baseball's executive director of security, was scheduled to be management's final witness today. The union will present its witnesses then.
Das is expected to issue a decision sometime this month.
Boazman, who according to the source testified on the effect of Rocker's remarks in the community, brought along a group from Atlanta to protest. They were kept behind wooden police barricades as the hearing took place 31 floors above.
"It was basically to convey to the masses we were disappointed in the appeal," Boazman said. "We started this whole thing saying Rocker should be released. We still believe that."
Kasten, the source said, testified about the effects of Rocker's remarks on the Braves. Orza questioned
The rat, holding a sign "New York Immigrants Against Rocker!" was provided by Local 78 of the Asbestos, Lead and Hazardous Waste Laborers union, which had it nearby for another protest. The rat, which cost $8,000, has appeared in front of several businesses in New York in the past year.
Rocker, razzed by Mets and Yankees fans during the pennant race and postseason last year, told Sports Illustrated in December 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 Latin teammate a "fat monkey."
Selig responded Jan. 31 by suspending him for all 45 days of spring training and the first 28 days of the season, fining him $20,000 and ordering sensitivity training. The players' association, which has been successful at overturning or shortening many suspensions, then filed a grievance.
Bill Fugazy, chairman of the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations Foundation and a close friend of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, called on Das to deny the appeal.
"At a time when Rocker should be showing all possible remorse for his words and actions, he shows no regret and that he has no regard for anyone but himself," Fugazy said. "His appeal clearly demonstrates that he has no concept of what he has done wrong."
Under baseball's rules, the commissioner's office puts on its defense first, then the union calls its witness. Howard Ganz, who is representing owners in their litigation with umpires, was the lead lawyer for management.
Meanwhile, trade rumors have surfaced involving Rocker, but no deal appeared imminent. Among the possible trades mentioned was one involving Seattle, which is trying to deal Ken Griffey Jr.
Mariners general manager Pat Gillick wouldn't comment on the reports.
"The Chicago White Sox are not interested in obtaining pitcher John Rocker," White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf said in a statement. "We have spent a great deal of time over the last two seasons developing a roster of young players who care about the Chicago community and care about our fans. We believe that character counts in building a championship baseball team our fans can support."
The union says the suspension was without "just cause," arguing speech shouldn't be punished, even if it's offensive.
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