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Rocker's possible ban a potential boon for Mets; Baseball


If embattled Atlanta Braves relief pitcher John Rocker eventually serves the 28-day suspension recently imposed by baseball commissioner Bud Selig, he won't be the only one who pays a heavy price for his mindless and mean-spirited diatribe against New Yorkers.

His Braves teammates, finally facing some real competition in the National League East, could pay dearly for the loss of one of the game's premier relievers, even if it's only for the month of April.

That takes us from the moronic to the ironic, since the likely beneficiaries of Rocker's costly suspension would be the same New Yorkers who spent October goading him into his eventual undoing.

The Braves hope to find an adequate pitcher to replace Rocker for a month. They are talking about the possibility that injured Kerry Ligtenberg -- whose torn elbow ligament last spring put Rocker in the full-time closer role -- will be ready to return to that role by Opening Day.

Don't bet on it. Ligtenberg is less than one year removed from surgery to repair his torn medial collateral ligament. He has just begun throwing at well below 100 percent velocity. Most pitchers need 18 months to two years to return to full strength after significant elbow or shoulder surgery. It's a long shot that he could be an effective closer in April.

"We're going with the approach that there's no need to rush it, and I tend to agree with that," Ligtenberg said last week. "It doesn't hurt, which is one of the best things about it."

In the meantime, the Braves could start the season with an unproven closer, which could be significant if the Mets are able to replicate last year's 97-66 record.

"I don't think there's a sense of urgency," Ligtenberg said. "If I don't come back right away, I'm sure they'll find somebody to do it."

No surrender

Too bad you can't bet on this kind of thing. The Major League Baseball Umpires Association has filed another appeal with the National Labor Relations Board to try to overturn the election that apparently created a new umpires union.

What a shock!

Richie Phillips and his lawyers said that important evidence was overlooked in the appeal that was denied by an NLRB case officer two weeks ago. In reality, they're just taking one last, desperate shot at regaining control of the union.

Sadly, one huge piece of evidence has been overlooked by Phillips in his self-centered attempt to remain in power -- the overwhelming majority that voted to replace him as leader of the union.

It wasn't a subtle hint. The rank-and-file umpires don't want Phillips anymore, and he is doing damage to the credibility of the sports labor movement to continue pulling legal strings to stay in place.

He's also delaying the start of negotiations between the new union and the owners for a labor agreement -- apparently intentionally, since he waited until the last possible day to file his final appeal.

Turning up the heat

If the Seattle Mariners hoped that their off-season improvement project would persuade superstar Ken Griffey to stick around at least another year, the effort apparently has failed.

The Mariners are much improved after a string of free-agent acquisitions, but Griffey seems more determined to leave town than ever. He told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that he feels the local fans and media in the Seattle area have turned against him, so it would not be in his best interests to play there this year.

"Everybody's mad at me because I want to be near my family," he said. "I want to give my son something my father never gave me."

Can't blame Griffey for wanting to play in his hometown of Cincinnati, but it's hard to sympathize with his sense of urgency. He signed a huge contract to play for the Mariners through the 2000 season -- a contract that provides more than enough money to have his family with him in Seattle.

He apparently hopes to pressure the Mariners to re-energize trade talks with the Reds, who made several attempts to acquire him in November and December. Mariners general manager Pat Gillick may be trying to get too much for a player who is under contract for only the coming season, but Griffey is one of the team's biggest assets, so it is not unreasonable for the club to hold out for the best deal.

That effort hasn't been helped by Griffey's reluctance to play anywhere but Cincinnati.

Rocker precedent

New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden did a little research recently and figured out that -- despite comments by players union officials to the contrary -- there is a precedent for the disciplinary action levied against Rocker.

Union lawyers have appealed the 28-day suspension and $20,000 fine imposed by Selig for Rocker's comments about gays and minorities, claiming that it "is literally unprecedented" for a player to be punished for pure speech.

Not exactly. First commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis suspended New York Yankees outfielder Jake Powell for 10 days in 1938 for making a disparaging remark about blacks in a radio interview. The Yankees, fearful of offending their black fan base, made Powell undergo the 1930s equivalent of sensitivity training -- ordering him to tour Harlem bars and restaurants apologizing for his comments.

Now, there's an idea.

But that interesting historical fact probably won't have any real impact on the grievance that the Major League Baseball Players Association filed on Rocker's behalf. Landis was acting in an environment where he had absolute power to act in the best interests of baseball. Selig's power is restricted by the collective bargaining agreement with the players, which makes his ability to impose discipline subject to appeal.

The irony of it all

Lest anyone work up a sweat applauding Landis for being ahead of his time on race relations, the black media and some mainstream East Coast papers charged him with blatant hypocrisy, since it was well-known at the time that he was a major force in preventing African-Americans from playing in the major leagues.

Rotation in review

Depending on whom you talk to, the Orioles' starting rotation is either one of the best in the American League or is fatally flawed because of the sudden drop-off after the No. 3 starter.

Correct on both counts.

The upside: Because of the major-league-wide lack of pitching depth, the presence of two premier starters and one strong prospect present a pretty formidable combination. The only team in the league with a clear advantage in the rotation is the New York Yankees, though the Mariners and Cleveland Indians have improved considerably over the past few months.

The downside: The likelihood that Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson will combine for 35 or more victories may be high, but the remaining three starters -- presumably Sidney Ponson, Pat Rapp and Jason Johnson -- were a combined 26-26 last year.

The upside: If Mussina and Erickson pitch to form and the other three starters again combine for a .500 record, the rotation would figure to finish the season about 15 games over .500, significantly better than last year's combined record of 61-57.

The downside: Before you scoff at the acquisition of Rapp, consider that his 4.12 ERA last year would have ranked second in the Orioles' rotation. The combined 1999 ERA of the four starters who will follow Mussina in the rotation is 4.74.

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