Belle of the ball given the lenient treatment

SPORT IN ANOTHER COUNTRY; John Carlin unravels the American way of disciplining errant baseball players

Viewed from the United States, football's yellow card rules appear brutally unforgiving. If you were to apply to Gary Neville the sanctions standards of American baseball, there is no way the two cautions he incurred in the earlier rounds of Euro 96 would have ruled him out of today's semi- final against Germany.

At worst, a baseball player found guilty of shoving or tripping an opponent might be told by the management of his team that it might be a good idea to undergo a course in sensitivity training. But even that is to exaggerate. In analogous circumstances Neville's crimes, not to mention those of the poor beleaguered Czech Republic team, would not have merited a raised eyebrow. Short of a baseball player shooting an opponent, punishments for bad behaviour are fabulously lenient.

Take that staple of baseball fun, "the bench-clearing brawl". Typically, the pitcher hurls his ball a little too close to the batter's head. Whereupon the batter drops his bat and runs with menacing intent towards the pitcher. The pitcher's on-field team-mates charge to his defence, whereupon the batter's team-mates leap off their benches and a biff-bang melee of cartoon proportions ensues.

The response of Major League Baseball will then turn on whether the pitcher ought be suspended for one game (the baseball season runs to 162 games), or whether he should be let off with a gentle reprimand. None of the other players' behaviour will receive even passing mention.

This is what happens when a baseball player does something that in British sports would be considered really bad, say the equivalent of the Cantona incident. Albert Belle, the Cleveland Indians' star batter, got upset with a press photographer in the course of a game on 6 April this year. Whereupon he started hurling baseballs at the photographer's head, the consequences of which could have been severe brain damage.

Gene Budig, the president of the American League, judged it would be a little severe to fine or suspend Belle, who even by local standards has a record of indiscipline. So Budig ordered instead that Belle should seek counselling. Last week Belle struck again, knocking a Milwaukee Brewers fielder to the ground with a stiff forearm to the face. The umpires did nothing but Budig, who watched the game on TV, decided it was time to make an example of Belle. So he suspended Belle for five games.

Belle sought help from the players' union, who suggested he see a lawyer. Belle did, and then threatened to sue Major League Baseball. Whereupon Budig promptly backed down. Belle's suspension was reduced from five games to three. Upon further appeal it was reduced on Monday to two. "Albert Belle is not a bad person," Budig said.

On the other hand, the owner of the Cleveland Indians is a bad person - or has been deemed to be, at any rate, by the baseball authorities. Marge Schott is bad, not because she attempts to cause people physical pain, but because she has a habit of saying stupid, ignorant things.

A couple of weeks ago the owners of all the other clubs met and decided she should be suspended from her day-to-day management duties at the Indians for a period of two and a half years. Her crime was to have said the following about Hitler in a cable TV interview: "Everything you read, when he came in he was good. They built tremendous highways and got all the factories going. He went nuts, he went berserk . . . Everybody knows he was good at the beginning, but he just went too far."

America's thought police went bonkers. Newspaper columnists, editorial writers, TV pundits joined the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish support groups in a chorus of indignation and rage. Schott, who is 67, did not do her cause a great deal of good when she explained to Sports Illustrated she had not wanted to talk about that stuff, it had just come up because the cable TV interviewer had asked her why she kept a swastika armband in her home.

As Major League Baseball dithered, more and more articles appeared in the press showing that a couple of years back she had been ordered to take sensitivity training therapy after describing some of her black baseball players as "million dollar niggers" and once during a newspaper interview she had mimicked the English-speaking accent of the Japanese prime minister, saying "Cadirrac" for Cadillac. It turned out, too, that she had told the New York Times in an interview in 1992 the same thing about Hitler having been an OK guy at first.

So the public pressure piled up and eventually Major League Baseball, facing the appalling prospect of being labelled politically incorrect, were left with no option but to slap the two-and-a-half year suspension on the confused and foolish woman. Belle, who might have killed someone, will be back at work this weekend.

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