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Wickman’s ink puts Rocker on brink

CLEVELAND – Bob Wickman closed a new, three-year contract with the Indians on Monday, and probably ended John Rocker’s stormy stay in Cleveland, too.

Wickman, who lost his closer’s job when the Indians traded for Rocker during the season, signed a $15.9 million contract through 2004 with a team option for 2005.

Wickman was eligible for free agency this winter, but decided to stay in Cleveland.

“I never thought about what the money would be like elsewhere,” Wickman said. “This was my best choice and I am not going to second-guess it. For a year and a half, Cleveland has been a great place to be. I’m excited about where this team is headed.”

The popular 32-year-old right-hander was the only one of their potential free agents the Indians were interested in re-signing. On Monday, outfielders Juan Gonzalez, Kenny Lofton and Marty Cordova filed for free agency.

“Personally, I’m delighted at this signing,” Indians general manager Mark Shapiro said of his first move since replacing John Hart. “Bob is a tremendous closer. He has proven that.”

Wickman had 32 saves in 35 chances during a turbulent second season with the Indians, who tried to replace him by trading for Rocker in June.

But Rocker pitched so poorly after arriving from the Atlanta Braves that Indians manager Charlie Manuel gave the closer’s job back to Wickman. Wickman was brilliant down the stretch as the Indians won the AL Central.

He was 5-0 with a 2.39 ERA in 70 games, and went 2-0 with 12 straight saves in his last 18 games.

Wickman, who made $2.6 million last season, clashed with Rocker during the playoffs over some remarks the outspoken reliever made about him.

“I have no problem with John Rocker. I have no complaint if he is here,” Wickman said. “Everybody has an opinion and they are entitled to it. I’m not going to speak out against John’s opinion.”

Wickman was acquired from Milwaukee just before the trading deadline in 2000.

Rocker, suspended and fined by major league baseball at the beginning of the 2000 season for comments in a magazine article, never seemed to fit in with the Indians.

He had just four saves and went 3-7 with a 5.45 ERA after being one of the NL’s top closers. Rocker also was a distraction in the clubhouse during the playoffs when he threw water on fans taunting him in Seattle.

Rocker is eligible for salary arbitration this winter but the Indians own his rights. They can trade him or choose not to offer him a contract for 2002.

Shapiro refused to speculate on Rocker’s future, but seemed to indicate Rocker will be pitching elsewhere next season.

“Bob is our closer,” Shapiro said. “How his presence affects John Rocker and Danys Baez remains to be seen. We are not going into the season with two closers.”

Baez was superb in a setup role last season and was thought to be an option as a closer if Wickman hadn’t re-signed. Now the Indians may have the luxury of converting the hard-throwing 24-year-old into a starter.

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