Humble Rocker rejoins Braves

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 3, 2000

The Associated Press


Friday, March 03, 2000

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KISSIMMEE, Fla. – For more than two months, the Atlanta Braves looked forward to this moment. John Rocker was standing before his teammates and coaches. The clubhouse door was locked. There was no escape from the tough questions.

What prompted him to offend so many people? How did he truly feel about his Latin teammates? Was he willing to be accountable for his disparaging comments?

”He was kind of shaking, nervous,” Braves catcher Javy Lopez said. ”But he passed the tough part. He had to apologize and he did that.”

On Thursday, Rocker donned a Braves uniform for the first time since the World Series after an independent arbitrator cut his suspension in half, reduced his fine and allowed him to report to spring training.

Now, the man who had 38 saves a year ago faces his toughest save of all.

It’s one thing to be heckled by 55,000 fans in New York, it’s quite another to face the harsh scrutiny of your own team. Especially when you’ve described a teammate as a ”fat monkey” in a magazine interview, and disparaged gays, foreigners and minorities, too.

”We wanted him to own up to what he said,” outfielder Reggie Sanders said. ”You could tell he felt very regretful. I think he’s learned something from the whole ordeal.”

Commissioner Bud Selig originally suspended Rocker for all of spring training and the first 28 days of the regular season, fined him $20,000 and ordered him to get sensitivity training after the divisive comments appeared in Sports Illustrated in December. The fine was cut to $500.

Shortly after arriving at the ballpark, Rocker addressed manager Bobby Cox, the coaching staff and his teammates in a private meeting. According to some players, Rocker started speaking in front of his locker, but slowly moved toward the middle of the room.

He spoke for about 10 minutes, expressing regret for his comments and trying to explain his motivation.

Then, he took questions from those in the room. Cox spoke first. Pitchers Terry Mulholland, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz all took turns, along with third-base coach Ned Yost, first baseman Randall Simon, outfielder Brian Jordan and Sanders.

”Everybody was tense,” catcher Eddie Perez said. ”There were no jokes.”

Rocker was grilled especially hard by Yost, who grew noticeably angry as he recalled the lurid details of the magazine article, even bringing up the part about Rocker spitting at a toll booth.

”Ned asked him how it felt to say all that stuff,” Perez said. ”Rocker said, ‘Please guys, let me play. I want to play for the Braves.’ I think he wanted to cry.”

Rocker met privately with Simon, whom Rocker referred to as a ”fat monkey” in the story. He asked for forgiveness and invited Simon and his wife to dinner this week.

”I looked at him in the face and he showed me he really regrets what he said,” Simon said. ”I saw in his eyes that he was kind of sad.”

Then again, Rocker hardly seemed like a changed man outside the clubhouse. He was in no mood to explain in any depth his disparaging comments.

At a news conference prior to the Braves first exhibition game, Rocker read from a handwritten, two-page statement that mirrored virtually word-for-word an apologetic editorial he wrote for The Atlanta Constitution. He took no questions, walking away from more than 100 reporters and leaving general manager John Schuerholz to face the mob.

A few hours later, Rocker consented to an interview with Atlanta-area reporters, only to keep them waiting in a hall outside the clubhouse for 90 minutes. He talked for only five minutes after warning the media, ”If there are too many ridiculous questions being asked, I’ll end it right there.”

Rocker blamed his problems on immaturity.

”I just turned 25 a couple of months ago, so I guess people are expecting me to be mature way beyond my years just because of the position I’m in,” he said. ”I just think a little bit of growing up will have to be done, and I don’t think that will be a problem.”

Rocker threw in the outfield with fellow reliever Rudy Seanez and also had a short stint pitching off the mound in the bullpen. Cox said he expects the reliever will be ready for a spring game in 8-10 days.

”It was a little frustrating the first couple of days I wasn’t down here,” Rocker said. ”I just tried not to watch TV and coverage from spring training because that really would have made it tough and got my nerves itching.”

If his reception by the fans of central Florida was any indication, Rocker has plenty of support amid the criticism. He was cheered after his workout and stopped to sign autographs for about 10 minutes along the first-base line.

”We still love you, John!” a woman yelled.

”Leave him alone!” another fan screamed. ”He’s taking care of his fans.”

Rocker will wind up missing the first 13 days of spring training and the first 12 games of the regular season. Atlanta’s first game after the suspension is against Philadelphia at Turner Field on April 18.

”When he puts that uniform on, I want him to be the meanest guy around,” reserve shortstop Ozzie Guillen said. ”I want him to save 50 games, win me a ring and make me more money.

”He’s not my buddy. He’s my teammate.”