Fans cheer return of Rocker

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 19, 2000

The Associated Press

Atlanta – The cheers began slowly in the eighth inning.

Wednesday, April 19, 2000

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Atlanta – The cheers began slowly in the eighth inning. A small group of fans, dangling just above the Atlanta Braves’ bullpen, spotted someone familiar getting up to throw. One man unfurled a sign, ”Rocker For President.”

By the ninth, just about everyone at Turner Field was part of the John Rocker lovefest, all 34,903 of them. They generated such a crescendo of noise that even his teammates were caught off-guard.

”I was a little surprised,” third baseman Chipper Jones admitted. ”I didn’t really think it would be quite to that extent.”

Rocker took a deep breath, pushed open the bullpen door and sprinted to the mound for the first time since serving a two-week suspension for offensive comments. He pitched a scoreless ninth against Philadelphia to keep the game tied before the Braves won 4-3 in the 12th on a pinch-hit homer by Brian Hunter.

”Rocker’s back,” said Braves outfielder Brian Jordan, initially one of the reliever’s harshest critics. ”Hopefully, things will quiet down a little bit and we can get back to baseball.”

Rocker struck out the first hitter he faced, Philadelphia’s Mickey Morandini, walked the next batter and then got two flyouts. When Rocker exited after his one-inning stint, many of the fans left, too, having seen what they came to see on a cool, windy night.

Perhaps hoping to avoid another misstep, Rocker continued his policy of refusing to speak to the media about the suspension resulting from his offensive comments about minorities, gays and immigrants.

”I’m not talking,” he barked at reporters who surrounded his locker after the game. ”Are you deaf?”

There was hardly a hint of protest all night. Overall, it seemed just like another nondescript, midweek game, except for a lot more media.

”It’s not a big deal,” Rocker told TBS – owned by the same company that owns the Braves – for an interview that aired before the game. ”I think when the team starts winning and we get the ball rolling, all that will be forgotten.”

His teammates made peace with the reliever during spring training and he had already pitched in Atlanta during an April 1 exhibition game.

”Before the season, I was thinking about this night the whole time,” catcher Eddie Perez said. ”But once the season started, I didn’t remember anything about it until you guys brought it up.”

Most fans arriving at the ballpark were in the same frame of mind.

”There’s not one person walking who hasn’t opened his mouth and said something he regrets,” said Sandra Seagraves, munching on a snack in the picnic area beyond the center-field stands. ”He picked the wrong time to say the wrong thing. Unfortunately, he got crucified for it.”

Her husband, Charles, added, ”I’m going to stand up and cheer like crazy when he comes in.”

But Larry Lee of New Orleans, in town for a convention, said he wouldn’t root for Rocker.

”Personally, I’m not going to cheer for someone who seems to be a heck of a lot more prejudiced than he’s letting on to be,” said Lee, who is black. ”I wasn’t a big fan of him before and I’m certainly not now.”

The Braves planned to put Rocker right back into his familiar role as closer. A year ago, he had 38 saves – one short of the franchise record – and his absence was felt as Atlanta split its first 12 games.

The bullpen went 1-4 with a 5.14 ERA and two blown saves while Rocker was suspended. Former closer Kerry Ligtenberg, coming back from a serious elbow injury, struggled with a 10.13 ERA.

”The thing we really missed was having him in the game,” Perez said. ”That’s what I’ve been thinking about since the season began.”

Morandini, the first hitter to face Rocker, swung weakly at one pitch before taking a called third strike.

”No one has ever questioned his stuff,” the Phillies second baseman said. ”He was throwing hard.”

Some Atlanta-area civil rights groups protested at Turner Field during the offseason and urged the Braves to trade Rocker. But they decided not to picket Tuesday, saying they will probably raise the issue again when the Braves play host to the All-Star game on July 11.

General manager John Schuerholz admitted having ”serious” trade talks concerning Rocker before the season, but said those discussions ”died down.”

”I’m past all my dreaded days,” Schuerholz said. ”It’s a baseball game. He’s a baseball player who made inappropriate, insensitive comments four months ago. Most adults are willing to let it go.”

The Braves were beginning a nine-game homestand, easing the transition for Rocker. The team’s next road trip begins April 28 in San Diego.

The harshest reactions are most likely to come in New York, where Atlanta meets the Mets in a four-game series beginning June 29.

Already, photocopied fliers have been passed out at Shea Stadium advertising ”John Rocker Battery Day” for Atlanta’s first series in New York, where fans are still outraged by the pitcher’s infamous interview in which he expressed disdain for foreigners and homosexuals with AIDS.