Friday, July 28, 2000

Rocker Ruined My Off-Season by Steve Reynolds

“It’s the most hectic, nerve-racking city. Imagine having to take the [Number 7] train to the ballpark, looking like you’re [riding through] Beirut next to some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time right next to some 2—year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing.”

John Rocker to Sports Illustrated reporter Jeff Pearlman on why he would never live in New York City

With that brief paragraph, Atlanta Braves reliever John Rocker turned a baseball off-season that should have been dominated by news of the Ken Griffey Junior trade into one in which incessant discussion of these stupid remarks was talk show host and newspaper columnist fodder for more than two months.

I originally sat down in early December to write down all my thoughts of hatred for John Rocker—it was going to be another installment in my Rants From the Upper Deck column. I’m not talking about just a strong dislike; I’m talking about a pure, deep from the depths of my baseball-loving soul hatred, the kind of hate I had usually only reserved for certain music groups. Rocker slagged my beloved Mets, and my beloved city, New York, during the last weeks of the season, and then again during the playoffs. I found myself on more than a few occasions cursing at the TV (in a way that probably Rocker only thinks people waiting for the 7 curse) when Rocker would pitch himself out of a jam without giving up a run. I’ll even admit I genuinely wished that a car would hit him. (Actually, I wished various forms of death upon Mr. Rocker, but I won’t go into all of them.)

But now it’s hard for me to hate John Rocker—I realize that he’s just a guy who thought: “What I said before really irked them. How can I take it to the next level in this interview?” And as we all know by now, Rocker stepped way over the line, offending virtually everyone that’s not a card-carrying KKK member. Was what he said worth some sort of suspension by Major League Baseball? I’m still not sure. Was the arbitrator correct in cutting Rocker suspension from 73 days to 25 days? I think the answer is a definite yes. Rocker’s true punishment will be the taunting he’ll receive the rest of his career from baseball fans around the country (especially New Yorkers). Is Rocker a racist and a homophobe? There’s a good chance he is, but there is such a thing called the First Amendment that allows him to say whatever he wants. Will Rocker remain a Brave? His teammates—including Randall Simon, who he called a “fat monkey” in the SI interview—seemed to have forgiven him after a closed-door players meeting where Rocker reportedly apologized profusely and took what the players had to dish out. But don’t be surprised if he’s given a one-way ticket to a smaller market team this season. The minor league demotion was just the first step.

“Hate and bigotry and homophobia and racism have a place, evidently, and that place is in major league baseball.” —Atlanta city councilman Derrick Boazman, after Rocker’s suspension was reduced.

Councilman Boazman is correct, but it’s not because of John Rocker. (And Boazman could have referred to all professional sports and been correct.) Homophobic tension couldn’t be higher than it is in a sports locker room. (And yet they can slap each other on the ass with towels—what gives?) But racism in baseball starts where the cash is, with the owners, not with one talented relief pitcher. Considering all the outstanding minority athletes baseball has produced and promoted and made money off of, why are there still so very few in high positions of power? Commissioner Bud Selig, who said that the cutting of Rocker’s suspension “does not reflect any understanding or sensitivity to the important social responsibility that baseball has to the public,” sent word out to all the major league clubs last year that when they had a front office or managerial opening, they were required to inform the commissioner’s office. The club was also required to submit a list of five minority candidates for the job, and if they had none, the commissioner’s office would provide a list of potential candidates for them to interview. The Detroit Tigers had a managerial and a front office position open last fall, and completely ignored the Selig’s order. They didn’t even glance at the list of potential candidates, and hired ex-Brewers manager Phil Garner. Garner was a quality player for the Pirates and Astros, but he never got the Brewers over .500 in seven seasons—not exactly sterling credentials. But were the Tigers punished? Of course not—the only peep made about this incident was in the weekly baseball column in the New York Times. The rest of the mainstream media seemed to miss its significance completely.

In my opinion, the Tigers front office gaffe is much worse than John Rocker mouthing off to a reporter—Rocker has the right to do so. But the Tigers incident, and many others over the years, are much more troubling because it’s practicing racism on an institutional level. Baseball is far from perfect. (Don’t get me started on the insanity of the DH.) But getting some true diversity in positions of power, instead of just paying lip service when someone like Jessie Jackson comes snooping around, would go a long way in helping the off-the-field qualities of America’s pastime.

Talk Talk, All You Do Is

The Rocker debacle brought about a new debate about racism in this country—and goodness knows everyone could use more education on the undercurrent of bigotry throughout our daily lives. But a week’s worth of CNN’s Talkback Live (owned by the same mondo corporation as the Braves) and various talking heads on cable news channels just added a circus-like atmosphere to the whole sorry affair. Here’s a collection of people’s thoughts on John Rocker and his big mouth, from the ridiculous to the sensible.

“I swear to you if he said that to my face I’d tear him up, and one of us would be suspended right now.” —Braves first baseman Randall Simon, who was the most likely the teammate Rocker called a “fat monkey” in the SI article.

“We’ve probably all said things like that out of ignorance, and just gotten away with it.” —Country star, and spring training whore, Garth Brooks.

“We’ve got Hispanics in this band, Italians in this band, people who are Polish and Russian. We’re all immigrants, all foreigners—quote unquote—and this is our way of saying his comments were not acceptable.” —Twisted Sister guitarist Jay Jay French, asking the Braves to not use Twisted Sister’s “I Wanna Rock” to introduce Rocker as he came onto the field. [Ed note: There is no possible way that this statement could have been motivated by the recent re-issue of the entire Twisted Sister catalog. No way. How could anyone even say something like that...]

“I don’t know John Rocker and I don’t want to know John Rocker. But I do know one thing: This would not have happened had an organization and a team [been] attuned to the kind of things he said.” —Bill Bradley, during a presidential debate in Iowa. [Ed note: At the end of the quote, Bradley also referred to his stint as a New York Knick for 800th time during his campaign, working hard to erase years of downplaying his basketball status. Alas, that didn’t help his run for the Oval Office. But this is a baseball publication, so we’ll wait until David Cone runs for office to tackle athletes-turned-politicians.]

“I…think what he [did] was reprehensible and disgusting. And I condemn it without any reservation, of course.” —Al Gore during the same Iowa debate, not realizing that the panelists were asking his thoughts about Rocker, not the Clinton-Lewinsky affair.

“[I feel] very sick and disgusted about the whole situation. I have no place in my heart for people who feel that way.” —One of the greatest ever, Hank Aaron, the day after the article was published. Aaron did later go on to speak to Rocker and felt that Rocker was not a racist.

“The guy’s an idiot. You don’t say that stuff out in public…He’s going to pay the price, and I honestly feel sorry for him.” —Toronto Blue Jays pitcher David Wells, who make us wonder if he has said “that stuff” in private. Wells then went onto to drink a case of beer, eat ten hot dogs and pitch a shutout after his comments.

“There probably would have been 25 guys ready to kill him.” —Braves pitcher Tom Glavine, discussing the reactions of his teammates if Rocker’s comments were made during the regular season.

“Suspend him and take his money? What does that do? I don’t think that serves any purpose.” —Yankee third base coach Willie Randolph.

“An apology is no more than just words unless it is followed by actions. I hope in this coming year I may somehow redeem myself.” —John Rocker, from an editorial he wrote for the Atlanta Constitution Journal the day after his suspension was cut.

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