American baseball player
John Rocker caused a tempest among New York Mets fans and the general public in 1999 when he publicly
vented his feelings over what he saw as character flaws of the people of New York City. In his comments, originally published in a Sports Illustrated article, Rocker took umbrage at the city's immigrants, single mothers, homosexuals, and, of course, Mets fans. The nationwide reaction that erupted not only resulted in Rocker's temporary suspension from Major League Baseball, but also sparked a debate on the definition of free speech versus political correctness in America.
Hometown Talent Drafted by Braves
By most other accounts, Rocker at his prime was considered one of the premier "closers" in late-1990s baseball. Born in Statesboro, Georgia, Rocker came by his pitching talent early in life. He attended Presbyterian Day High School, reportedly graduating with a 3.5 grade point average. By his senior year there, Rocker, a starting pitcher, had posted three intra-school no-hitters and a pair of sixteen-strikeout games. But it was his 95-mile-per-hour fastball that caught the baseball scouts' attention.
Rocker was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the eighteenth round of the June 1993 amateur draft. Bypassing college ball, the young pitcher instead hit the road with a Class A team. Even in the early days, Rocker earned a reputation as a temperamental eccentric, biting baseballs and letting throws from the catcher hit him in the chest. "He can get crazy," fellow Atlanta pitcher Kerry Ligtenberg told Sports Illustrated reporter Jeff Pearlman in the article that sparked the controversy. "He's got a real short fuse. When it goes off, it's probably better not to be around."
Though Rocker eventually enrolled in Macon, Georgia's Mercer University and finished two semesters during the off-season, baseball took precedence over his studies. By 1997 the pitcher still hadn't hit his stride, posting a 5-6 won-loss record and a 4.86 Earned Run Average (ERA) in Double-A play. The Braves sent Rocker to the Arizona Fall League, where the young man learned a lesson about playing in the big leagues: "I used to worry over every pitch, every batter," Rocker was quoted in Pearlman's article. "The coaches in Arizona talked to me about just going out and throwing. Don't worry, throw."
That advice seemed to work; on May 5, 1998, Rocker made his big-league debut with the Braves. By the end of the 1999 season, Rocker, a reliever, was throwing stronger, lowering his ERA to 2.49 and amassing thirty-eight saves and 104 strikeouts in more than seventy-one innings. His talent helped the Braves reach the National League Championship Series against the New York Mets—and that's where the trouble began.
At Full Blast
When the Atlanta team hit New York City for a series of pennant playoff games, Rocker found a partisan crowd of Mets fans greeting his appearance at Shea Stadium with boos, insults, and even thrown objects. This didn't sit well with the emotional left-hander, and he made his feelings known in the Sports Illustrated piece titled "At Full Blast."
First, he talked to Pearlman about the likelihood that he would ever accept a position on a New York team. "I would retire first," Rocker said. "It's the most hectic, nerve-wracking city." That was a benign comment compared to what came next. On the city's residents: "The biggest thing I don't like about New York are the foreigners. I'm not a very big fan of foreigners." Then there's the experience of riding a New York City subway: "Imagine having to take the [Number] 7 train to the ballpark … 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 20-year-old mom with four kids. It's depressing." He was no more charitable to his Atlanta teammates, calling one black player a "fat monkey."
But, according to Pearlman, "Rocker reserves a special place in his heart for Mets fans, whom he began badmouthing during the regular season." Said Rocker: "Nowhere else in the country do people spit at you, throw bottles at you, throw quarters at you, throw batteries at you.… I talked about what degenerates they were, and they proved me right."
But in the court of media opinion, it was Rocker who was found guilty of being degenerate. Talk-show hosts, politicians, and sports columnists took him to task, some calling for his dismissal from the game; Rocker responded by quickly issuing a public apology, though in the view of New York Times Upfront writer George Vecsey, the prepared statement's "coherence and maturity make it impossible to have been written by [Rocker]. The ghostwritten mea culpa will not work." Indeed, Rocker—who told ESPN television "The last thing I wanted to do was offend people"—was fined $20,000 and suspended from play until May 2000.
His union, the players' association, filed a grievance to overturn the suspension, calling the act "without just cause," as union representative Shaym Das noted in an Associated Press wire story, which also pointed out that Rocker's punishment was more typical of a player who used drugs or engaged in similar malfeasance. Rocker's New York-based insults "[were] crude, stupid, and could've been left unsaid," wrote Baseball Digest 's John Kuenster, "but it was hardly deserving of a lengthy suspension from the Braves. Take a subway train in most any big city in this diverse land of ours, and you're going to see some unusual creatures sitting right across from you. So what else is new?"
|1974||Born October 17 in Statesboro, Georgia|
|1993||Drafted by Atlanta Braves|
|1997||Major League debut|
|1999||Relief pitcher for Braves in National League Championship Series|
|1999||Incendiary interview published by Sports Illustrated|
|2000||Fined and suspended for seven months|
|2000||Returns to Braves|
|2001||Traded to Cleveland Indians|
|2002||Traded to Texas Rangers|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1993||Finished high school with all-state and all-region honors in baseball|
|1993||Drafted by Atlanta Braves|
|1998||First Major League game as a relief pitcher|
|1999||Throws more than 100 strikeouts in 71 innings|
|1999||Pitches for Braves in National League Championship Series|
|2002||Makes debut as movie actor in The Greenskeeper|
A Nationwide Argument
"Off His Rocker" and "Screwball" screamed the headlines of New York's tabloid newspapers, the Post and Daily News. The papers were responding to the report that the pitcher was ordered by Major League Commissioner Bud Selig to undergo psychological testing and sensitivity training. This decision led pundits to wonder if Rocker's case had become one of political correctness run amok. Allan Barra of Salon called Rocker a "whipping boy" who "got toasted by the media for saying the same things about New York [in public] that a lot of baseball executives say to each other about New York in private." Another Salon columnist, Peter Collier, castigated the "politicization" of modern sports, characterizing as hypocritical the sports writers who called for Rocker's ouster. "The fact that Rocker had lived with Braves' star Andruw Jones and other black and Hispanic teammates, in his own family house, for several years counted for little," said Collier. Nor was the media satisfied with the level of Rocker's public remorse, he added. The pitcher, Collier said, had "merely apologized instead of abjectly abasing himself and crying … and agreeing to shed his raunchy joie de vivre and spend the rest of his life as a pilgrim walking the rocky road of racial reconciliation."
Others felt Rocker got what he deserved. "The point is," wrote Clarence Page in Philadelphia Business Journal, "that Rocker's sentiments, expressed in a rude and crude attempt at humor, were unacceptable in a civilized society, let alone the entertainment industry known as professional sports." Rocker was returned to the Triple-A league while serving out his suspension.
An independent arbitrator cut Rocker's suspension in half, and the pitcher rejoined the Braves in training camp in March 2000. Some of his teammates angrily confronted him, leading Rocker to plead, "Please, guys, let me play." After settling some scores with his fellow ballplayers, Rocker appeared before spectators in central Florida. Some of their reactions were generous: "We still love you, John!" one woman shouted. In June Rocker returned to the mound and seemed to struggle, surrendering five runs and eight walks in his first five innings. By the end of that month, however, he seemed to have returned to form, and in a generally peaceful return to Shea Stadium, Rocker retired all three batters in the one inning he pitched against the Mets.
Though he finished the 2000 season with a 2.89 ERA, Rocker's days with the Braves were numbered. He was traded first to the Cleveland Indians, then to the Texas Rangers, who called him back from Triple-A play in Oklahoma. Rocker's 2002 season with the Rangers was cut short by a bout with bursitis that put him on the disabled list for several weeks. He was not out of the headlines, however: Rocker reportedly got into a flap outside a Dallas restaurant in August of that year, prompting another public apology. The athlete also turned actor, taking a bit part in a Georgia-filmed horror movie, The Greenskeeper.
|ATL: Atlanta Braves; CLE: Cleveland Indians; TEX: Texas Rangers.|
Whether or not Rocker's arm proves dependable, he will likely be remembered not so much for his throwing ability as for his temperament, which became a catalyst for public debate. Indeed, wrote David Martinson in High School Journal, Rocker's cause celebre can provide educational value: "John Rocker—paradoxical as it may be—has done the secondary school social studies teacher a genuine favor by bringing a specific example of controversial speech into a popular culture context."
Blum, Ronald. "Grievance Filed on Rocker Suspension." Associated Press (February 1, 2002).
Bowman, John. "John Rocker and the Price of Free Speech." Business Journal (February 11, 2000).
Elliott, Michael. "The Lesson of the Streets." Newsweek International (January 17, 2000).
Hoffer, Richard. "A Rocker, Sock 'Em Affair." Sports Illustrated (July 10, 2000).
"John Rocker, under Fire." Economist (June 10, 2000).
Kinsley, Michael. "Call Him Closer Outrageous." Sporting News (October 25, 1999).
Kuenster, John. "Politically Incorrect Remarks Can Land Today's Players in Deep Trouble." Baseball Digest (September, 2000).
Leo, John. "Dissing John Rocker."U. S. News and World Report. (February 14, 2000).
Martinson, David. "Freedom of Speech and John Rocker." High School Journal (October-November, 2001).
Page, Clarence. "John Rocker's Rights vs. Respect for Others." Philadelphia Business Journal. (January 28, 2000).
Pearlman, Jeff. "At Full Blast." Sports Illustrated (December 27, 1999).
Quindlen, Anna. "Ignore Them off the Field." Newsweek (January 31, 2000).
"Rocker's Wild Pitch." Newsweek (June 19, 2000).
Rushin, Steve. "Spinning Their Wheels." Sports Illustrated (January 24, 2000).
Vecsey, George. "Baseball's Bigmouth." New York Times Upfront (January 31, 2000).
Barra, Allen. "John Rocker, Whipping Boy." Salon, http://www.salon.com (November 14, 2002).
Collier, Peter. "Mark Fuhrman in Cleats?" Salon, http://www.salon.com (November 14, 2002).
Sketch by Susan Salter