Before and after his hate-filled diatribe against the ethnic and cultural polyglot of New York City turned him into Public Enemy Number One, John Rocker was not well liked. Opposing batters, who looked alternately foolish and cowed while flailing against the explosive offerings of the Braves closer, wished that he would just stay in the bullpen. His most vocal critics were Met fans, whose rancorous war of words with the impolitic southpaw spawned his infamous Sports Illustrated rant. Even Rocker’s own teammates soured on his overgrown frat-boy act, prompting Atlanta to deal away the most coveted commodity in baseball — a young, hard-throwing left-hander with unlimited potential.
When he got the call from Braves manager Bobby Cox, Rocker would sprint in from the bullpen to the mound, where his hulking 6’4” frame quivered with peripatetic tics and barely restrained energy. Each time he flung his body into its violent wind-up and delivery he looked like a man declaring war or exorcising a demon. Employing a classic power closer’s arsenal of an overpowering high 90s fastball and an untouchable slider, Rocker was a hitter’s worst nightmare.
After a promising rookie season, Rocker got his first chance to close for Atlanta in 1999 when incumbent stopper Kerry Ligtenberg tore his medial collateral ligament in spring training. Making the most of his opportunity, Rocker saved 38 games for the NL Champion Braves (one shy of the club record set by Mark Wohlers in 1996) allowing a mere 47 hits in 72 1/3 innings while fanning 104.
Despite his successes, Rocker planted the seeds of his downfall during the 1999 season. He called Mets fans “degenerates” and “Neanderthal” for the abuse he received at their hands during the teams’ NL East showdowns. When Atlanta and New York met during the League Championship Series that fall, Rocker fueled the mutual loathing by giving Shea Stadium patrons the finger and taunting them by faking throws to fans during batting practice before smiling smugly and returning the baseball to the pitcher. He later delighted in whipping a ball at full speed towards fans seated behind the home-plate screen. The Mets faithful responded by chanting “Ass-Hole” when Rocker was brought in and by flooding www.rockersucks.com with all manner of colorful advice.
A Georgia native whose true colors sometimes ran to redneck, Rocker attended both high school and college in Macon. His immature antics could be classified under youthful exuberance until he irrevocably altered his life in a December 1999 interview with S.I. writer Jeff Pearlman. In a bizarre tirade, Rocker imagined riding the city’s Number 7 subway train through Queens to Shea Stadium, “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.”
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Rocker added that, “The biggest thing I don’t like about New York are the foreigners. I’m not a very big fan of foreigners. You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English. Asians and Koreans and Vietnamese and Indians and Russians and Spanish people and everything up there. How the hell did they get in this country?” He even referred to a black teammate (undoubtedly first baseman Randall Simon) as a “fat monkey”.
A firestorm of outrage greeted the article’s publication as all quarters of society rushed to condemn Rocker’s intolerant words. The local chapter of the NAACP called on the Braves to release him, while the heavy metal band Twister Sister asked the club to stop using their song “I Wanna Rock” to introduce him when he entered a game. Major League Baseball immediately suspended Rocker for the first month of the upcoming season, but truncated the penalty to two weeks following an appeal by the Players Association.
A series of half-hearted apologies didn’t help Rocker’s cause, nor did his blame-the-messenger stance. Convinced that the media had caused his troubles by refusing to let the story die, Rocker soon reduced all contact with writers, reporters and cameramen to petty antagonism. In the worst incident, he ran into Pearlman outside the clubhouse prior to a Braves/Yankees interleague series. “It’s not over with you and me,” threatened Rocker. “Do you know what I can do to you?”
The constant distractions and discord took their toll on the staid, veteran-filled Braves’ clubhouse. Outfielder Brian Jordan said, “You’ve got one guy being a cancer time and time again. Eventually, it’s going to have an effect.” Third baseman Chipper Jones admitted, “It’s a pain in the butt for the other 24 guys.”
All season long, from city to city, Rocker suffered the slings, arrows and boos of public enmity. Upon his initial and ultimately anti-climatic return to New York in June 2000, he was driven to Shea Stadium six hours before game time in an unmarked police van with tinted windows, while a beefed-up and highly visible security force prowled the stadium to ensure his safety. A few bouts of wildness aside, he pitched surprisingly well under the circumstances, posting a 2.89 ERA and converting 24 of 27 save chances for the season. But in June 2001, with Rocker still a clubhouse pariah, Atlanta traded him to Cleveland for relievers Steve Reed and Steve Karsay.