Work in Sports
At Full Blast
Shooting outrageously from the lip, Braves closer John Rocker bangs away at his favorite targets: the Mets, their fans, their city and just about everyone in it
Posted: Thursday December 23, 1999 02:07 PM
By Jeff Pearlman
You are a disgrace to the game of baseball. Maybe you should think before you
shoot off your big fat mouth. You are an immature punk who is lucky to be in the
majors. Get some
A MINIVAN is rolling slowly down Atlanta's Route 400, and John Rocker, driving directly behind it in his blue Chevy Tahoe, is pissed. "Stupid bitch! Learn to f---ing drive!" he yells. Rocker honks his horn. Once. Twice. He swerves a lane to the left. There is a toll booth with a tariff of 50 cents. Rocker tosses in two quarters. The gate doesn't rise. He tosses in another quarter. The gate still doesn't rise. From behind, a horn blasts. "F--- you!" Rocker yells, flashing his left middle finger out the window. Finally, after Rocker has thrown in two dimes and a nickel, the gate rises. Rocker brings up a thick wad of phlegm. Puuuh! He spits at the machine. "Hate this damn toll."
With one hand on the wheel, the other gripping a cell phone, Rocker tears down the highway, weaving through traffic. In 10 minutes he is due to speak at Lockhart Academy, a school for learning-disabled children. Does Rocker enjoy speaking to children? "No," he says, "not really." But of all things big and small he hates -- New York Mets fans, sore arms, jock itch -- the thing he hates most is traffic. "I have no patience," he says. The speedometer reads 72. Rocker, in blue-tinted sunglasses and a backward baseball cap, is seething. "So many dumb asses don't know how to drive in this town," he says, Billy Joel's New York State of Mind humming softly from the radio. "They turn from the wrong lane. They go 20 miles per hour. It makes me want -- Look! Look at this idiot! I guarantee you she's a Japanese woman." A beige Toyota is jerking from lane to lane. The woman at the wheel is white. "How bad are Asian women at driving?"
JOHN ROCKER has opinions, and there's no way to sugarcoat them. They are politically incorrect, to say the least, and he likes to express them.
But Rocker reserves a special place in his heart for Mets fans, whom he began bad-mouthing during the regular season when the Braves were battling the Mets for the National League East title eventually won by Atlanta. Although the Braves beat the Mets in a grueling six-game Championship Series (and thus reached the World Series, in which they were swept by the other New York team, the Yankees), Rocker has not allowed himself to let go of the bitterness. You try to find different topics -- hunting, women, family -- but it always comes back to three cold nights at Shea, when bottles whizzed past his head, beer was dumped on his girlfriend and 2,007 sexual positions involving him and a sheep were suggested.
Much of Rocker's rancor traces to Game 4 of the NLCS, when the fans were especially harsh, the night especially frigid and the Braves one win from reaching the World Series. Rocker entered in the eighth inning to protect a 2-1 lead, with two outs and runners on first and second. After a double steal, John Olerud, the Mets' dangerous-but-struggling first baseman who was 0 for 7 lifetime against Rocker, rapped a bouncer up the middle, slightly to the left of second base. Atlanta reserve shortstop Ozzie Guillen, who had just replaced starter Walt Weiss as part of the double switch that brought Rocker into the game, lunged awkwardly for the ball. It hit his glove, then dribbled into the outfield. Two runs scored, and the Mets won. Afterward an angry Rocker called Olerud's single "one of the more cheaper hits I've given up my entire life." In retrospect he doesn't even allow that much credit. "If Walt is playing shortstop instead of Ozzie, that's not a hit, and we win," says Rocker. "But we had a 38-year-old guy [actually 35] playing shortstop, and he can't make that kind of play."
That's not all. At Shea, Rocker was a one-man psycho circus. He spit at Mets fans. He gave them the finger. During batting practice he would shag a ball in the outfield, fake a toss to a throng of waving spectators, then throw it back to the pitcher, smiling wickedly. Once he took a ball and chucked it as hard as he could at a net that separated fans from the field. "If there wasn't a net there, it would have smoked 'em right in the face," he says. "But they're so stupid, they jumped back like the ball would hit 'em."
Cox, who was routinely asked about Rocker's behavior, told the media before Game 3 against the Mets that he had spoken with the pitcher, requesting that he tone down the act. "That never happened," Rocker says now. "Bobby never talked to me about it, and I never talked to him. Why would he? We were winning."
ROCKER BEMOANS the fact that he is not more intelligent, and though his father says John graduated with a 3.5 GPA from Presbyterian Day High in Macon, Ga., in 1993, sometimes it's hard to argue. In passing, he calls an overweight black teammate "a fat monkey." Asked if he feels any bond with New York Knicks guard Latrell Sprewell, notorious for choking coach P.J. Carlesimo two years ago, Rocker lets out a snarl of disgust. "That guy should've been arrested, and instead he's playing basketball," he says. "Why do you think that is? Do you think if he was Keith Van Horn -- if he was white -- they'd let him back? No way." Rocker is rarely tongue-tied when it comes to bashing those of a race or sexual orientation different from his. "I'm not a racist or prejudiced person," he says with apparent conviction. "But certain people bother me."
Rocker was into sports from the get-go; if it wasn't baseball, football or basketball, it was hunting and fishing. (He has gone hunting more than 40 times during this off-season.) His passion, though, was baseball. By his senior year at Presbyterian in 1993, Rocker -- who threw three high school no-hitters and a pair of 16-strikeout games -- was reaching 91 mph on the radar gun, drawing as many as 15 scouts per game.
Rocker was the Braves' 18th-round selection in the June '93 amateur draft, lasting that long because many clubs thought he'd enroll at Georgia. A starter who threw hard but was wild, Rocker was also nervous and sometimes eccentric. At Class A Danville in '94 he earned a mutant Fidrychian reputation for biting baseballs and letting throws from the catcher nail him in the chest. "He can get crazy," says Atlanta reliever Kerry Ligtenberg, who missed last season with a torn right elbow ligament. "I've played with John since '96. He's got a real short fuse. When it goes off, it's probably better not to be around."
The following season Rocker stuck with the big club and appeared in 47 games, mostly as a long reliever. During spring training last year, after Ligtenberg got hurt, Cox named Rocker the closer, and he amassed those 38 saves (in 45 opportunities) with a 2.49 ERA and 104 strikeouts in 72 1/3 innings. Still it is his mouth, not his arm, that has won him Rodmanesque notoriety. "Some of the more stoic guys on the team probably get annoyed by me," he says. "But the younger, fiery guys -- we get annoyed at their stoicism. There needs to be more atmosphere in our clubhouse. I don't mean loud music and hooting and hollering. But I don't think having the atmosphere of a doctor's office helps."
In the locker room at Shea following Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, as Rocker ranted and raved, fumed and fussed, Mike Remlinger, a 33-year-old lefthanded reliever with six years of major league experience, was asked whether Rocker had gone too far. Remlinger -- quiet, thoughtful -- paused. "The thing is," he said, "baseball is a game of humility. You can be on top one minute, as low as possible the next. When you're young, you don't realize it. But sooner or later you learn -- we all do. Be humble."
Issue date: December 27, 1999