•On Mets manager Bobby Valentine: "The guy is not professional. Could you see [Yankees manager] Toe Torre or Bobby Cox getting thrown out of a game and then putting on a Groucho Marx disguise and sneaking back into the dugout? If a player got kicked out of a game and did that, Joe Torre would probably suspend him for a week. Bobby Cox would probably demand that the player be traded and tell him not to come back to the team. The Mets' manager did it! That, and his college rah-rah s—-? I don't like it."
•On Mets fans: "Nowhere else in the country do people spit at you, throw bottles at you, throw quarters at you, throw batteries at you and say, 'Hey, I did your mother last night—she's a whore.' I talked about what degenerates they were, and they proved me right. Just by saying something, I could make them mad enough to go home and slap their moms."
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."
"You are the most hideous man I have ever laid eyes on. Hope your baseball career is short...just like your intelligence."
—A posting by "Michelle" on www.rockersucks.com
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."
When he signed with the Braves, Rocker and his parents, Jake, an executive at Georgia Farm Bureau Insurance, and Judy, who runs an ad agency out of her home, agreed on a five-year plan. If things weren't looking good, he would use the education clause in his contract and finish college. (Rocker has completed two semesters at Mercer.) By the end of the '97 season things weren't looking good—5-6, 4.86 ERA at Double A Greenville—and the Braves mentioned turning him into a reliever. "It didn't sound too great to me," Rocker recalls. "I was a starter my whole life." The Braves sent Rocker to the Arizona Fall League to pitch exclusively from the pen. There, "I learned that everything's about attitude," says Rocker. "I used to worry over every pitch, every batter. The coaches in Arizona talked to me about just going out and throwing. Don't worry, throw."