John Rocker spent much of last week playing Tom Sawyer: Needing to whitewash not a fence but his reputation, he got others to do the job for him. In three days his hateful outburst in the Dec. 27-Jan. 3 SI—offending "virtually everyone in the world who isn't a white guy from Macon," as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorialized—became a bum rap pinned on him by media provocateurs. In a breathtaking display of cynicism and cojones, the Atlanta Braves pitcher was repositioned as a civil rights champion. On Thursday he clutched a signed copy of Andrew Young's An Easy Burden (a book about the civil rights movement) in much the way Bill Clinton clings on Sundays to a leather Bible.
If Rocker is capable of embarrassment, now would be a good time for him to blush. Young, after all, inscribed the book to a fellow fighter of the good fight: " John Rocker, Welcome to the struggle. Keep faith, Andrew Young." Which raises a question: What on earth has happened to Andrew Young? The brother-in-arms of Martin Luther King Jr. and a former Atlanta mayor and U.S. ambassador to the U.N. is becoming the One-Hour Martinizer of the media-scandalized, a source of quick absolution when Nike or Clinton misbehaves. So, when he met with Rocker last Thursday, the two men spoke "not about race or racism," said Young, "but [about] the problems of being a celebrity and how to deal with you guys in the press.
"You are in the business of making news," Young told members of the media in Atlanta, "and any little weakness we [celebrities] show becomes the news." Never mind that Rocker's little weakness was a deliberate tirade of xenophobia, homophobia and—it begs a new coinage—anthrophobia; his real shortcoming is not one of race relations or human relations but of press relations. "They'll be picketing," Young reportedly counseled Rocker on what to expect when the season starts. " Martin Luther King, when he was picketed, he never tried to speak to [the picketers] directly." If it was Young's intention to construct the most craven comparison in the history of rhetoric, he has succeeded on a grand scale.
Last week Rocker appeared at various times on ESPN and ABC's 20/20. (The Braves didn't orchestrate the interview and wished, privately, that Rocker would button up.) Speaking to Peter Gammons—who soldiered through the interview professionally, despite having been handpicked for the job by Rocker's agents—the pitcher was defiant, self-pitying and far from contrite. Viewers could feel embarrassed for both Rocker and ESPN, whose production was almost parodically earnest: The package included a "full-blooded Lebanese" woman who told us that she has happily "known Rocker for 18 years." Rocker revealed that he's had a "black guy" in his house not once but "three times over." He said he has eaten breakfast—dinner, even!—with black teammate Andruw Jones. "He drove my car," said Rocker, triumphantly, while neglecting to tell Gammons how much he enjoyed Roots.
Rocker arrived obliquely at SI, saying that his friends and apologists "don't want [an] article [by] someone who spent seven hours out of 25 years [of my life] to explain me to the whole country." Rocker knows perfectly well that the writer, Jeff Pearlman, made no effort to "explain" him. Rather, the writer recorded Rocker's on-the-record statements—made repeatedly and without provocation—and remained silent as Rocker tried lamely to impugn him on ESPN. Of calling a teammate "a fat monkey," Rocker told Gammons, "It's nothing more than I let a reporter into a little locker room humor, and he took it literally." (Braves first baseman Randall Simon, who assumed Rocker was referring to him, told Morris News Service last Saturday, "If he said that to my face, I'd tear him up.")
Rocker's mother, Judy, said last week that her son has to "grow up." But someone also needs to tell him to shut up. That seems increasingly unlikely. Even Hank Aaron, now a Braves vice president, last week softened his stance on the star reliever from his hard-line position of three weeks earlier, when he had described the lesson of the whole sordid affair: "You still have some people out mere, you know, it's just a matter of them putting three K's on the front of their shirt, because they are KKK's."
Those three K's, as spring training nears, look more and more to the Braves like the scorecard symbol for striking out the side. As long as Rocker can do that, he needn't absorb any lessons from, or take any responsibility for, his actions. And the limbo bar of public standards will have dropped another peg, as society sings: "How low/Can they go? How low/Can they go?..."