John Rocker landed back in baseball last Thursday morning, earlier than expected and full of apologies. He walked up to the locker of Atlanta Braves first baseman Randall Simon—the unnamed teammate he had derided as a "fat monkey" in a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED article in December—extended his hand, said he was sorry and offered to buy him lunch. He met with his teammates for a half hour or so in the Braves' spring training clubhouse in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., where he faced a barrage of pointed questions from coaches and players alike and at one point begged, "Please, guys, let me play." He then read a statement to the assembled media, describing himself as "ashamed...unprofessional...sorry" for the xenophobic, homophobic rant he delivered to the SI writer. Finally, he delivered the solemn pronouncement that "an apology is no more than just words unless it is followed by actions."
No one in that Atlanta clubhouse disagreed. Not one of the Braves is anywhere close to declaring John Rocker a changed man. "You have to decide: Are you doing a better service by getting rid of the cancer or trying to help him?" said pitcher Tom Glavine. "We're trying to help him."
Pity the poor Braves. It might seem odd to feel sorry for the premier National League franchise of the '90s, but this team is trying to return to the World Series while dealing with one of the most explosive—and possibly dangerous—situations in recent baseball history. Caught between the fury of all those whom Rocker offended and a tomahawk-chopping constituency that includes plenty who see nothing untoward about the pitcher's venom, the multiethnic Braves now head into what should have been a stirring 2000 season with a 25-year-old "cancer" whose statement of repentance included the usual blather about one of his best friends being...Lebanese.
Rocker refused to take questions from the media after he'd read his statement, a move that probably drew sighs of relief from all corners of the Atlanta front office. Who knows what Rocker might've said? Later that day he spoke to a small group of reporters and recalled a warm-and-fuzzy encounter at a construction site with "a black guy." The next morning when a TV reporter approached him for an interview, Rocker declined but sunnily offered, "I'm going to take a dump now if you want to get a sound bite."
"He doesn't know any better," said Atlanta outfielder Brian Jordan, shaking his head. "I feel sorry for the guy. I understand why [nobody wanted] him to talk to the media: He doesn't know how to handle it. That cocky, macho attitude just won't do, and he has to understand what he's done. I don't think he has yet."
But if one thing was made clear by last week's events, it's that Rocker had better understand, or he's not long for Atlanta. Despite his 38 saves last season, the volatile reliever has always been a bad fit for this club—his screaming, vein-bulging imitation of a pro wrestler at odds with Atlanta's buttoned-down, almost bloodless demeanor. Rocker's loose-cannon antics had worn out his teammates long before he vented in SI. When arbitrator Shyam Das overturned commissioner Bud Selig's 73-day suspension and $20,000 fine on March 1, reducing Rocker's punishment to $500 and the first 14 days of the season, he accelerated the inevitable confrontation between Rocker and the Braves. During Rocker's meeting with coaches and teammates Thursday, he took as many questions about his character and his respect for the organization as he did about his views on foreigners.
"A lot of stuff that went on [with Rocker during the League Championship Series with the New York Mets] last October was a distraction," said Braves shortstop Walt Weiss. "The article brought some things to a head, allowed guys to say some things they needed to. John's wired a little tighter than most of us."
Maybe too tight. All week rumors flew about a trade that would send Rocker to the Montreal Expos. While Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz wouldn't comment, he also wasn't about to state flatly that Rocker would remain in a Braves uniform. "Who knows?" Schuerholz said.
In the meantime the Atlanta players have no choice but to take the family line on Rocker: He may be an idiot, but he's our idiot, so let's try to move on, shall we? "Why not give him a chance?" Simon, a native of Cura�ao, said after Thursday's t�te-�-t�te.
"He might be immature or stupid or whatever, but he's a great kid," said shortstop Ozzie Guillen, a Venezuelan.