Friday, May 6, 2005
By Wayne Drehs
CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. – They lined the stadium concourse, some young, some old, some wearing Mets caps, others supporting the Yankees, all of them there to see John Rocker.
The man who made fun of the way Asian women drive. Who said his least favorite thing about New York was "the foreigners." Who has come back here, to New York, to resurrect his stalled baseball career.
With an orange, webbed foot on the face of his cap and a blue Health Plan of New York patch on his right sleeve, the hard-throwing left-hander, who once said he'd retire before playing for a New York team, spent 35 minutes signing anything and everything New Yorkers could put in front of him. Gloves. Programs. Ticket stubs. Baseball cards. DVDs. Even the Sports Illustrated article that started this mess.
In those 2,145 words sit all the answers. Why his autograph line stretches into the right field corner of the stadium. Why the media can't leave him alone. Why fans continue to berate him. All the hatred, all the anger, it all points back to those pages.
The pages Rocker just signed.
It has been almost six years since Rocker mocked Mets fans, sharing his colorful description of the passengers on the now-infamous No. 7 Train. Rocker has grown up since then. He has matured. His publicist will tell you so. Rocker will show you.
His autograph session Wednesday night was a genuinely heartwarming affair, with the outspoken pitcher holding babies and posing for pictures. Each fan got a smile. A handshake. Eye contact. For those that offered their support, including one fan in a "Rocker for President" T-shirt and another who encouraged him to stay out of trouble so he could pitch for the Yankees, Rocker offered a "Thank you" and an "I appreciate that."
But nights like this are the minority. In a country known for its ever-forgiving ways, a place where a president was all but excused for a White House affair, John Rocker can't get off the hook.
He has become stereotyped himself, just like the minorities he belittled. No matter what he says, no matter what he does, no matter what he is like in person, strangers have already formed their opinions. He can do no right.
"I've taken a lot of crap from a lot of people," said Rocker, who racked up 88 saves, more than 330 strikeouts and a 3.42 ERA in six seasons with the Braves, Indians, Rangers and Devil Rays. "Probably more than anybody in the history of this sport. I know Hank [Aaron] and Jackie [Robinson] took a good deal of crap, but I guarantee it wasn't for six years. I just keep thinking: How much am I supposed to take?"
Wednesday night's lovefest was an aberration. A home game. The first time in a long time, Rocker said, that he stepped on a ball field and didn't feel like keeping his head down and hiding in the dugout.
In the other six games the Ducks have played this year – all on the road – Rocker's life was continually defined by those 2,145 words. Every time he stepped on the field, someone was there encouraging him to fail. Telling him he's an embarrassment. Screaming for him to go home to Atlanta. In Atlantic City, the public-address system played, "New York, New York" when Rocker entered the game. He tipped his cap, played along.
But he's still a punch line. Still the enemy. And he's growing tired of it.
"After two years of not pitching, I really figured that I wouldn't have to hear the boos and cursing and the extremely derogatory remarks. I really figured I would be treated like a human being," he said. "But it's still there – the same force that it's always been.
"Most anybody else would have quit five years ago. I don't have to deal with the media scrutiny, the fan scrutiny, the mental persecution I get put through, the hatred and negative energy on a daily basis."
Rocker has been out of baseball since 2003, recovering from reconstructive shoulder surgery. After a February phone call from the Florida Marlins, he rediscovered the velocity on his fastball and has come here, 35 miles east of Shea Stadium, to the independent Atlantic League Long Island Ducks, in hopes of working his way back to the majors.
Off the field, things have been just as, well, rocky. Tuesday night in Atlantic City, in a game against the Surf, Rocker lost it. After allowing the game-tying and game-winning runs to score, Rocker was walking off the mound when a fan reminded him that he was a long way from Atlanta.
According to news reports, Rocker responded by saying, "I'm still a millionaire, and you're a piece of s---."
According to Rocker, all he said back to the fan was, "Kiss my butt."
Regardless, the altercation made headlines in Wednesday morning newspapers from Biloxi, Miss., to Grand Prairie in Alberta, Canada.
"I have my head down, trying to ignore the guy, I say, 'Kiss my butt,' and that makes national headlines?" Rocker said. "He curses me, and it makes national headlines? How much am I supposed to take? At what point can I defend myself and the respect I think people should have for me? Or am I just supposed to put my head down and keep my tail between my legs?"
The answer is yes. That's what Rocker's personal publicist, Debi Curzio would say. Curzio, a native New Yorker, is right alongside Rocker on the battle lines, fighting to change what she says is a misguided public image. She contacted Rocker after reading the infamous Sports Illustrated story and offered her help.
"I'm not in the business of putting a wolf in sheep's clothing," Curzio said. "I'm not a miracle worker. I wouldn't represent Mike Tyson. But I believe in John. He's really a very intelligent person, a very likable person. He has a great sense of humor. People have just never gotten a chance to know him."
Curzio has been working with Rocker regularly for more than a year now. She started www.johnrocker.net
, a Web site that includes a photo of Rocker in an NYPD cap. She has spread the word about his longtime charity work, including Rocker's trip to the Atlanta Motor Speedway with a group of kids from the Ronald McDonald House, and his work in Florida assisting victims of Hurricane Charley. And she has helped people understand that Rocker is also a real estate developer and owns a computer company run by a man from the Bronx who happens to be black.
Perhaps most important, she has become the buffer between Rocker and the media. She screens each potential interview, asking about the angle of each story, the type of questions that will be asked and whether the interviewer has worked with Rocker in the past. From there, she recommends only the interviews she thinks will be "positive." Then, she sits in on the interviews.
The only other time Rocker talks is after a game in which he has pitched. And then the conversation is limited to baseball.
"When you get bombarded from all these angles, you just put the wall up. It's hard for him to know who to talk to and who not to talk to," Curzio said. "My job is to keep him focused on baseball and not have these distractions."
Everything is controlled. At last week's season-opening news conference, the Ducks' representatives urged that all questions posed to players be about baseball. Nothing personal.
When one reporter asked Rocker why a minor-league pitcher needed a personal publicist, team owner Frank Boulton snapped.
"That's baseball?" Boulton asked.
"No," Rocker said. "But I'll answer anyway."
He explained that he didn't have time to handle all the requests. He later talked about the importance of keeping his cool in the upcoming season, should fans try to get under his skin.
"You can choose how you want to react to an outside force," he said. "I can choose how to react, and I'll react by not letting them bother me."
Which makes Tuesday night's episode all the more disappointing. Rocker knew how he should have reacted. And though the interaction was similar to the hundreds of others that take place between players and fans each season, because it was Rocker, it was looked upon differently. Because of those 2,145 words, it was suddenly the same old Rocker up to the same old tricks.
"That's the slipup that the media was waiting for," Curzio said. "And now they have it."
Said Boulton: "There's always going to be somebody. That's what he has to realize. There will always be somebody trying to get under his skin. He just needs to learn how to walk by and get in the dugout."
If only it were that simple. If only John Rocker could just walk away – every time. If only the fans would ignore him – some of the time. But this is minor-league baseball, where the attraction isn't the game on the field but the circus around it. And Rocker is now the ringleader.
In the final 42 words of the Sports Illustrated story, veteran relief pitcher Mike Remlinger was asked whether Rocker's antics go too far. After thinking for a few seconds, he answered.
"The thing is," Remlinger 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."
And there was John Rocker, now 30 years old, standing in his Long Island Ducks uniform, unable to pitch because of a dead arm, wondering when – wondering if – he would make it back to the majors. The memories of that story have lasted six years, but his life has come full circle, with the loudest cheers, the greatest support right here in New York.
"I don't know what it is, I don't know why, but people here have just taken me in," Rocker said. "It makes me feel even worse [about the article] now that I have met the people of Long Island and seen what nice, genuine people they are. Everywhere I go around here, in the hotel, the restaurants, wherever, people are wishing me good luck. They're just nice, genuine people. It's really motivational."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org