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
"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 Curacao, said after Thursday's
"He might be immature or stupid or whatever, but he's a great
kid," said shortstop Ozzie Guillen, a Venezuelan.
They all know that, Rocker aside, this spring offers the Braves
every reason to hope that they will fare better than they did in
last year's World Series, when they were swept by the New York
Yankees. The return of All-Star catcher Javy Lopez, closer Kerry
Ligtenberg, middle reliever Rudy Seanez and popular cleanup
hitter Andres Galarraga--all from injury or illness--plus the
addition of speedsters Quilvio Veras and Reggie Sanders in an
off-season trade make Atlanta far more formidable than the club
that cobbled together 103 wins in 1999. In the 38-year-old
Galarraga, the Braves also have the perfect salve for a
clubhouse bloodied by the Rocker affair. "We've got the guy
everybody hates," said one Braves pitcher at the opening of
camp, as he threw an arm around Galarraga's shoulders, "and the
guy everybody loves."
Baseball has few men revered by all races, cliques, media and
even opposing fans, but Galarraga, the slugging first baseman
from Caracas, has spent his career winning over everyone with
his sunny demeanor. Now, it seems, Galarraga has fought off
cancer, too, giving the Braves a feel-good story just when they
need it most.
After spending last season undergoing chemotherapy and radiation
treatment for the non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in his lower back, and
after spending weeks in bed recovering, weakened to the point at
which he could stand neither noise nor light, Galarraga marched
to the batter's box last Thursday for the first time in 17
months and received a standing ovation. He grinned, tipped his
helmet and then rocketed a ground ball to University of Georgia
third baseman Andy Neufeld. "I feel like a little kid right
now," Galarraga said later.
From the moment he arrived in camp with the pitchers and
catchers on Feb. 17, Galarraga has been banging balls all over
the yard. "I was shocked the very first day," says manager Bobby
Cox. "We have a workout, just a half hour catching ground balls
one after another. It's hard to do, but he did it. Then he took
extra batting practice and was hitting balls over 500 feet. I
thought his stamina would be bad and he'd be sluggish and
swinging real easy. But he has hit better than anybody in camp.
The pitchers throw batting practice, and nobody ever hits 'em,
but he did."
"I'm surprised too, believe me," Galarraga said. "It's natural,
or lucky, or something. Everything is still there."
To say his teammates are delighted is an understatement.
Galarraga hit 44 home runs and drove in 121 runs in 1998, and he
is sure to lighten the offensive load carried by '99 National
League MVP Chipper Jones. More important, although he has played
only one season with Atlanta, Galarraga is, as Schuerholz calls
him, "our spiritual leader." He is one of the few Braves who
can--and does--build bridges between the white and black or
Latin players, the young and the old, the quiet and the loud.
"The Cat gets along with everybody, and everybody loves him,"
Weiss said. "That goes a long way."
In the Atlanta clubhouse last Friday morning, as various media
types watched every move that Rocker made, righthander Greg
Maddux looked up from his crossword puzzle and saw Galarraga
sitting on the floor in front of the lockers of Guillen, Lopez
and Eddie Perez, the backup catcher. Galarraga kept tapping his
bat on the floor, speaking softly to his three teammates,
grinning as usual. "That's him: sitting on the floor, talking to
the guys," Maddux said, "and it'll be another group tomorrow.
How important is chemistry? It's hard to put a number on it, but
that's where he's huge. You see it, you feel it. That's what he
Soon after, Galarraga stood at his own locker. The Braves'
Grapefruit League opener that day, against the Kansas City
Royals, was to be his first real test. He said he is feeling no
pain and needs to go for checkups only every three months or so.
Asked when he'd consider himself 100%, Galarraga said, "As soon
as I get my first hit." He said he missed the little things
while he was gone: the give-and-take before games, the jokes on
the bench, the postgame dinners. He painted a lot when he could
last year, 20 landscapes in oil, but that didn't come close to
replacing what he missed most of all. "Hitting, man," Galarraga
said. "I love it. Contact with the ball. I missed my home runs.
I enjoy this game. I wanted not only to stay alive, but also to
play baseball again. That's why I'm here now. That helped me get
my life back."
An hour later Galarraga strode to the plate, the crowd standing
and cheering again, the tiny stadium full under the blazing
Florida sun. It was the first inning, two out and two on, with
Jay Witasick on the mound. Galarraga took the first pitch, then
poked a bloop RBI single into rightfield. In the third he lined
a clean base hit into leftfield, driving home another run. When
he got back to the dugout, his teammates swarmed him, smiling
and patting him on the back.
The Cat is back. "Everybody's happy," Galarraga said afterward.
"I think those guys are even happier than me."
Why not? He beat one kind of cancer. Maybe, just maybe, he can
help his team beat another.
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Cat & Mouth Game The Braves hope the return of Andres Galarraga, one of the major leagues' most popular players, will help heal the wounds caused by John Rocker (right) [T of C]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES BRING THE HEAT Rocker, who was a major pain for the Braves before he made national headlines, reported to camp last Thursday.
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON EVERYBODY LOVES ANDRES Galarraga, out last season with cancer, got a standing ovation last Thursday before his first at bat in 17 months.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER CAMP RUN-AMOK Cox (opposite) can only hope that either his Rocker problem--or Rocker (signing autographs)--will go away soon.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES [See caption above]
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?
Talking about Rocker and Galarraga, one Braves player said,
"We've got the guy everybody hates and the guy everybody loves."