- A mind is a terrible thing to waste.
The last time a member of the Atlanta Braves was deluged with death threats it was Hank Aaron, accomplishing the unthinkable act of arrogant uppityness by breaking Babe Ruth's all-time home run record.
Last fall, death threats aimed at John Rocker -- the Braves' 25-year-old star closer -- prompted the positioning of snipers on the roof at Shea Stadium during the National League Championship Series. Rocker later admitted that he was "hurt" by New York fans who had thrown things at him, yelled obscenities at him, and spat at him when he walked off the field after striking out Edgardo Alfonso and Mike Piazza in the 13th inning of Game 5.
After the game, Rocker told the Indy, "I said how disrespectful the fans were before I even came here, and they showed me right all night." He reveled in the escalating war of words during the NLCS, feeding on the fans' animosity. "I actually enjoyed myself the last couple of days," Rocker said. He made good copy when pitted against generic Mets fans. The rude and crass behavior of New Yorkers -- fans, athletes and press -- was hardly breaking news.
With two months to cool off, Rocker upped the ante, lashing out in Sports Illustrated against New York's kids with purple hair, "queers with AIDS," single mothers, ex-cons, and "foreigners," noting non-English speaking Asians, Koreans, Vietnamese, Indians, Russians and "Spanish people," while wondering "How the hell did they get in this country?"
The Braves have dragged their feet with a disciplinary response, but Senior Vice-President Hank Aaron was quick to offer his perspective. "When I first read that, I was sick, absolutely sick and disgusted....I believe if he stays here and walks in the clubhouse, sadly to say, it's going to be a problem."
By way of apology, Rocker stated that he was merely trying to inflict emotional pain on New Yorkers. He is not a racist, he claimed, adding that "some of my best friends are from Venezuela." He proudly boasted on ESPN that "I won't deny I'm a redneck."
Rocker's comments were inexcusable. That he saw fit to use that language to inflict pain reveals the instinctive comfort of his bigotry -- he hurls derogatory epithets to hurt people. Yes, there's racism in such speech, even if we believe he was not attacking the subjects he spoke of, merely using them as fodder for his attack on Mets fans. Grant him this much: he is an immature, ignorant, loudmouthed redneck.
Adding fuel to the fire, Rocker also lashed out at his teammates in SI, berating them for deficiencies in both talent and emotion and calling infielder Randall Simon "a fat monkey." Simon said he would never accept an apology. Pitching coach Leo Mazzone professed that "Something's going to go wrong now with his career. You watch, it'll end up going straight down the tubes." Teammate Brian Jordan said "you might as well put him on the trading block now, because the respect factor is gone."
Two months ago, the feeling around baseball was that although no other teams would touch Rocker, the most suitable punishment would be to trade him to a New York team. With the salve of time working its effects, general managers are now saying, anonymously, they'd take Rocker in a New York minute. After all, if we invoke the Braves with a moral responsibility to trade him, then we have to allow for a charitable team to gamble on his redemption. Care to see his 38 saves and 2.49 E.R.A. on the Rockies roster?
The Braves seem content to let Commissioner Bud Selig have the last word with Monday's $20,000 fine on Rocker, mandatory sensitivity training, and a 28-day suspension to start the season. An additional ban from spring training promises to further ostracize Rocker from his teammates, denying him the chance to mend fences and speeding Mazzone's prophecy. The player's union has already filed a grievance, and the suspension will likely be lessened.
Anyone questioning Major League Baseball's right to discipline a player's speech can rest assured that the real work of addressing baseball's race problem is still all talk. Rocker joins the ranks of ex-Dodgers executive Al Campanis and ex-Reds owner Marge Schott as baseball's designated scapegoats of racism. MLB has been painfully slow in tackling the sport's long-standing racism -- usually kept out of sight and out of public speech. If MLB can't speed minority hirings for coaches, managers, and front office executives, they can at least make token gestures at flag-bearers like Rocker while turning their backs on the conditions that let a second-year player feel safe hurling hate speech like a fastball he can't quite get a grip on. p