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Braves Throwback Thursday: John Rocker, 20 years later

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This week in 1999, Atlanta’s mercurial closer shot off his mouth to Sports Illustrated, and derailed a once-promising career.

Atlanta Braves’ closing pitcher John Rocker returns some com
Atlanta Braves closer John Rocker returns some compliments to unruly New York Mets fans after final out in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series at Shea Stadium in 1999. Rocker got the save in a 1-0 Braves win. (Photo by Howard Earl Simmons/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

The final week of the previous millennium was a doozy for the Atlanta Braves, as it turned out.

On Dec. 22, 1999 — 20 years ago this week — the latest issue of Sports Illustrated began arriving in mailboxes and on newsstands around the country. The internet was still in its infancy in those days, and it was still not only possible, but routine, for a print-only story to make a worldwide impact (the issue was dated Dec. 27, 1999, which is 20 years ago Friday).

What caught the ire of SI’s readers was not the magazine’s ranking of the 50 greatest athletes of the 20th century from each state. Instead, it was a story by a largely unknown baseball writer named Jeff Pearlman tucked into the back of the issue that “blew up and went viral,” as we say these days.

Pearlman had spent several hours one day earlier in the offseason with John Rocker, who had then recently completed his first full season as the Braves’ closer. The 25-year-old Rocker had been a key figure in Atlanta’s run to a World Series — its fifth of the decade — and had made headlines for his lively interactions with New York Mets fans during the National League Championship Series.

Pearlman’s story (which you can read here) quoted Rocker as saying all sorts of outrageous and disparaging things about anyone and everyone — his manager, his teammates, and most notably the people of New York, including immigrants and various minority groups. We won’t recount all of Rocker’s statements here (again, if you’ve never read them or you’ve forgotten how extreme they really are, hit the link), but needless to say, his life and career were never the same again.

***

Rocker had been the Braves’ 18th round draft pick out of a Macon high school in 1993, and signed with Atlanta just before he was due to enroll at the University of Georgia that fall. Blessed with an upper 90s fastball and a wicked slider, the 6-foot-4 lefty was a starting pitcher for his first three seasons in the minors before moving to the bullpen in 1997.

It was then that things began to click for Rocker, who began the 1998 season at Triple-A Richmond but was called up to Atlanta after just nine games. Serving as the primary set-up man for closer Kerry Ligtenberg, Rocker posted a 2.13 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 38 innings for a Braves club that won 106 games.

Ligtenberg blew out his elbow the following spring, opening the door for Rocker to take over as closer. He kicked that proverbial door off its hinges.

In 74 games for the Braves in 1999, Rocker ran off a 2.49 ERA with 38 saves. In 72.1 innings, he struck out 104 batters of the 301 batters he faced.

The Braves went 103-59 and won the NL East by 6 ½ games over the Mets in 1999, then beat the Houston Astros 3-1 in the National League Division Series. Rocker pitched 3.1 scoreless innings against Houston, picking up the win in Game 4 and saving a 7-5 victory in the clincher.

That set up an NLCS matchup with the Mets, who had bounced the Arizona Diamondbacks in four games in the other NLDS. And Rocker was at the center of the action, in more ways than one.

The Braves won 4-2 in Game 1, with Rocker getting the save despite allowing an unearned run in the ninth.

In Game 2, he took the mound in the eighth inning with the tying run on second and promptly struck out John Olerud and Robin Ventura to preserve the lead. John Smoltz pitched the ninth for the save, in his first career relief appearance.

After Rocker’s fourth consecutive dominant outing, Smoltz told reporters “he’s unbeatable.”

The series headed to New York for Game 3, and Rocker remained at the top of his game. He got three straight outs with the tying run on base for the save in a 1-0 Atlanta win.

Cracks began to appear in Game 4, however. Rocker blew the save in a 3-2 Mets win, allowing a two-run single by Olerud.

In Game 5 — his fifth appearance in six days — he worked a 1-2-3 13th inning of a game the Braves eventually lost 4-3 in 15 on Ventura’s infamous “grand slam single” off Kevin McGlinchy. That day happened to be Rocker’s 25th birthday, and was the beginning of the end, in retrospect.

Rocker got into it with fans in the stands at Shea Stadium during batting practice, trading verbal insults and taunting patrons by throwing baseballs so that they would land just short of the seats. After striking out Mets slugger Mike Piazza in the 13th, Rocker was seen telling boisterous fans behind the Braves dugout “I just struck out your best hitter. What are you yelping about?” as he left the field.

After the game, Rocker unloaded on the New York fans, telling the New York Daily News: “Mets fans, the majority of them, are not even human. The majority are sub-human. They’re the worst fans in the league.”

Two days later in Atlanta, Rocker pitched a scoreless ninth, but allowed a run in the top of the 10th to put the Mets up by a run. However, Atlanta tied the game in the bottom of the 10th and later won 10-9 in 11 on Andruw Jones’ bases-loaded walk.

That victory wrapped up the NL pennant for Atlanta, which would face the other New York team — the Yankees — in the World Series. Things went poorly, both for Rocker and the Braves.

By this time escorted by armed security wherever he went, Rocker relieved Greg Maddux in Game 1 of the World Series in Atlanta with the bases loaded and one out in the eighth inning of a 1-1 game. He promptly allowed a two-run single to Paul O’Neill, and later walked Jim Leyritz with the bases loaded as the Braves lost 4-1.

In Game 2, Rocker came in for Glavine with the score tied 5-5 following a two-run homer by Chuck Knoblauch. Rocker got through the inning without allowing a run, then pitched a 1-2-3 ninth before the Yankees won on Chad Curtis’ walk-off homer in the 10th.

Rocker did not pitch in Game 3 or 4 of the series, as the Braves were swept in four straight. Not long after the season ended, Rocker conducted his infamous interview with Pearlman.

***

After the story broke, Rocker issued a hasty three-paragraph apology, noting he had “gone way too far in my competitive zeal.” He also said his comments were “unacceptable” and that he was “not a racist.” He vowed to “learn from this experience” and insisted “I am contrite.”

To the credit of the Braves and the Atlanta media, there was no “circling the wagons” around Rocker. Glavine, perhaps the most articulate spokesman for the Braves of that era, implied that his teammate’s apology seemed more than a bit self-serving.

“We live in a society now where people are not afraid of the ramifications of what they say and what they do,” Glavine told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “You can say and do whatever you want and just go ahead and issue an apology and everything’s OK. Well, it’s not. It’s not right. You can read all the apologies you want but this will carry a whole lot more weight in our clubhouse than what it will carry anywhere else.”

During one of his regular Atlanta radio appearances, pitching coach Leo Mazzone went a step farther, saying, “Something’s got to be done. You’ve got to take care of the problem, and taking care of that problem is getting rid of him.”

Braves legend Hank Aaron, also a longtime team executive, said there was “no place in my heart” for Rocker’s comments and added “I’m sick and disgusted about the whole thing.”

AJC columnist Terence Moore noted, “I’ve never seen a Braves player more disliked by his teammates.”

Moore’s colleague, Mark Bradley, called for Rocker to be traded or released immediately. In a column entitled “Dump Rocker in a New York minute,” Bradley wrote that “From a baseball perspective, Rocker has become clubhouse poison” and that it was “better to lose with dignity than to win with a lout.” The column included the phrase “get rid of him” six different times.

(The Braves didn’t get rid of Rocker, but they did make a major — and ultimately disastrous — trade on the day the SI story broke. Atlanta dealt slugging outfielder/first baseman Ryan Klesko and second baseman Bret Boone to the San Diego Padres for outfielder Reggie Sanders and second baseman Quilvio Veras.)

As with most cases of player behavior, the Braves allowed the MLB office to handle disciplinary action regarding Rocker. In February, commissioner Bud Selig suspended Rocker for all of spring training and the first month of the 2000 season, and also fined him $20,000.

That suspension didn’t hold up, however, as an arbitrator knocked it down to 14 days of the regular season and a $500 fine. Rocker was no longer barred from spring training, and joined the team in Florida in March.

By that time, the Braves were resigned to the fact that Rocker was going to be around, for better or worse. In a March 2000 story by Sports Illustrated’s S.L. Price, Glavine compared Rocker to cancer, literally.

“You have to decide: Are you doing a better service by getting rid of the cancer or trying to help him?” Glavine said. “We’re trying to help him.”

Other teammates quoted in the same SI story dismissed Rocker as ignorant.

“He doesn’t know any better,” Braves outfielder Brian Jordan said. “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.”

Said shortstop Ozzie Guillen, “He might be immature or stupid or whatever, but he’s a great kid.”

Rocker returned to the lineup on April 18 against the Philadelphia Phillies in Atlanta, pitching a scoreless ninth inning in a game the Braves won 4-3 in 12. He picked up his first save of the season two days later.

Rocker continued to verbally spar with reporters, or more often, outright ignore them. But things came to a head again in early June, when the Yankees visited Atlanta for an interleague series.

Pearlman came to Turner Field to cover the series for Sports Illustrated, and as he later recounted in a 2014 column for Bleacher Report, was almost immediately accosted by Rocker in the tunnel leading from the clubhouse to the field. Pearlman said Rocker pointed his finger in Pearlman’s face and asked “do you know what I can do to you?”

The Braves fined Rocker $5,000, and also demoted him to Triple-A Richmond. However, manager Bobby Cox insisted that the demotion was baseball-related, citing Rocker’s 25 walks in 18.1 innings and 3.93 ERA at the time (though he’d pitched two scoreless innings against the Yankees).

Rocker made public overtures about retiring rather than reporting to Richmond, telling an Atlanta radio station he might become a stockbroker. He eventually did pitch three games for the R-Braves, but was back in the big leagues after the required 10 days he was forced by MLB roster rules to remain in the minors.

Rocker had returned by the time the Braves played their first series in New York, this one against the Mets in late June. Rocker again issued an apology prior to the series, saying “I am not the evil person being portrayed.”

Rocker got back on the Shea Stadium mound that very night, pitching a 1-2-3 eighth, including a strikeout of Ventura to start the inning. The Braves won 6-4, with Ligtenberg working the ninth and getting the save.

A blister kept Rocker out of the remainder of that series, including a wild second game in which the Mets won 11-8 after trailing 8-1 in the eighth. He wouldn’t face the Mets again until September.

While Rocker’s numbers in 2000 (2.89 ERA, 77 strikeouts in 53 innings) were superficially good, his peripherals were troubling. A bit wild even when he was as his best, his walk rate ballooned to 8.2 per 9 innings that season (it had been 4.6 in 1999).

The Braves were swept out of the NLDS by the Cardinals that October, their first time failing to at least make the NLCS since 1990. That offseason, Rocker got a raise to $1.9 million through arbitration.

Rocker kept his closer’s job heading into the 2001 season, and posted a 3.09 ERA and 19 saves and 36 strikeouts in his first 32 innings. He even trimmed his walk rate, issuing just 16 free passes in that span.

But the situation continued to boil over off the field, most notably when the Braves visited the Yankees for a three-game series in early June. Rocker picked up saves in two of the three games, but got into a shouting match with a fan as he left one game, and was later involved in a verbal altercation with a patron at a New Jersey bar.

On June 18, Rocker walked two in the ninth and took the loss in a 7-6 defeat to the Florida Marlins. Three days later, he allowed a two-run homer to Derrek Lee to blow the save in a 3-2 loss.

That gave Atlanta the excuse it needed to finally cut ties with Rocker, trading him to the Cleveland Indians with minor-league infielder Troy Cameron for relievers Steve Karsay and Steve Reed on June 22, 2001. Ironically, Rocker was delivered the news prior to a game against the Mets at Shea Stadium.

Rocker left the stadium without speaking to reporters, but teammate Chipper Jones spoke for the entire organization when he said, “Some other people will have to deal with what we’ve had to deal with the last couple of years.”

Reed and Karsay — both pending free agents — pitched well for the Braves in 2001, who again won the NL East and swept Houston in the Division Series before losing to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NLCS. But neither stuck as Atlanta’s closer.

Smoltz, returning from Tommy John surgery, was moved to the bullpen to take stress off his elbow. He took over as closer in mid-August and held the job through three more dominant seasons before shifting back into the starting rotation in 2005.

Rocker got saves in his first two appearances with Cleveland, and followed that up with two more scoreless outings. But he allowed runs in four of his next five games, losing the closer’s job after giving up four runs in just 1/3 inning against Houston on July 16.

Rocker posted a 5.45 ERA in 38 games with the Indians, striking out 43 but walking 25 in 34.2 innings. Cleveland general manager John Hart left for the Texas Rangers in the offseason, and in December traded minor-league pitcher Dave Elder to the Indians for Rocker.

Things got no better in Arlington for Rocker, who was demoted to Triple-A in May and wound up on the disabled list with shoulder and neck pain in July. He finished the year with a 6.66 ERA in 30 major-league games, with 30 strikeouts and 13 walks in 24.1 innings.

The Rangers released Rocker that offseason, and he signed a minor-league contract the following April with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. After compiling a 9.15 ERA and 26 walks in 19 2/3 innings for Tampa Bay’s Double-A affiliate, Rocker was released on June 27, 2003. He was 28 years old.

Rocker soon after had surgery for a torn rotator cuff, and attempted a comeback with the independent Long Island Ducks in 2005. He pitched in 23 games for the Ducks, with a 6.50 ERA and 28 walks (with just 19 strikeouts) in 18 innings.

That was it for John Rocker as a professional baseball player. And those who gave Rocker the benefit of the doubt for how he was portrayed in the 1999 Sports Illustrated story (or even continue to do so), need only look at the path he’s trod since he left the game to see that Pearlman probably painted an honest picture.

In 2006, Rocker gave a long and rambling interview with Deadspin. Notably, he referred to Braves general manager John Schuerholz as “a complete moron.”

On several occasions in 2007 and 2008, Rocker hinted at having taken performance enhancing drugs during the latter stages of his career, after he injured his shoulder. In 2011, he said in a radio interview he’d done so during his days with the Braves.

Rocker has maintained his extreme conservative political views, and was a columnist for the website WorldNewsDaily as recently as 2015. For a time, he also sold t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Speak English” through his website (which is now-defunct, apparently).

Rocker has also dabbled in acting, including an appearance on the reality TV series Survivor in 2014. He was voted off after three episodes.

In that 2011 radio interview in which he admitted using PEDs, Rocker also lamented how he’d handled things in his younger days, saying “I wish 37-year old John Rocker could go back and punch 23-year old John Rocker in his face.”

Darryl Palmer is a contributing writer for Talking Chop. Email him at darrylpalmerbraves4@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Darryl_Palmer4. No, that’s not his real name.

Sources: SI Vault; Newspapers.com; Deadspin.com; ESPN.com; USAToday.com; Baseball-Reference.com