Spinning Their Wheels A campaign to repair John Rocker's image is getting him--and his apologists--in even deeper

Jan. 24, 2000
Jan. 24, 2000

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Jan. 24, 2000

Spinning Their Wheels A campaign to repair John Rocker's image is getting him--and his apologists--in even deeper

John Rocker spent much of last week playing Tom Sawyer: Needing
to whitewash not a fence but his reputation, he got others to do
the job for him. In three days his hateful outburst in the Dec.
27-Jan. 3 SI--offending "virtually everyone in the world who isn't
a white guy from Macon," as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
editorialized--became a bum rap pinned on him by media
provocateurs. In a breathtaking display of cynicism and cojones,
the Atlanta Braves pitcher was repositioned as a civil rights
champion. On Thursday he clutched a signed copy of Andrew Young's
An Easy Burden (a book about the civil rights movement) in much
the way Bill Clinton clings on Sundays to a leather Bible.

This is an article from the Jan. 24, 2000 issue Original Layout

If Rocker is capable of embarrassment, now would be a good time
for him to blush. Young, after all, inscribed the book to a
fellow fighter of the good fight: "John Rocker, Welcome to the
struggle. Keep faith, Andrew Young." Which raises a question:
What on earth has happened to Andrew Young? The brother-in-arms
of Martin Luther King Jr. and a former Atlanta mayor and U.S.
ambassador to the U.N. is becoming the One-Hour Martinizer of the
media-scandalized, a source of quick absolution when Nike or
Clinton misbehaves. So, when he met with Rocker last Thursday,
the two men spoke "not about race or racism," said Young, "but
[about] the problems of being a celebrity and how to deal with
you guys in the press.

"You are in the business of making news," Young told members of
the media in Atlanta, "and any little weakness we [celebrities]
show becomes the news." Never mind that Rocker's little weakness
was a deliberate tirade of xenophobia, homophobia and--it begs a
new coinage--anthrophobia; his real shortcoming is not one of
race relations or hu man relations but of press relations.
"They'll be picketing," Young reportedly counseled Rocker on
what to expect when the season starts. "Martin Luther King, when
he was picketed, he never tried to speak to [the picketers]
directly." If it was Young's intention to construct the most
craven comparison in the history of rhetoric, he has succeeded
on a grand scale.

Last week Rocker appeared at various times on ESPN and ABC's
20/20. (The Braves didn't orchestrate the interview and wished,
privately, that Rocker would button up.) Speaking to Peter
Gammons--who soldiered through the interview professionally,
despite having been handpicked for the job by Rocker's agents--the
pitcher was defiant, self-pitying and far from contrite. Viewers
could feel embarrassed for both Rocker and ESPN, whose production
was almost parodically earnest: The package included a
"full-blooded Lebanese" woman who told us that she has happily
"known Rocker for 18 years." Rocker revealed that he's had a
"black guy" in his house not once but "three times over." He said
he has eaten breakfast--dinner, even!--with black teammate Andruw
Jones. "He drove my car," said Rocker, triumphantly, while
neglecting to tell Gammons how much he enjoyed Roots.

Rocker arrived obliquely at SI, saying that his friends and
apologists "don't want [an] article [by] someone who spent seven
hours out of 25 years [of my life] to explain me to the whole
country." Rocker knows perfectly well that the writer, Jeff
Pearlman, made no effort to "explain" him. Rather, the writer
recorded Rocker's on-the-record statements--made repeatedly and
without provocation--and remained silent as Rocker tried lamely to
impugn him on ESPN. Of calling a teammate "a fat monkey," Rocker
told Gammons, "It's nothing more than I let a reporter into a
little locker room humor, and he took it literally." (Braves
first baseman Randall Simon, who assumed Rocker was referring to
him, told Morris News Service last Saturday, "If he said that to
my face, I'd tear him up.")

Rocker's mother, Judy, said last week that her son has to "grow
up." But someone also needs to tell him to shut up. That seems
increasingly unlikely. Even Hank Aaron, now a Braves vice
president, last week softened his stance on the star reliever
from his hard-line position of three weeks earlier, when he had
described the lesson of the whole sordid affair: "You still have
some people out there, you know, it's just a matter of them
putting three K's on the front of their shirt, because they are

Those three K's, as spring training nears, look more and more to
the Braves like the scorecard symbol for striking out the side.
As long as Rocker can do that, he needn't absorb any lessons
from, or take any responsibility for, his actions. And the limbo
bar of public standards will have dropped another peg, as society
sings: "How low/Can they go? How low/Can they go?..."