New York is a pretty big city, absorbs a lot of insults, shrugs
off any number of calamities. The idea that a hillbilly from
Atlanta had somehow gotten under its skin, an idea that seemed to
preoccupy the rest of the nation during a midseason baseball
series, ought to have been discounted from the start. New York,
it turned out, couldn't care less about John Rocker and his
thoughts on mass transit. Let's just say that after six months of
furor over comments that appeared in this magazine, a sense of
proportion has finally been restored.
Rocker, whose off-season rant about riding the Number 7 train to
Shea Stadium--"next to some kid with purple hair next to some
queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got out of jail
for the fourth time right next to some 20-year-old mom with four
kids"--made him a poster boy for social intolerance, was
tolerated just fine on his first visit back (although he's still
not riding the Flushing line). Since making those comments,
which cost him time and money and a lot of regard as a hot young
reliever, Rocker has been a sort of cultural touchstone, greeted
in one town after another as a national pariah, the level of
antagonism (or acceptance) telling us as much about that town as
that rant in SI said about Rocker. So here's what last weekend's
series between his Atlanta Braves and the Mets tells us about
New York: No matter what the rest of the country thinks, or even
what New York's tabloids say, there's room in the Big Apple even
for a redneck reliever.
That Rocker's return could be made so peaceably seems shocking,
given the buildup by New York and national media, whose
attendance at this series was on the magnitude of the playoffs.
Of course, it helped that actual baseball was played and that so
much of it was so damn good. Sure, Rocker set down the side in
his only appearance. (A blister on his thumb made him
unavailable for the second game, and he wasn't needed in Games 3
or 4.) It seemed a redemptive moment, almost heroic considering
he had to warm up amidst an NYPD phalanx. Perhaps, as his inning
of relief came a few hours after he had apologized to the crowd
in a taped message shown on the Diamond Vision scoreboard, it
was even endearing. But Rocker's return was overshadowed by
subsequent events, some of them even less likely than Rocker
becoming a rush-hour straphanger.
The series, which was supposed to be a kind of reprise of last
year's League Championship Series (not to mention a battle for
first place at the midpoint of the season), was a wash, the teams
splitting four games. The Braves, leading the National League
East by two games, claimed a moral victory, figuring any time
they can escape Shea with their standing intact is a plus. But
the Mets, who had to believe they were under Atlanta's thumb,
having lost 18 of their previous 24 games with the Braves, may
have proved a more important point.
Consider that the Mets, having lost the Rocker Ruckus opener 6-4
last Thursday night, rallied the following evening from an 8-1
deficit in the eighth inning. Powered by catcher Mike Piazza, who
was in the midst of a wonderful hitting groove, the Mets scored
10 runs in that inning, nine of them with two out, the last three
on Piazza's homer. They won the game 11-8. That's not necessarily
why the Mets are called Amazin', although the old tag fit well
enough on Friday. "I saw that happen in the minors once," said
Mets manager Bobby Valentine. "But this is the majors, isn't it?"
Piazza, who had three home runs during the series, seemed to
enjoy the carryover on Saturday, when he helped chase Atlanta ace
Greg Maddux from the mound with a two-run homer. That damage was
part of a six-run second inning that carried the Mets to a 9-1
win and began making even the players believers. "People always
wondered why the Braves beat us," said Piazza afterward. "It was
pretty simple. They played better."
But at that moment nobody was playing better than the Mets. Or,
rather, Piazza. Although Atlanta lefthander Tom Glavine pitched
his team to a 10-2 victory on Sunday, the series ended with less
wonderment about Rocker's state of mind than about Piazza's place
in the game. Including Sunday's solo home run off Glavine,
Piazza's 24th, he had hit in 20 consecutive games and batted in
at least one run in 15 straight. Only Ray Grimes, playing for the
Cubs in 1922, has had a longer RBI run, and Piazza was only two
short of Grimes's record. "Trust me," he said, "that record's
lasted for a reason. You have to swing the bat well, obviously,
but you need breaks, too."
All this action proved a distraction for some 300 members of the
media, who had come from all over the country just to watch
Rocker get pilloried. Now they had to write about a fairly
interesting series, a promising pennant race and a player whose
bat seemed to be overwhelming the league. Rocker himself had
predicted it, saying in his apology that baseball was bigger than
he and that his rant ought to be put behind him.
That didn't mean anybody had to ignore all the fun surrounding
his return, which was plenty entertaining if not the train wreck
everybody thought it would be. Rocker even contributed to the
buildup by announcing his plan to enjoy some of the very
diversity he had criticized last winter. He was going to ride the
Number 7, presumably in the spirit of apology, and demonstrate
the sincerity of his social rehabilitation. That plan was
derailed when his team insisted upon more secure transportation.
Although, to judge by the number of New York's Finest who were
scheduled to be on the platforms along the Flushing line in
anticipation of this Disoriented Express, it's hard to imagine a
safer ride, short of a Popemobile.
Railway safety wasn't New York's only concern during Rocker's
visit. While former mayor Edward Koch was colorfully calling for
a human genome project--"They could take out his
ethnic-sensitivity gene [and] what's left of his heart while
they're at it"--other leaders were instituting less radical
measures. At Shea, where a deluge of batteries (AA, car,
whatever) was feared, a canopy was built over the visiting
bullpen, and cops lined the railings (some 700 of them, 10 times
normal). All in all, these were the kinds of precautions that
might be taken for a visiting head of state, except that in this
case beer sales were curtailed after the sixth inning instead of
If the city fathers were behaving cautiously, New York's media
were positively delirious in their abandon, conducting
countdowns, stunts and just generally rousing rabble in advance
of a Rocker-New York showdown. Just some of Rocker's tabloid
nicknames, used to warm up the readership: the Loco Lefty, the
Boorish Brave, the Klu Klux Kloser, Johnny Rotten (which the
original, John Lydon, immediately protested, calling Rocker a
National Numbskull), the Hate Hurler, the Foul Mouth of the South
and the Apple of Our Ire.
You could say there was a heightened awareness by the time this
series began. Yet what did all the hubbub amount to? Not much.
Perhaps it was the apology Rocker crafted at 2 a.m. in his hotel
room that day; perhaps a Shea Stadium crowd really is different
than a Central Park wilding pack; or maybe not that many people
took him or his remarks that seriously after all.
In any case, few indications of outrage were to be found. Among
the 46,998 fans, there were fewer signs than you would expect for
even a normal game. When Rocker ran in from the bullpen in the
eighth inning, the expected deluge of batteries failed to
materialize--though most of his infielders, looking out for their
own skins or else just declining to show solidarity, kept their
distance until he had reached the mound.
Not that he wasn't booed. When he stooped to tie his shoe on the
mound, he was booed. When he fanned the first batter he faced, he
was booed. When he retired the next two on grounders, he was
booed. But there was a feeling that it was all in good fun.
Whether his sincere-sounding apology ("Many people perceived
these comments to be malicious, and for this I apologize once
again," he said) effectively reshapes his image remains to be
seen. But he could morph from hatemonger into the kind of cartoon
character New Yorkers love to hate, maybe even a baseball version
of the Indiana Pacers' Reggie Miller.
That may have been all that Rocker intended in the first place.
When he mocked the fans during the playoffs last year (not to
mention holding the Mets to two unearned runs in their six
October meetings), it's possible he was trying for a WWF kind of
sensibility, to make himself a little more famous than simply his
98-mph fastball would warrant. "You look at what he had going in
October," says Braves president Stan Kasten, "and you have to
admit, it was working for him. In this celebrity culture, well,
until it went insanely awry, he really had it going. He
definitely could have been a Reggie Miller character, a kind of
Mets killer. Because, don't forget, he can pitch a little, too."
It turns out that schtick or not, the Big Apple didn't bite.
Rocker came and went, and the city seemed no worse for his visit.
Rocker made his stand, the Mets had some fun (although not at his
expense), and life went on. It's just July, after all. There's
plenty more baseball to be played.
For that matter, in a city as self-important as New York, there
are plenty bigger issues than a hillbilly reliever who doesn't
like people talking in foreign tongues on a train he's not likely
ever to take. For example, as the Braves were getting ready to
leave town, the New York Post was alerting the citizenry, in
large type, to a JULY 4TH TERROR ALERT that would require 28,000
cops to report to work. For the sake of perspective, that's
27,300 more than Rocker needed.