Rocker at Home While Braves Open Spring Training
Feb. 18, 2000 4:49 PM
KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) The Atlanta Braves couldn't escape the shadow of John Rocker at the opening of spring training Friday. Still, they seemed willing to forgive the suspended reliever.
"Who am I to judge John Rocker?" said Brian Jordan, who was initially one of the pitcher's harshest critics. "I hope he will take this experience, learn from it and become a better man."
Rocker, who saved 38 games for the NL champions last season, is banned until May 1 for his derisive comments about gays, foreigners and minorities. His return could cause a rift in one of baseball's most harmonious clubhouses.
"I don't have to like him," Jordan said. "As long as we all have the same common goal, which is winning a championship, it will all work out. I might not say anything to a guy all year, but if we win the championship we'll be hugging in the clubhouse."
Andres Galarraga, attempting to come back from cancer, took part in batting practice for the first time in more than a year and hit eight balls over the fence. That didn't make him immune to the Rocker issue.
"I know what he did was wrong, but I can't crucify him," Galarraga said. "No matter what he said, I still think he's a great guy. He just got mad and something happened in the heat of the moment. I will give him another chance to come back to the game."
At a private clubhouse meeting prior to the two-hour workout, Rocker was one of the topics covered by manager Bobby Cox, who said he won't allow Rocker to become a distraction for the rest of the team.
"I'll treat it like it's someone with a sore arm," the manager said. "You mention it, and that's it. It's going to be a dead issue simply because we've got to get ready for the season."
Rocker's suspension covers all of spring training and the first 28 days of the season. Last week, the players' association asked arbitrator Shyam Das to overturn the penalty imposed by commissioner Bud Selig. A decision is expected by the end of the month.
Sitting in the dugout on a warm, sunny day, National League MVP Chipper Jones watched his teammates working out and scoffed at the notion that Rocker might distract preparations.
"He's not going to impact the way I go about things," said Jones, one of several position players who reported early to spring training. "Once I'm out there between the lines, the last thing I'm thinking about is John Rocker. I'm going out there to concentrate on the game and do what I've got to do."
If Rocker's suspension is upheld by the arbitrator, Atlanta must come up with a reliever to close out games in April. Former closer Kerry Ligtenberg is throwing again, but he missed all of last season with an elbow injury. Other possibilities are Rudy Seanez, Kevin McGlinchy and Mike Remlinger.
"The loss of John could hurt us in the ninth inning," Jones said. "But we can get by with what we've got. This club knows how to deal with adversity."
After Rocker's remarks were made public, Jordan said he never would be able to respect the pitcher and would find it difficult to consider him a teammate. Arriving at spring training with his two young children, Jordan admitted he let his emotions get the best of him, too.
"I was shocked more than anything. It was insulting," he said. "But, like anything else, the first day is always the hardest day. Then you have a chance to take a breather and figure it all out.
"In a sense, I know what he was doing. He was lashing out at the people of New York, which was understandable after what he went through last year. But he took the immature approach and created this national craze."
If nothing else, Jordan said, the reliever must learn to control his temper and overcome his desire to spar verbally with opposing fans, as he did in New York during the playoffs and World Series.
"Does Rocker have to change his ways? Yeah," Jordan said. "It's all right to be mad, but you can't go crazy in front of your teammates."
Rocker reportedly has been mentioned in trade talks by the Braves. If they do decide to dump the controversial reliever, at least one manager is willing to take him on.
"I don't mind Rocker," Montreal's Felipe Alou said in Jupiter. "I don't believe that kid was really trying to put anybody down. I think he got frustrated. He didn't have any particular person that he went after."
The Associated Press News Service