Slavery By Another Name Book Cover

Late-Inning Rally: How Atlanta Braves And Unlikely Allies Saved John Rocker

April 18, 2000

Reliever’s Infamous Tirade
Threatened His Career,
But Now Seems Forgiven

Andy Young Goes to Bat

The Wall Street Journal
By Douglas A. Blackmon

 

     As Stan Kasten, president of the Atlanta Braves baseball team, departed for a family ski trip early last December, he checked his voice mail one last time. There was a single cryptic message. A television producer wanted reaction to unspecified comments by relief pitcher John Rocker.

     He blew it off.

     "Who cares about some ballplayer’s remarks?" Mr. Kasten recalls thinking at the time. "I’m going on vacation."

     Not for long. By the time Mr. Kasten landed in Crested Butte, Colo., a few hours later, a firestorm was raging around the Braves, and Mr. Rocker’s now infamous screed targeting foreigners, minorities, gays and New Yorkers.

     When Mr. Kasten called in that morning to ask why his pager had suddenly gone berserk, his own assistant refused to repeat Mr. Rocker’s comments over the phone. "There’s bad stuff going on," she told him. Blistering calls and e-mails poured in, condemning not only Mr. Rocker but the entire Braves organization. Scoffing at a hastily issued apology from Mr. Rocker, a coalition of Atlanta civil-rights groups demanded that the team summarily dismiss Mr. Rocker. The coalition set up pickets outside Atlanta’s Turner Field.

     In a matter of hours, the brief but meteoric career of Mr. Rocker, and the good name of one of baseball’s most popular franchises, were in deep jeopardy.

     Yet nearly four months after the brouhaha began, Mr. Rocker today becomes eligible, after a 14-day suspension, to pitch in the major leagues once again. The headstrong player appears to have been largely rehabilitated among fans. Talk of his banishment from baseball, or even a forced trade, has largely evaporated. His prospects for winning a multimillion-dollar contract when he becomes eligible for salary arbitration in two years appear nearly certain.

     At a recent Braves exhibition game, some fans wore T-shirts emblazoned with the words: "Believe in John Rocker ." When Mr. Rocker first takes the mound on his home field — which could be tonight against the Philadelphia Phillies — Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, a harsh critic of the relief pitcher, sourly predicts, "He will receive a standing ovation."

     How Mr. Rocker and the team that employs him overcame the reaction to his outburst last year is a complicated and often serendipitous tale. There was expert crisis management by Mr. Kasten and his fellow executives, as well as the Braves’ unwillingness to sacrifice a prized financial asset on the altar of public outrage. Fickle American attitudes on race and free speech worked to his benefit as well. It also turns out that many people in the nation seem to share at least part of Mr. Rocker’s disdain for New York City.

     The key to Mr. Rocker’s personal rehabilitation, though, was a little-acknowledged generational split in Atlanta’s civil-rights leadership. That division, along with the coincidental election last year of the first black mayor in the pitcher’s hometown of Macon, Ga. — and a chance encounter between that mayor and Mr. Rocker’s father in a discount clothing store — ultimately hobbled Mr. Rocker’s fiercest critics. Indeed, the great irony of the entire Rocker affair is that the loud-mouthed 25-year-old who had called a dark-skinned teammate a "fat monkey" was saved from his own words by three influential African-American men.

     Mr. Rocker, a blistering fastball reliever with a vicious slider, is known for bounding like a bulldog from the bullpen to the pitcher’s mound when called into games — usually in tense late-inning situations with the outcome on the line. He had a great season last year — 38 saves. An avid hunter and professional-wrestling fan, he pumps his fist on the field, screams and grunts after strikeouts, and shouts back at jeering fans of opposing teams.

     He did that a lot in the playoffs last year, when the Braves beat the New York Mets in the National League championship and later lost the World Series to the New York Yankees. Mets fans had hurled batteries at Mr. Rocker on the field, shouted insults about his family and dumped beer on his girlfriend. After one game in Atlanta, Mr. Rocker called the New York fans "a bunch of stupid asses," and later flashed an obscene gesture at Mets supporters.

     After the World Series, Sports Illustrated, which had been working on a profile of Mr. Rocker for months, capped off its reporting with writer Jeff Pearlman’s final, fateful interview with the pitcher. On Dec. 22, the magazine released Mr. Pearlman’s article containing Mr. Rocker’s remarks about homosexuals, immigrants and others.

     In the most oft-cited passage, Mr. Rocker said: "Imagine having to take" the subway line that runs to the Mets’ ballpark "looking like you were [riding through] Beirut, 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." The article interspersed his comments with bitter quotes deriding Mr. Rocker from a Web site called Rockersucks.com.

     Mr. Rocker’s father was driving to a store in Atlanta to buy a pair of binoculars as his son’s Christmas gift when a radio announcer blared: "You won’t believe what John Rocker has said now."

     Moments later, the elder Mr. Rocker said recently, his cell phone rang. It was John. "Have you heard what’s going on?" the younger Mr. Rocker asked. "Yes," his father replied.

     "Do you still love me?" the son asked.

     "Yes. We’ll just have to work through it," the elder Mr. Rocker said.

     The reaction was less forgiving at Braves headquarters. Still in Crested Butte, Mr. Kasten was stunned when he saw the full Sports Illustrated story — and nauseated by the potential impact on Turner Broadcasting System Inc., the Time Warner Inc. unit that owns the Braves and other sports teams. (Time Warner also owns Sports Illustrated.)
Mr. Kasten and the team’s general manager, John Schuerholz, sprang into crisis-management mode. The two men decided that they would take every question from the media, and would personally respond to as many e-mails and phone calls from fans as possible. Time Warner Chairman Gerald Levin and Vice Chairman Ted Turner, longtime former owner of the Braves, were kept in the loop, Mr. Kasten says. "It was clear we had to come out immediately and say how we felt," Mr. Kasten says.

     The day after the story broke, Mr. Schuerholz told reporters that the Braves stood "as far away" from Mr. Rocker’s "comments as we possibly could as an organization." Later, the team said it would go along with Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig’s order that the league would decide on any sanctions against Mr. Rocker. That took pressure off the Braves to punish Mr. Rocker immediately.

     For the Braves, the dagger hanging overhead was the larger question of whether Mr. Rocker could continue to play for the team. Before making that call, the executives wanted to meet directly with Mr. Rocker. Nothing in the player’s past conduct had worried the team. Indeed, Mr. Kasten’s instincts told him that Mr. Rocker was an immature young man who had gotten swept up in his own attention-getting antics. "I had to find out whether that interview had just gone insanely awry or was he a dyed-in-the-wool member of a hate group," Mr. Kasten says.

     When Mr. Kasten returned to Atlanta from Colorado, he and Mr. Schuerholz summoned the pitcher to an evening private meeting at Turner Field.

     "It was the three of us in an empty stadium," Mr. Kasten says. The meeting lasted for hours. "The first thing I told him was those were my parents he was talking about," when Mr. Rocker lashed out at immigrants, says Mr. Kasten, a son of Holocaust survivors who immigrated to New York from Poland after World War II. Later, Mr. Kasten, who grew up in Farmingdale, N.J., lectured the pitcher on the Statue of Liberty, suggesting he go there on his next visit to New York.

     Mr. Rocker apologized and pleaded that "he wanted to do anything he could to make it right," according to Messrs. Kasten and Schuerholz. By the end of the evening, the executives were convinced that Mr. Rocker was more "foolish" young man than raging bigot.

     As offended as Braves management was, the team wasn’t keen on dumping Mr. Rocker. That was partly due to loyalty. But Mr. Rocker’s pitching skills also make him a hugely valuable asset. For now, the Braves have him under contract at a bargain salary of only about $300,000 a year. At the end of the 2001 season, when Mr. Rocker becomes eligible for salary arbitration, he’ll likely command millions. In a trade, Mr. Rocker might be worth several players. To simply release him could amount to throwing away a fortune.

     Yet it wouldn’t be easy to keep the Rocker brand viable in Atlanta, a majority black city and cradle of the civil-rights movement. Turner Field is just a few miles from the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Hall of Fame home-run king Hank Aaron, an African-American, is a Braves senior vice president and an influential Atlantan. He had publicly blasted Mr. Rocker’s comments. The civil-rights coalition attacking the Braves had deep ties to the city’s black power structure. The group was led by one of the mayor’s closest political allies, as well as an up-and-coming young city councilman and one of Atlanta’s best-known black pastors.

     Messrs. Kasten and Schuerholz decided to engage them directly, and agreed to demands for a face-to-face meeting. The coalition, led by 33-year-old City Councilman Derrick Boazman, went into the meeting hoping "to leave them with the impression we are willing to do whatever is necessary," he says. At the beginning of the confrontational, one-hour session, the councilman made clear that they wanted Mr. Rocker’s head on a platter: "We said, `This guy needs to be out of baseball.’"

     To the surprise of Mr. Boazman and others, the Braves executives reacted calmly. Mr. Kasten, known in Atlanta for his skill in negotiating for new major-league sports facilities in the early 1990s, simply asked where he should sit and started talking.

     "I’ve got a whole bag of negotiating tricks. But that wasn’t the day for it," Mr. Kasten says. "We believed these people had been hurt. They were speaking from the depths of their hearts."

     Mr. Kasten talked about his family history and how personally offended he was by Mr. Rocker’s remarks. But he insisted that punishment of Mr. Rocker was up to Major League Baseball, and that firing the player would only hurt the whole team. If anything, he said, a trade would be the best option for everyone.

     The coalition didn’t buy it. "It became very clear they wanted to get something for him," Mr. Boazman says. But the coalition leaders liked Mr. Kasten. Throughout January, Braves officials met repeatedly with the group. Except for canning Mr. Rocker, the Braves went along with most suggestions — such as putting the entire team through diversity training, which team officials say they were already considering.

     "He’s very smooth," Mr. Boazman says of Mr. Kasten. "I think he understood the gravity of the situation and why we were upset by hearing Rocker’s comments and then seeing the Braves trying to rehabilitate this cat."

     Still, the outrage was building. On Jan. 3, Mr. Boazman won approval of a City Council resolution condemning the statements and urging the Braves to act. Under intense pressure to take some kind of action, the baseball commissioner three days later ordered that Mr. Rocker undergo psychological testing before his punishment was determined. A new round of stories followed, in hundreds of newspapers and broadcasts, exploring whether Mr. Rocker’s alleged racism could be "cured" through psychiatry.

     The day after the order that Mr. Rocker undergo a mental evaluation, Mr. Boazman’s group held a news conference to denounce it, saying the player’s problems weren’t "in his head but . . . his hate-filled heart."

     "That’s the kind of player we don’t need in this city," Mr. Boazman said.

     Watching the news conference on television that night was Andrew Young, hero of the civil-rights movement, former Atlanta mayor, ex-congressman and former ambassador to the United Nations. Mr. Young was recuperating at home from prostate-cancer surgery.

     "I was laying around the house, dragging a catheter around," says Mr. Young, 68. "There they were, ranting and raving on television."

     As a lieutenant of Dr. King, Mr. Young’s role often was to enter towns after other activists had begun agitating and then strike a peaceful accord with local leaders. "Our success in the South has been in converting racists, not condemning them," Mr. Young says. "We always worked to give our opponents a face-saving way out."

     Irritated, Mr. Young called the editorial-page editor of the Atlanta Constitution and asked if the newspaper would publish his views on the Rocker situation. "I took sides with him because I thought he was more integrated in his lifestyle than either the press, the league management, or the blacks who were criticizing him," Mr. Young says, referring to ethnic minor-league players who at times had lived with the Rocker family. "I resented all these people pushing on this kid who lost his temper."

     As for Mr. Rocker’s antipathy toward New York, Mr. Young says he can understand. "The fans in New York spat on him, poured beer on him, threw batteries at him and then they asked him what he thought of New York," Mr. Young says. "More baseball fans probably agree with Rocker than disagree about New York."

     In the op-ed column, Mr. Young, an avid sports fan, argued that everyone reacts with fear and insecurity to unfamiliar cultures. Recalling his own rough treatment at the hands of the New York media while at the U.N. a quarter century ago, he said that pressure from the New York press and the loss of the World Series had probably affected Mr. Rocker’s judgment. He argued that the player should be given a chance to redeem himself in Atlanta.

     The article blindsided other black leaders. Because of Mr. Young’s elevated place in the civil-rights pantheon, his absolution of Mr. Rocker ate deeply into the leverage the more fiery critics of the Braves had over the organization. "I’m not going to second-guess Andy," says Mayor Campbell. But when an intermediary later tried to set up a meeting between Mr. Young and the coalition, Mr. Boazman says his own first response was, "Go to hell."

     The day after Mr. Young’s article was published, Mr. Rocker’s father, an executive at Georgia Farm Bureau Insurance Co., got a call at the office. It was Jack Ellis, the new mayor of Macon, John Rocker ‘s hometown. He had been elected in the summer, Macon’s first African-American mayor. A few weeks before the invective-laced article came out, Jake Rocker had bumped into Mr. Ellis while shopping at a T.J. Maxx store. Mr. Rocker had congratulated Mr. Ellis on his election, and said he would have voted for Mr. Ellis if he could have. (Mr. Rocker lives just outside Macon.) Mr. Ellis had said he would like to meet John Rocker the next time he was in town; Jake Rocker had said he’d arrange it.

     Now, Mr. Ellis informed the elder Mr. Rocker that he had been contacted by ESPN, the cable sports network, seeking comment on the controversy. ESPN’s Peter Gammons was already in town to tape the first interview with John Rocker since his comments had been published.

     Mr. Ellis said he wanted "some reassurance" that the quotes didn’t reflect John Rocker ‘s true feelings. Based on their chance encounter at the clothing store, Mr. Ellis told the elder Mr. Rocker, "I can’t believe you raised a son who believes things like that."

     Mr. Rocker insisted that his son wasn’t racist. The men decided that this was the day for Mr. Ellis to meet John Rocker.

     Jake Rocker headed to City Hall. By the time he got there, a throng of reporters already had gathered. Mr. Rocker and the mayor sneaked out the back and headed for Mr. Ellis’ house. Separately, John Rocker and his two sports agents were whisked to the home. "It was something like 007," Jake Rocker says.

     Sitting in Mr. Ellis’ living room, the pitcher apologized. The mayor asked what he could do to help. The Rockers suggested that a meeting with Atlanta’s Mayor Campbell might ease tensions. Mr. Ellis said he would arrange it.
In his interviews that day, Mr. Ellis denounced Mr. Rocker’s statements, but said he believed the ballplayer wasn’t racist. "We do not embrace his views, but we have to continue to embrace John Rocker ," Mr. Ellis said.

     The next day, the mayor picked up the phone. It was the Rev. Jesse Jackson, calling to praise Mr. Ellis’s approach. "He thought it was the best way to handle the situation," Mr. Ellis recalls. "Basically, love the sinner but not the sin."
As it turned out, Mr. Ellis couldn’t arrange a meeting with Mr. Campbell. The Macon mayor told the Rockers that his Atlanta counterpart was traveling. In truth, Mr. Campbell refused. "I declined to talk to Rocker," Mr. Campbell says, comparing the player’s statements to support for the Confederate flag flying over the statehouse in South Carolina and on the state flag of Georgia.

     As a fallback, Mr. Ellis called Mr. Young and asked if he would meet with the Rockers. Mr. Young readily agreed and suggested that perhaps Hank Aaron would be willing to participate as well.

     John and Jake Rocker showed up at Mr. Young’s home in Atlanta the next morning. Soon, media helicopters were hovering overhead. Inside, Mr. Young advised Mr. Rocker to be more careful in his public comments, and gave the Rockers copies of his two books.

     Then Mr. Young called Mr. Aaron, who suggested that the whole entourage travel out to his suburban BMW dealership. They were soon on their way, reporters and helicopters in tow. Mr. Young rode shotgun in John Rocker ‘s shiny new silver Corvette.

     In an office off the showroom, Mr. Aaron met with the young pitcher for an hour. "I was trying to figure out what made him an angry young man," Mr. Aaron says in an interview. "They could have lined him up against a wall out here and shot him, or strung him up. But next year you’re going to have another Rocker. . . . I was trying to figure out why every year another person like this surfaces."

     According to Mr. Aaron, the young pitcher said little, other than that he had been misunderstood, as the Hall of Famer recounted stories from his early days in baseball, when white crowds jeered viciously and threatened his life. In particular, he recounted visits three decades ago to the small baseball stadium in Mr. Rocker’s hometown. At least once, Mr. Aaron had to be pulled from the lineup in Macon, when a hail of rocks being throw at him from behind the outfield fence became dangerous.

     "I could have walked away from there hating everybody in Macon or hating every white person I know," Mr. Aaron says he told Mr. Rocker. "But Dr. King said you judge a person by his character not his color. I couldn’t go around hating people for the rest of my life."

     Afterward, Mr. Aaron said he wasn’t very satisfied with Mr. Rocker’s responses but that he could "forgive" the player. It was a tepid endorsement, but headlines around the country proclaimed that the legendary Braves player — as well as Mr. Young — had rallied to Mr. Rocker’s defense.

     Two weeks later, Mr. Selig, the baseball commissioner, suspended Mr. Rocker until May 1, fined him $20,000 and ordered him to undergo sensitivity training. It was one of the harshest player sanctions ever handed down, and came despite direct lobbying by Mr. Young against Mr. Rocker’s being severely punished. Mr. Rocker, through the baseball players’ union, promptly appealed to an arbitrator.

     By then a new public backlash had begun. E-mails and letters to the Braves had turned 180 degrees in support of Mr. Rocker’s right to speak his opinions. Comedians joked that whatever the pitcher’s racial views, he described New York subways accurately. Many people said Mr. Rocker was being excessively criticized, particularly given that he hadn’t used racial epithets — such as the `n’ word — in his published remarks.

     In February, during a two-day hearing on Mr. Rocker’s appeal of his suspension, Mr. Boazman and six others from the minority coalition were called to New York as witnesses. Mr. Kasten, who had urged the pitcher not to appeal his penalty, helped arrange Mr. Boazman’s appearance. Oddly enough, the Braves and those who had been the team’s fiercest opposition were now on the same side; both wanted the original punishment to stick.

     But piped in by speakerphone on behalf of the pitcher was Mr. Young, who says he told the arbitrator that Mr. Rocker’s words were "dumb but not racist." The pitcher had been the "victim of a good journalist," he added. "That could happen to any ballplayer." He urged that Mr. Rocker be allowed to continue playing for the Braves. "It’s important for him to complete this cycle and get through this in Atlanta."

     On March 1, the arbitrator slashed Mr. Rocker’s suspension to just 14 days and reduced the fine to $500. The pitcher immediately rejoined the Braves for spring training. He was consistently applauded at exhibition games.
Even Rockersucks.com seems to back Mr. Rocker now. The site is choked with messages supporting Mr. Rocker’s free-speech rights. It also features crudely racist and antigay rants. One posting called for Mr. Rocker to be elected president.

     In a brief locker-room interview on the last day of spring training last month, Mr. Rocker wouldn’t discuss the events of the past four months. He called it "a mockery of journalism" that reporters still ask. "There is no story. There is nothing new," he says. "The fans are cheering. That’s what matters."

     Mr. Boazman, the young city councilman, plans no pickets for tonight’s game. He says he’ll mow his yard instead.

(Copyright (c) 2000, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

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