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Off His Rocker?
By Stephen Lehman

"I'm not a racist or prejudiced person, but certain people bother me." —John Rocker, Atlanta Braves closer, December 27, 1999 issue of Sports Illustrated

"My comments concerning several different groups have left people wondering if I'm a racist. I"m not a racist, although I can understand how someone who did not know me could think that." —John Rocker, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 1, 2000

Weighing in on the embattled Braves pitcher at this late date may strike some as shooting fish in a barrel or kicking a man when he's down, but I assure you I have no intention of kicking or shooting anyone or anything. I'm just as interested in the reaction of the media and the fans and Organized Baseball to Rocker's bigoted Sports Illustrated interview (SI vol. 91 no. 25) as I am in the comments themselves, and a recent turn of events—Rocker returning to face his teammates in spring training after an arbitrator halved the suspension imposed by Bud Selig—left me wanting to better understand the man at the center of this maelstrom, to try to figure out what led him to his misanthropic weltanschauung and what was going on in his brain at the time of the interview.

I haven't seen much discussion of that in the tidal wave of condemnation following the SI article. No one seems particularly interested in who Rocker really is; everyone seems content to just take Rocker's comments and outrageous, self-created cartoon media image at face value and fire away from there. Unfortunately, not even the man himself seems too interested in self-examination. Beyond his strange and, needless to say, unconvincing protestations that he's not a racist, he has shown only a very limited capacity for self-awareness. In a brief statement published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he claimed his actions and upbringing are inconsistent with being labeled a racist and gave a few examples of non-racist behaviors. He said nothing, however, about the quality of his thinking, which is where racism really resides, and he chose not to discuss at all whether he's a misogynist and homophobe, both mantles his SI comments certainly qualify him to wear. This leaves one to wonder if he is still unaware of the full extent of the bigotry that oozed from that interview or whether he's simply unrepentant on those counts. We may never find out; no one seems interested in asking him the question.

And that's too bad. It's an interesting question, I think, because professional baseball has always been notoriously and shamefully anti-woman and anti-homosexual. The dismissal of AAA umpire Pam Postema on the verge of making the big leagues and the periodic attempts to prevent women sportswriters from doing their jobs are just two examples. The fact is, big time athletics at all levels have fought inclusion of women tooth and nail over the years and, in some cases, continue to do so. In the seventies, it took a Supreme Court decision to open up Little League to girls. Some men's college athletic departments still see Title IX as little more than some vast conspiracy to cripple men's sports—just ask University of Minnesota wrestling coach J Robinson, who recently tried to get a statement to that effect included in a meet program and then had his wrestlers pass it out as a flier when the university balked at the idea.

As for gays, how many current major leaguers can you think of who have been willing to admit they're homosexual? None. How many ex-major leaguers? Damn few. Do you think that's because there are none? Former umpire Dave Pallone was run off the job for coming out, and nobody said a word. His book came and went with no comment from Organized Baseball. Is it credible to think that baseball suddenly cares about the sensitivities of gay people now? There can be little question that homophobia is even more rampant in baseball than in the society at large, and that, my friend, is saying something.

So Rocker will not be pilloried about his bigotry in those areas. No one in baseball seems ready to take on those shameful long-time traditions. For women and gays, 1947 is still apparently a long way off, and Rocker and/or his advisors obviously know it. That's why he's chosen to focus solely on the issue of whether or not he's racist. And everyone seems perfectly content to let him.

So let's look at the issue of racism, since that's all the media has chosen to do. I must confess Rocker's comments on foreigners reminded me of the narrator in Albert Camus's novel The Stranger:

On the day of my arrest they put me in a biggish room with several other prisoners, mostly Arabs. They grinned when they saw me enter, and asked me what I'd done. I told them I'd killed an Arab.

What do you call that kind of behavior? Brash? Arrogant? Just plain stupid? All of the above? One of the most astonishing things about Rocker's comments was exactly this apparent naiveté about his own situation. Playing on a team (and in a league) with a large number of foreign-born players, he says, "I'm not a very big fan of foreigners. . . . Asians and Koreans and Vietnamese and Indians and Russians and Spanish people and everything. . . . How the hell did they get in this country?" Playing on a team (and in a league) with quite a few African-American players, he argues that Latrell Sprewell got off light in his attack on coach P. J. Carlesimo solely because Sprewell was black. Did he expect to convince his black colleagues that in fact they've been getting all the breaks all these years because of race preferences in their favor? What in the world was Rocker thinking?

I think commentator Mark Russell may have come closest to the truth when he suggested that perhaps Rocker simply confused his venues. If he'd said the things he said on talk radio or in the middle of a wrestling ring, either no one would have noticed or else critics would have been told to loosen up, can the PC crap, and get a life. Racism, homophobia, and misogyny are rampant in those media subcultures and are regularly reinforced by both the programmers and the consumers there. It's possible that no one would have noticed had he vented himself in such places. But Rocker chose a mainstream magazine with a massive circulation in which to air his thoughts, and it couldn't be ignored or rationalized away. It had to be faced. So how have we faced it?

Bud Selig condemned the comments in general, ordered him into sensitivity training, fined him $20,000, and suspended him for forty-five days of spring training and the first twenty-eight days of the regular season. Firm and decisive. But what was Rocker being punished for? Offending the sensibilities of others? Being a poor role model for children? Dishonoring baseball? Bud, never much of a philosopher, suggested all of the above in a scattershot defense of his actions, but the rationale behind a policy of restricting a ballplayer's speech on non-baseball subjects during the off-season has never been clear, and it doesn't take a Constitutional scholar to see that it smacks of a serious violation of basic first Amendment rights.

Mark Bradley of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution simply said, "Get rid of him," whatever that meant. Others were more specific: release him from the Braves, ban him outright from baseball, trade him to the Expos, baseball's version of a gulag. As I write this, on-again/off-again talk of a trade to Montreal persists. I must confess, the irony of such a transaction makes this option most appealing. Given his comments on his dislike of foreigners, wouldn't it be interesting to have Rocker playing in another nation (Canada) with his fate entirely in the hands of manager Felipe Alou, who was born in the Dominican Republic?

Sportswriter Bob Klapisch, however, suggested that Rocker should be first and foremost impelled to face his teammates, and in the end that is exactly what ended up happening. And therein lies an object lesson worth paying attention to.

On March 2, a reportedly humbled John Rocker, apparently near tears, stood in the middle of the Atlanta spring training clubhouse in Kissimmee, Florida, and begged his teammates to let him play baseball with them. He spoke to them for about ten minutes expressing regret for his comments and trying to explain how it happened. Teammates and coaches expressed their anger and dismay. They reportedly demanded that he exhibit sincere remorse and regret and that he take responsibility for the damage his comments had done to their relationships, to the team, and to the game. Randall Simon, whom Rocker had called a "fat monkey," asked Rocker to clearly state his true feelings about his Latin teammates. (Rocker met with Simon privately to apologize as well.) And this was perhaps the best question of all, since, again, bigotry resides not in what you say and do but in how you choose to think and feel about others. Klapisch was right; Simon and the other Braves, it seems to me, finally asked the right questions and got things moving on the right track. An offense against one's community can only be made right by going back into that community, acknowledging error, making amends, and trying to learn something that can translate into healing and growth. Only by restoring the community to wholeness can there be anything like justice, and this can only happen when the offender faces both the victims of his offense and the demons in his own heart, and tries to set things right.

In the movie Gandhi, there is a powerful scene in which a Hindu man, caught up in the anti-Muslim rioting and maddened by the murder of his family, tells of finding a Muslim child and smashing his head against a pole. The man tells the Mahatma that he knows he is destined for Hell as a result of his act, but Gandhi, though deeply saddened by the tragic tale, tells the man he knows a way out for him. He instructs the man to go find a Muslim child who has been orphaned by the rioting and then raise that child as his own. There is only one caveat: the Hindu man must raise the child as a Muslim.

Extending ourselves beyond what we may think are our limits in understanding others is simply the only way out, for John Rocker and for all of us. The clubhouse meeting was a beginning, but I'd like to expand on the prescription for justice in this case. I'd like to suggest that next Mr. Rocker meet patients dying of AIDS in, say, St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village. I suggest he spend time listening to their stories, hearing about their suffering, perhaps massaging their feet or serving them in some other way. Then perhaps he could tour a Korean or Vietnamese or Latino neighborhood in Manhattan, meeting the people, hearing about their day-to-day lives, their heritages, their hopes and fears for the future. And finally, I'd prescribe that Mr. Rocker do another SI interview, this time about what he has learned about his fellow travelers on this planet of joy and sorrow and error and redemption. If he could do these things, I contend there would be nothing left to say about the ill-fated interview he gave last year. And then he could just go out and play some ball—with all the different kinds of people that happen to make up a baseball team.


STEPHEN LEHMAN is editor of Elysian Fields Quarterly.


This column first appeared in EFQ 17:2, Spring 2000

© 2000 Stephen Lehman


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