Wednesday, April 8, 2015
April 8, 2015: Baseball Lives: John Rocker
[As I’ve done each of the last couple years, an Opening Day series—this time focused on AmericanStudying some particularly interesting baseball identities. Leading up to a special Guest Post on a particularly important baseball life!]
What the three distinct and even contradictory stages of John Rocker’s public disintegration reveal about contemporary American sports and society.
As a lifelong Atlanta Braves fan, I was, in the fall of 1999, a John Rocker fan as well—Rocker was the young relief pitcher with the near-100 mph fastball who had blazed onto the scene during that season, helping the Braves reach the World Series in the process, and it was hard not to like the kid (despite, or perhaps even partly because of, his over-exuberant mound presence and antics). And then came the December 1999 Sports Illustrated profile piece, an article on Rocker’s extreme personality and perspective that included some of the most bigoted and disgusting quotes (about New York City, about one of Rocker’s own Caribbean American teammates, and more) I’ve seen outside of an anonymous internet comments thread. The article tore away any pretense that sports or America were free of old-school bigotry and hatred (such as that faced by the subjects of Monday’s post, Hank Greenberg and Jackie Robinson) at the turn of the new millennium.
Rocker was suspended by the Braves for a good bit of the next (2000) season, but during that same period a second, very different and even contradictory set of stories and narratives about Rocker began to emerge. The stories focused in particular on his parents and home, and on their experiences taking in fellow minor leaguers of multiple races and ethnicities to live with John and his family during his time in the minors. Inspired in large part by those stories, prominent local African American leaders like Andrew Young (a Civil Rights hero and generally inspiring American) intervened on Rocker’s behalf with the media and the Braves, and helped get him both reinstated from his suspension and (to a degree) more balanced news coverage. Both the stories of Rocker’s family and the efforts of men like Young suggested new, cross-cultural communal relationships and identities in America, ones that might indeed represent changes from the kinds of divided pasts that Rocker’s comments had so echoed.
Rocker went on to a brief and undistinguished career with the Braves and a couple subsequent teams, but the real third stage of his American sports life and narrative has unfolded in the years since his retirement. With a book on not just his career but also his social and political views (seriously) to publicize, Rocker has begun speaking out again, and in so doing has admitted not only to using steroids in the 1999 and 2000 seasons, but to Major League Baseball having tested him and known about (and thus covered up) his steroid use. The story indicates in part that Rocker has not learned from his prior experiences the value of holding back, although I suppose this time his honesty is at least as self-critical as it is generally belligerent (not expecting to say the same about Rocker’s book, Scars & Strikes , if I ever have the time and desire to read it, but I’ll try to keep an open mind). But this third stage in Rocker’s baseball life also reminds sports fans that the true outrages of baseball at the turn of the 21st century were not the bigoted beliefs of individual athletes, but the widespread and dangerous deceptions in which even far more well-spoken and admirable players played an equal role.
Next baseball life tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Baseball lives or stories you’d highlight?