He has a particular style and plays the American pastime with great gusto. When signaled by his manager to enter a game from the bullpen, he explodes on to the field and races to the mound as if eager to be about the task of snuffing out the rally and saving the victory for his team. He is an exciting player who baits and encourages animated responses from the crowds in his opponents' ball parks. The byplay between the people in the stands and this pitcher helps us to understand that the term "fan," used to designate sports spectators, is derived from the world "fanatic."
In the National League championship playoff series in 1999, these emotions reached a boiling point. It was a bitterly contested, best-of-seven series that pitted Rocker's Atlanta Braves against the New York Mets. Atlanta won the first three games and seemed to have a commanding lead.
But the Mets fought back to narrow the series to 3-2. The crucial sixth game that might even the series was tense and hard-fought and went into extra innings.
The Mets fans and John Rocker obviously had no love for each other. A loud chorus of boos had greeted his appearance from the bullpen in every game. He had responded in kind with profanity and gestures to the stands. That response was exacerbated in this crucial sixth game when Rocker gave up the tying run and had to be taken out. Finally, however, in the eleventh inning when the Mets pitcher walked in the winning run, the Braves advanced to the World Series.
The Rocker behavior then faded and was remembered only as a bit of spice in a remarkably exciting year of baseball.
John Rocker, however, did not cool down.
Perhaps he forgot that baseball is just a game. But his grudge remained deep and volatile, and it was destined to become quite destructive.
At least a month after the season ended John Rocker was interviewed for a story in Sports Illustrated. He was still chafing over his treatment by the fans. Perhaps the fact that the Braves lost the World Series in four straight to New York's other team, the Yankees, heightened his emotions.
In this article his venom was spewed out, not just at the Mets, but on all the people of New York City. In the process he revealed a mind and heart of overt bigotry, racial prejudice, and an insensitivity to his own boorishness. From the interview, it appeared that the only people Rocker really likes are those who look and act like himself.
There was an immediate reaction to this interview. The venerable baseball elder statesman, Hank Aaron, now an Atlanta Braves executive, expressed an anguish that these racist attitudes have not yet been expunged from the public consciousness. He also suggested that Rocker would have a lot of explaining to do to his own teammates, especially those who are black and Hispanic.
There were the usual calls for Rocker to be expelled from baseball. Had he been only a journeyman player that would, in all probability, have been his fate.
But Rocker is good. He is a left-handed, hard-throwing pitcher with remarkable control.
"I'm a redneck, not a racist" was one of his many offerings.
The baseball commissioner, Bud Selig, ordered him to be tested psychologically. It was a peculiar directive, carrying with it the suggestion that some emotional need might be distorting Rocker's rationality. It was reminiscent of the early Communist government which placed into psychiatric units those who could not adjust to the new Communist thinking. Even John Rocker's father, seeking to aid his son's cause, said that "one insensitive comment doesn't make you a racist."
It was a nice try, but Papa's comments revealed that he understands prejudice no better than his son. Rocker's comments were deeply revealing of Rocker's mindset.
Racism is not an occasional insult. Racism is the inability to see a human being outside the definitions of your own prejudice.
Rocker's comments revealed that racism is alive and well inside his mind. He bemoans the foreigners who, in his opinion, are taking over this country. He does not embrace the fact that his family once was listed among the foreigners that this land has absorbed. He seems blissfully unaware that race, gender, nationality and sexual orientation are givens in life, not chosens.
To hate, minimize or denigrate people on the basis of their being is what this sin of racism means. Racism is itself a disease of the soul that must be rooted out over a lifetime of conscious effort.
Rocker has not yet begun that process. Indeed, he is still unaware of the need to begin.
Rocker will learn a hard lesson that may well have a salutary lifetime effect on this young man. He will learn that his racism is no longer tolerable, funny, acceptable or popular. He will learn that outside what he calls his "redneck" community where, I gather, such attitudes are still commonplace, a new world is being born. Neither he nor his attitudes will be part of that new world.
Racism is still practiced in a variety of insidious ways, but it is no longer socially acceptable. That means it is finally dying in this country, even in the backwoods communities of the South that produce the John Rockers of the world.
There is good news in the Rocker episode.
The attitudes he articulated would in the South of my childhood have been applauded at worst and a non-issue at best. That was the South of the 1930s, which was marked by clear signs on toilets and water fountains saying "colored" and "white."
It was the South of segregated schools, where "separate but equal" was the claim we made in an attempt to make our delusions believable. It was the South of segregated churches and the Ku Klux Klan, both of whom quoted verses from Holy Scripture to prove that "race mixing" was condemned by the word of God. It was the South where people argued with straight faces that God had ordained that Africans must live a life of servitude since they were the descendants of Ham and Canaan, Noah's son and grandson upon whom God's curse had been set when they looked upon his father's nakedness (Gen. 9:18-28).
The fact that John Rocker can utter his distorted ignorance and discover that he is not approved, that he is so deeply out of step with his world that someone actually thinks he needs to undergo a psychological evaluation, is a powerful indicator of progress.
Racism is no longer a social norm. It can no longer live in our crude jokes, our offhand slurs, or our conversational wisdom. No, racism is not yet dead, but it has been driven underground. In that hiding place racism must contend with the fact that it is no longer acceptable to reveal it publicly, so it must be contained before it finally dies.
John Rocker's sin was to make overt what our society has tried to keep covert. He was not smart enough to play the race game.
I think Rocker's career is over. It will not be his 14-day suspension, a mere tap on the wrist, that does it, however. His career will end because his racism is too deep to be easily expunged and his I.Q. is too low to keep it hidden.
He will be an emotional burden for any team to carry. Crowds eager to prove that they are free of racism will abuse Rocker in every city in the League. He will react. His emotions will betray him. His pitching will be affected. He will become an asterisk in baseball's history, little noted nor long remembered.
Others will go to school on Rocker's experience, and racism will be driven further and further from our consciousness.
In a strange way, Rocker will have helped. This spring, as baseball season gets underway, the Sammy Sosas, Derek Jeters, Pedro Martinezes and Ken Griffey Jrs of the baseball world will be back enhancing their Hall of Fame careers. They are all of African or Hispanic ancestry. Would anyone swap one of these giants for John Rocker? Obviously not.
Atlanta's pitching staff still does not have a stopper. But racism is clearly on its way out.
Thanks, John Rocker, for making that so obvious.