John Loy Rocker is basking in the sun outside a Dunkin’ Donuts on Mount Vernon Road in Dunwoody, just down the street from his 7,000-square-foot, three-story stucco home. “Nothing obnoxious, but nice enough,” he says of the place. “Perfect for a single guy.” He’s wearing designer jeans, a black muscle shirt, black Armani loafers, and Maui Jim sunglasses. His smartphone sits in front of him on a patio table, silent. Rotating his chair a few degrees, he tries to make sure the sun is evenly hitting his large face, which is framed by longish, brown hair tucked behind his ears. He sips his coffee carefully, legs crossed in the sophisticated manner, looking almost . . . European.
No one says hello, or giggles, or shouts at him. This is good. This is progress.
He’s come here from a lunch date with his old pal and locker neighbor Otis Nixon, fifty-two, another infamous former Atlanta Braves player (center field; cocaine and alcohol problems) with a second act (runs an addiction recovery program; has a doctorate in divinity). After this, Rocker will return to real estate duty for Southern Boys Development—“I gotta get in touch with my civil engineer, get the downspouts drawn up on a property”—then go home to touch up his forthcoming, self-published memoir, John Rocker: Scars and Strikes, co-written by a “liberal guy from Canada” and due out in June. The book, he says, is a mixture of baseball and politics, as well as some of his “philosophy and feelings.” Rocker describes it, with momentary restraint, as “how the conversation would have gone had that writer gotten it right.”
Eleven years ago, Rocker spent seven hours with that writer: Jeff Pearlman, a Sports Illustrated reporter who came to Atlanta to get to know the eye-bulging, teeth-gnashing, bullpen-to-the-mound-sprinting closer who’d managed thirty-eight saves—good for fourth best in the Majors that year—in just forty-five opportunities. They drove around the city, talking—as Pearlman believes Rocker saw it—“like two white guys in a car.” The opening scene of Pearlman’s now infamous December 1999 story is not easily forgotten: Rocker calling the driver of a car blocking his Chevy Tahoe a “stupid bitch,” shouting “fuck you” to the honking car behind him, and spitting disgustedly at a Georgia 400 coin collection machine. All while on the way to speak at a school for learning-disabled children—even though he tells Pearlman he doesn’t really like talking to kids. And that’s just the first two paragraphs. He goes on to call a teammate a “fat monkey” and disparage, stereotype by stereotype, the various riders, real and imagined, of New York City’s No. 7 train.
The Chicago Tribune’s reaction was par for most of the country: “The face of racism in America suddenly belongs to a twenty-five-year-old left-handed pitcher.” The fact that he was from Atlanta only helped reinforce the case, made elsewhere, that the South is still backwards, bigoted, and most likely chock-full of John Rockers.
Today Rocker is thirty-six but remains every chiseled ounce of the six foot four, 240 he was during his pitching career (he’s since admitted to having used human growth hormone, for medical reasons), if not bigger. He works out for an hour or so six days a week, often with a couple of buddies at the LA Fitness on Mount Vernon Road. He can bench-press 315 pounds and hit a golf ball as far as Tiger Woods. (He avoids running long distances: “My big donkey-ass doesn’t need to be running himself around.”) Nonetheless, Rocker is dwarfed by his own reputation. “I think my perspectives have been skewed over the years. I don’t think they come across quite as harsh in the full conversation in my book.” The book is his attempt to move on from the singular cataclysm of his life—to focus on other aspects of his character, and his quixotic journey—while simultaneously getting the final word on that fateful drive down 400. The Sports Illustrated saga left a big chip on his enormous shoulder.
Not surprisingly, Rocker doesn’t talk much with reporters anymore: “I’ve sworn off doing print interviews” for the past four years, he says. He did, though, let us review a draft of his book’s first chapter. The only disparaging word in its thirteen pages, which earnestly chronicle the day leading up to his World Series debut in New York City against the Yankees, is reserved for the pregame clubhouse reporters. Rocker uses a widely accepted, species-specific slur for them: “piranhas.” Again, progress.
Whether the SI piece was a “cut-and-splice job” as Rocker claims, in which the writer selectively quoted the ballplayer to fulfill an agenda—to wit, destroy him—or was, as Pearlman says, simply “a portrait of Rocker as Rocker,” the story came to largely define the pitcher. The Braves traded their ascendant closer following the next season, after his control of both temperament and trajectory waned. He exited the Majors within three years, petering out with the minor league’s Long Island Ducks in 2005. He says his left shoulder did him in, but many wondered about the psychological effect of Pearlman’s story, which spawned savage Saturday Night Live skits and Facebook groups such as “John Rocker sucks more than any other American EVER!” A somewhat forgiving Salon article was titled, “Mark Fuhrman in Cleats?”
Rocker says his team was supportive after the piece came out: “Bobby [Cox] was very encouraging. He was always in your corner, or gave the impression that he was. If it was a bad game or a personal issue you were having, like I did, Bobby took your side on it.” At spring training the following March, Cox was business-as-usual about Rocker, whom MLB ordered to sit out the first two weeks of the season, pay $500, and undergo sensitivity training: “It’s just another pitcher pitching for us,” Cox told the AJC. “It may not appear that way to some people, but that’s the way it is.” Eddie Perez, who caught for Rocker in batting practice, was also matter-of-fact: “When he throws a bad pitch, he gets mad. We don’t want him to change when he’s pitching. We want him to be the same guy we knew from last year and two years ago.”
In a column titled “Dump Rocker in a New York Minute,” the AJC’s Mark Bradley was less forgiving. He repeated the phrase “get rid of him” eight times, concluding, “Better to lose with dignity than win with a lout.” Outfielder Brian Jordan (“he put his foot in his mouth”), pitcher Tom Glavine (“he dug his own grave”), and pitching coach Leo Mazzone spoke at length on 790 The Zone, none defending Rocker. “He’s gonna go out and blow himself out,” said Mazzone. “One of his teammates might punch him out. Something is gonna go wrong now with his career. And you watch: It’ll end up going straight down the tubes.”