John Rocker

Eleven Years after the infamous <i>Sports Illustrated</i> interview, the former Braves pitcher is still looking for relief.

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.”

John Schuerholz, the Braves’ general manager at the time, took the highly unusual step of reading a statement from a player. The remarks, which Rocker says were an accurate representation of his feelings at the time, concluded, “I have let my emotions get the best of my judgment . . . Even though it might appear otherwise from what I said, I am not a racist . . . Everyone makes mistakes, and I hope everyone can put this aside and begin with a fresh start in the 2000 season.” Rocker made it harder to move on when he had an altercation with Pearlman at a Braves game the following June, resulting in a weeklong demotion to the minors.

Pearlman remembers it this way: “Yanks were visiting Atlanta. I volunteered to go, because I knew at some point I had to see him again. I’m walking through the bowels of the stadium to the Braves clubhouse. I hear a voice, look up. He’s standing outside the clubhouse in street clothes. He looks at me and says, ‘You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting for this.’ He spins his cap backward, gets in my face, jabbing a finger into my chest. ‘Do you know what you did to me? Do you know what you did to my family? Do you have any idea what I can do to you?’ I thought he was going to hit me. I stayed quiet and let him vent. I was nervous, but I understood his need to go off. He deserved the chance to yell or scream or debate or whatever.”

“I can’t lie,” Rocker says. “I did yell at him. I asked him why he would intentionally do what he did to me. I asked him if he knew how much damage he had done to my family. He never attempted to apologize for the suspension he caused me, for the death threats I was receiving, for the fact that my parents were asked to not come back to the church that my family had attended for over fifteen years . . . the friends I lost, the image that will never be repaired. After everything he did, he was still looking for more. I yelled at him for maybe fifteen seconds, and like the slime that he is, he immediately went and tattled on me to a couple radio commentators. . . He was probably hoping that I would punch him and then what a grand story he would have to tell.”

Rocker was raised Southern Baptist in Macon. He planned to attend the University of Georgia on a baseball scholarship, but the Braves drafted him in 1993, before he’d attended a single class. So he traveled, playing ball. When he left at eighteen, he’d hardly ever been out of the South. He lived in Oregon for a summer, playing there. Then Arizona, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico. “I gained a unique perspective from that traveling.” He even learned a little Spanish, though it’s rusty.

Approaching middle age, Rocker is not exactly what you expect—or maybe, guiltily, hope to find. He doesn’t come across as racist, nasty, unintelligent. He smiles widely, shakes hands firmly, laughs easily. You may believe that some of this is calculated, the strategy of his publicist. The banner of his website shows him by turns cradling a kitten saved from starvation (“you could feel every bone in her little body”), standing over a kid in a wheelchair, and smiling under an NYPD cap. He has a long-term girlfriend who’s a “triathlete and a mom.” According to Nixon, an African American, he’s a good friend and a nice guy: “Like a brother, or a son. He came to the Majors looking like he thought he owned half the locker room; he did and said things I didn’t agree with, but he’s grown. I told him the other day that I’m proud of him. He’s finally getting past that article. He wants to give back. If you get to know him, you’ll get to know the person that you didn’t know. My wife loves him.”

Rocker describes himself as politically moderate now. “On a lot of issues, I’m middle of the road. I’m pro-abortion. I’m left on some things. On immigration, I’m right. But I wouldn’t say I’m a staunch red guy.”

Lately he’s backed off his so-called Speak English campaign, a “misunderstood” effort broadcast on “People have tried to tie it into the racist overtones that Sports Illustrated created, that Speak English is biased, bigoted. Coming to America, if you want to truly realize why you came here—for a better life, better opportunity for your family—the only way to do that is to speak English.” When he was in Puerto Rico, he spoke Spanish. “I was trying to endear myself to the people of the country I was in. I was trying to lend myself to their customs and their traditions. If you come over here and you plan on taking your roots here, the least you can do is learn English.” He turns from the glare of the sun. “It does nothing but help you and your family, and it shows me that you have some respect for me and for American heritage, which I appreciate.”

For reasons he won’t go into, the campaign has “fizzled” and Speak English shirts are no longer for sale on his website, which still offers links to articles titled “Moral Poverty Cost Blacks in New Orleans,” “Sharpton: Caught on an FBI Surveillance Tape Discussing a Cocaine Deal,” and “Why Are There No Italian Muslims” (a video). Rocker stopped updating the site a few years ago, he says, but when the book comes out, it will “get an overhaul.” Rocker’s reputation may take longer to mend.

In January of 2009, he was ejected from the grand opening of Buckhead’s W Hotel, for verbally assaulting Steak Shapiro, sports-talk host of 790 The Zone. “I saw him staring me up and down,” Shapiro said to the AJC. “I told him, ‘John, let’s be civil here; that was all a long time ago.’” Shapiro, like many others, had been critical of Rocker in the wake of the SI story. “He told me, ‘It wasn’t that long ago, mother [expletive].’ And right away, he pulled out the ‘Jew’ card.” Rocker remembers events differently—that Shapiro attacked him: “I was approached by someone, unprovoked, who verbally attacked me. I did retaliate with a nice little string of insults, none of which were directed at the fact that he is Jewish. I would swear on my father’s grave to that. A close friend of mine, who happens to be Jewish, was standing right there with me.”

Whatever happened, Rocker’s old friend Nixon admits that Rocker can still have a temper: “I watch him hit a golf ball 320 yards, and then the next one he shanks, and he screams, ‘AAAHHHH!’ And I say, ‘John, this is a golf course, not an MMA [Mixed Martial Arts] fight.’”

And then there’s John Rocker the real estate professional. He gets up around 9 a.m., or “when my eyes feel like it.” He has breakfast—maybe a three-egg omelet and some oatmeal—watches Fox Business “to see what’s going on in the financial world,” and checks his little yellow notebook. Today its main items relate to an apartment deal that Southern Boys Development—which also employs former Falcons Doug Johnson and Keith Brooking—is working on: a 254-unit spread in Crestview, Florida, worth some $22 million. Southern Boys is based in Dothan, Alabama, with offices in Atlanta and Gainesville, Florida. They buy, develop, and sell real estate in lower-middle income markets, mostly in Georgia and Florida. Rocker specializes in townhome and apartment developments, such as the one in Crestview. “To pull off a deal like that in this horrible lending environment,” he says, “took some juggling.” There were some sleepless nights, but it’s seven months into construction. “It’s nice when you can go out and see a raw piece of dirt and know how to design it, finance it, build it.”

Real estate started out as an “interesting project” for Rocker, who had some developer friends while he was playing. He got involved in a few deals, but after retirement, things picked up. “Next thing you know, I have six different developments and eighty to ninety million dollars out there. It’s not a part-time thing. It’s ten hours a day. I go to sleep and wake up thinking about it.”

Is his name a hindrance in the real estate world? “I haven’t experienced that yet. I guess that would depend on where a deal was. I’d likely get a far different reception building in Hoboken, New Jersey, than I’ve gotten with all my deals in the Southern states.” Early on, the biggest obstacle wasn’t the name recognition; it was the stereotype that came with being a former professional athlete. “It took a while to show experienced real estate people that I was a serious developer and actually knew what the hell I was doing.” Gary Coursey, an architect who frequently works with Rocker on land planning and construction, calls him a friend and a talented businessman: “He’s real good at personable relationships.”

Rocker’s day usually ends around 6 or 7 p.m., though sometimes he gets calls as late as 8:30. Sometimes from nonfans: “I’ve had people sell my phone number to people who just wanted to call and harass me at home.” He watches a Seinfeld rerun, goes to the gym, and is asleep by midnight. He feels fortunate to have played for Cox, alongside Andres Galarraga, Javy Lopez, and Nixon; to have lived his baseball dream, even after it darkened. He misses the instant satisfaction of sport—the easy outs—and the “fellowship with teammates.” But he’s happy to be mostly gone from the spotlight. He goes out occasionally, maybe to a private table at the Buckhead Bottle Bar, or Tongue and Groove.

Most days, a few strangers say something to him—usually positive, or at least neutral: “‘Hey, you’re John Rocker!’ Yeah, that’s me.” At the Dunkin’ Donuts, however, no one does. After an hour, Rocker leaves, and two middle-aged women sitting nearby say they thought he was important: “Maybe a wrestler?” The cashier inside—a young man who appears to be of Indian descent—just saw yet another big white guy. When told this later, Rocker suggested, smiling, that he was “probably more of a cricket fan.”

So has John Rocker changed at all in the last eleven years? It’s tempting for an optimist to think so. A few days before our interview, Rocker was hanging out with Nixon, dispensing precisely the sort of advice you wouldn’t expect from a staunch defender of free speech. “Otis was trying to talk to Boy Scouts or something,” says Rocker. “He wanted a joke.” Leo Mazzone told Nixon an inappropriate one. “I said, ‘He can’t use that.’ ‘Oh, it’ll be fine,’ Leo said. ‘No, it’s not going to be fine.’ I told him that.”