This past Memorial Day weekend we went away with three other families to Ocean City, N.J. One night, over dinner, I asked different people for their money stories.
“What’s a money story?” my daughter asked.
“A money story,” I explained, “is the best story you’ve got. The one you tell at parties; at events; when conversation is stilted and everyone needs a laugh.”
With that, the money stories began. One person told of the time, after a hard night of drinking, he found himself stranded and abandoned at a gas station. Another recalled the time she checked her online dating status at a stadium kiosk, only to learn (via chuckles) that her information was being projected on a larger above screen.
On and on it goes.
When it came time to my money story, I didn’t have to think. It’s John Rocker. It’s always been John Rocker. It always will be John Rocker. The most bizarre, unusual, uncomfortable, unique, trippy experience of my life. And, in honor of Rocker ripping me yet again this week to this online newsletter, I’ve decided, hey, why not tell it …
In the fall of 1999, I was a 27-year-old up-and-coming Sports Illustrated staff writer. Though I was on the baseball beat, my main task was to back up the outstanding Tom Verducci. In other words, whatever stories Tom didn’t want/didn’t have time for, I generally got.
This was mid-October, and at the time the Braves and Mets were facing off in the NLCS. Atlanta’s star closer was a kid named John Rocker—hard-thrower, big mouth, sorta wild and crazy, but equally entertaining. My editor, a nice man named Dick Friedman, asked me to write a profile. “Great,” I thought. “A cool opportunity.”
As many sportswriters can tell you, covering the playoffs sorta sucks. It’s crowded, it’s limiting and you’ll inevitably get slammed in the side of your skull by a television camera. The 1999 NLCS was no different. Lots of people, lots of buzz. So, after introducing myself to Rocker after one of the games and explaining what I was assigned to do, I set about doing it. I spoke with him here and there, there and here; utilizing whatever time was allotted. I interviewed a couple of teammates, and also called his parents, Jake and Judy. Come deadline, I submitted what I had—the warm, touching saga of a misunderstood flamethrower who, down deep, was a softie. If memory serves, the piece ended with the scenes of young John, age 8 or 9, carrying his sick (or dead—I don’t recall) dog up some steps, tears streaming down his cheeks.
This was the story I handed in, and this was the story that was scheduled to run … until the Braves were swept out of the World Series by the Yankees.
With that, the piece was dead. No reason to run a John Rocker profile when the Braves were gone. But, a few months later, Dick Friedman suggested I warm the piece up. “Go down to Georgia,” he said. “Find out more about him.”
Sounded good. I called Joe Sambito, the former Major League reliever who now represented Rocker. I asked what he thought about me coming down to hang with Rocker. “Great!” he said. “He’s a great guy! You’ll love him!” Fantastic. Booked a flight and a hotel, flew direct from New York to Atlanta. Rocker told me he’d pick me up outside a mall in Atlanta—which he did. Nice, friendly, engaging—shiiiiittttt! He drove his blue Chevy Tahoe really fast. As we headed down Route 400, we approached a toll booth. He tossed in some money. Didn’t open. Tossed some more. Nope. Then he spit on the toll booth while flashing the guy behind us the middle finger.
It was going to be an interesting day.
Rocker has said and said and said that his words were taken out of context; that, in and of themselves, they sound awful. But that we were actually discussing, oh, foreign policy and race relations and the such. This, of course, is a complete lie. Like, not even close to the close to the close to the truth. He said what he said because he was—and still seems to be—quite stupid. Stupid people call black teammates “fat monkeys,” and berate “queers with AIDS” on the New York City subway. At the time, Rocker was dating Don Sutton’s daughter. He was also dating another young woman. One of his girlfriends (I can’t recall which) was in the car with us. When she left, he called the other.
My favorite moment actually never made print. We were driving around Atlanta—girlfriend in the front seat, me in the back—when Rocker asked whether I’d ever been to Disney World.
“I have,” I replied.
“You know all those characters who walk around the park—Mickey, Donald, Minnie …”
“Sure,” I said.
“Well, they’re all faggots,” he said. “They’re all fucking faggots.”
Uh … OK.
Oddly, upon handing it in, the first thing Dick Friedman (a wonderful man and editor) said to me was, “I’m thinking of running a chart of strikeouts per nine innings. What do you think?”
Uh … OK. Sounds good.
Truth be told, while I debated what to write and what not to write, I never considered swallowing the story. We, as reporters, bust our asses to find the men and women behind the masks and PR shields. We desperately want to get beneath the shell; to find out what makes these people tick and work and operate. John Rocker opened up to me and, while it was probably unwise, it was real. And clearly genuine. This was how he thought, and what he believed. I had, oh, six hours of tape and a loaded notepad to back me up.
On the afternoon the story went to bed, I was taking an elevator with Steve Rushin. I asked him whether he thought the Associated Press wire would pick up the piece. He laughed. “I’d say so,” he said.
That night, I called Joe Sambito to give him a heads up. “The story comes out this week,” I said.
“Great!” he replied. “How was John?”
“Well, uh, he said a few things …”
“Like what, Jeff?”
“Well, he called a black teammate a fat monkey …”
It was one of the most awkward conversations I’ve ever had.
The story, of course, exploded. Everywhere. I remember coming home and finding my answering machine filled with somewhere between 50 and 80 messages (don’t recall the exact number). Radio stations, TV stations. I decided to do no interviews; to let the story speak for itself. Then SI strongly encouraged me to at least appear on New York’s WFAN. So I did.
I’ve always stood by that story—but there are two things I don’t like.
First, the line, “John Rocker has opinions, and there’s no way to sugarcoat them. They are politically incorrect, to say the least, and he likes to express them.” An editor inserted the words, “politically incorrect.” It pissed me off. I wanted to make 100 percent certain not to pass any judgment in the piece; to allow Rocker’s words to speak for themselves. Those words—”politically incorrect”—were judgmental.
Second, I wrote about Rocker speaking to a school for learning-disabled kids. I asked whether he likes doing so and he replied, “No, not really.” This was kicking puppies. Unnecessary.
Rocker was suspended by Major League Baseball. I disagreed with that decision—strongly. If you’re going to allow your 500 employees to speak to the media, you can’t expect all of them to subscribe to political correct blatherings of Happy Interviewing: 101. Rocker was a racist kid from Macon, Georgia. It’s who he was. Not much to work with there.
Anyhow, the following summer the Yankees were heading to Atlanta to play the Braves. Sports Illustrated wanted to cover the series. I volunteered to go. Did I want to? No. Not at all. But, three years earlier, while working for The Tennessean in Nashville, I was a prep sports writer facing a slightly similar scenario. I had written a football piece that had angered some people at one of the local schools. My editor, a good man named Larry Taft, insisted I cover a game there the following weekend. “You need to show your face,” he told me. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Now, heading to Atlanta to see Rocker was the right thing to do. So I went. Spent an unusually lengthy amount of time lingering in the Yankees clubhouse before, inevitably, I took the walk to death to the other side. I strolled through the long hallway, head down, looking at my notebook, knowing the right thing to do but hoping the right thing never transpired.
Oh, it transpired.
“You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting for this.”
I heard the words, looked up and saw John Rocker. He was in street clothes, hovering outside the entrance to the clubhouse. He had a sinister look on his face. Which, certainly, I understood. He thought Sports Illustrated would be trumpeting his greatness. Instead, he had been turned into an SNL punchline.
Rocker spent the ensuing two minutes (felt like 10) in my face, jabbing his finger into my chest, blasting my for ruining his career, his family. He said, “Do you know what I can do to you?”—and I thought, “Yes, beat the living shit out of me.” My only strong moment came midway through, when he said, “I even bought you lunch!”
“Actually,” I said, “I paid.”
“Well, fuck you …”
I’m sure I was trembling. It was scary. And embarrassing. Bobby Murcer, the late Yankee centerfielder-turned-broadcaster, witnessed the whole thing. He actually came up to me and said, “Hey, are you OK?” I’ve never forgotten that. I’ve also never forgotten John Rocker telling the clubhouse security guy that I was banned from the room—a command that somehow shook me from my state of shock. “Oh, no,” I said. “Absolutely not.” Moments later, I made a point of entering. Really, just to say, “Fuck him.”
John Rocker always accused me of running to the media and telling on him. Completely untrue. Murcer wasn’t the only person to witness the confrontation. When I reached the press box, I was in the uncomfortable position of being surrounded by my peers. I thought, if I were in their shoes, I’d want to hear what happened. So I told them. It was awkward and clumsy, and my brother David has never let me forget the words I spoke when George Vecsey (I believe it was George) asked whether I was scared. “Yes, I was scared.” (I had to endure at least 10-straight family Thanksgiving dinners with my brother saying, in a high-pitched voice, “I was scaaaaaarrrrred.”). I also remember some kid who worked in the press box asking me to sign his baseball. I found that strange.
My memory is a bit scratchy here. I don’t think Rocker was suspended again, though the Braves issued a release explaining that I would be allowed in the clubhouse. I actually only ran into John Rocker one more time as a professional. He was with the Cleveland Indians, and I had to interview one of his teammates for a story. I entered the room, and Rocker spotted me. Without saying a word, he whipped out one of those disposable yellow Kodak cameras and followed me around the room, snapping photos at close range. It was annoying and distracting and I asked John Hart, the Indians GM at the time, to help me do my job. He ignored my request.
The low points for me? There were a handful …
• George Magazine ran a piece on Jake Rocker, John’s father. The story was written by Pat Jordan, a fantastic scribe who I have come to admire and like. I got a call from a fact checker, asking me if I had, indeed, baited Rocker by calling the African-American saleswomen in a store a “bunch of n—ers.” I was aghast. Not only had I not used the word in that context; I’d never used the word, period (perhaps except while rapping along with Tupac and Dr. Dre in my car, alone). John Rocker and I had, in fact, stopped at a department store. And it’s certainly possible the women working there were African-American. But the story—second handed, but certainly told by John to his father—was 100-percent false. I made that clear to the fact checker, and assumed they wouldn’t run it. They did. (It’s the only time I’ve ever considered suing anyone in my life).
• The aftermath of the whole whirlwind was not easy. Will Clark berated me in front of the entire Orioles clubhouse. Kerry Wood refused to speak with me. The Dodgers PR guy told me Gary Sheffield had no interest in sitting down with me for a piece (a lie). There were whispers and awkward looks throughout the league. Jim Edmonds was the first ballplayer to really talk to me about it. “That guy’s an idiot,” he told me. “You did nothing wrong.” Again, words I never forgot.
• I received a letter from John’s mother, Judy, that was neither mean nor kind. But it made me truly feel for the woman. There are consequences to writing stories like this. People get hurt—innocent people. It sucks.
I’ve often been asked whether the John Rocker story damaged or helped my career. I’d be full of garbage to say it hurt. Clearly, it gave my name some buzz, and probably led to my first book deal, a biography of the ’86 Mets. At the same time, it set a tone I don’t always like. My last book, Sweetness, was a biography of Walter Payton. It was the most important project I’ve ever worked on, and meant the world to me. However, when some of the less-glowing parts of Walter Payton’s life were evoked, people were quick to bring up that I was “the Rocker guy.” It’s not the only time that’s happened. Not long after the Rocker piece, I wrote a profile of David Wells, then with the Blue Jays. My lede, about Wells’ weight, sucked. It went too long and too far. The point, however, was supposed to be that, despite being large, Wells was an amazing athlete and an amazing pitcher. Because of the whole Rocker thing, I was ripped as a guy looking to destroy athletes. Oy.
Anyhow, that’s my money story. Over the past 13 years, I’ve often felt sorry for John Rocker. I’d make the case that he’s probably not a bad guy; that he’s misunderstood; that we all make mistakes. Truth be told, I think he’s pretty awful. He’s big into the SPEAK ENGLISH movement. He lists Jan Brewer, America’s favorite elected xenophobe, as one of his heroes. He’s said enough mistruths and lies (about me; about that day) to fill a book. Which, in fact, he wrote. I think I’m one of the 15 who purchased a copy. I skimmed through it, grew bored and gave it away. Today, it rests on the free bookshelf in my local Starbucks. A couple of years ago, when his father tragically died in a car accident, I actually wrote John a note. I don’t know why—it was probably stupid of me. But, in some unfortunate way, I’ve always felt like we’re eternally roped together.
Life ain’t fair.