LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- John Rocker reported to the Atlanta Braves spring training facility yesterday and attempted to cool the lingering controversy that has enveloped him since his mean-spirited diatribe against homosexuals, immigrants and minorities hit the pages of Sports Illustrated more than two months ago.
The embattled relief pitcher arrived less than a day after arbitrator Shyam Das overturned the spring training ban imposed by baseball commissioner Bud Selig and cut sharply into the other disciplinary measures levied for the volatile reliever's comments.
The Braves were waiting in the clubhouse -- waiting for Rocker to explain why he had embarrassed the team and created the unwanted media circus that threatens to disrupt an otherwise upbeat spring camp. He apparently gave the right answers during an intense 30-minute team meeting, because his teammates, to a man,closed ranks around him.
"Our players are willing to give John a second opportunity -- with conditions," said general manager John Schuerholz. "I think he knows what corrections he has to make with regard to wearing an Atlanta Braves uniform."
Rocker was not nearly as enlightening during the latest in a series of well-orchestrated public apologies, this time reading a one-page statement that closely resembled both his initial apology several weeks ago and an open letter to Braves fans that was published in yesterday's Atlanta Journal and Constitution.
"My comments concerning persons afflicted with AIDS, as well as various minority groups, have left people wondering if I am a racist," Rocker read, in a voice devoid of emotion. "I will emphasize that I am not a racist, although I can understand how someone who does not know me may think so.
"Over a three-year period while I was in the minor leagues, my home in Macon [Ga.] was a place where players from different ethnic groups and countries lived for as long as six months and as short as two weeks. My closest friend is a first generation Lebanese, with his grandfather coming through Ellis Island no more than 60 years ago. As you can see, my actions do not support the racist label. My thoughtless words, however, do show that sometimes I lack the understanding to see the problems that other people face. I apologize to all of those my careless and unkind words have affected."
He left the microphone without answering a single question, but grudgingly agreed to meet with a select group of reporters several hours later. If the perfunctory nature of the statement made it difficult to gauge his sincerity, the meeting in the clubhouse removed doubts among his teammates.
"I felt like he was very sincere," said third baseman Chipper Jones. "I've seen him at his best and worse. He seemed a lot more low-key than he usually does. This has affected him and his family very deeply. I think we all came out of there satisfied that we should give him a second opportunity. What he does with that second opportunity is up to him."
That sentiment was shared by a diverse group of teammates, including outfielder Brian Jordan, who had been sharply critical of Rocker before he arrived in camp.
"I have no problem with him," said Jordan, who attended Milford Mill High in Baltimore County. "I'm a Christian. I forgave the guy. Am I going to accept John Rocker in the clubhouse? Yes. Instead of being critical of the guy, I'm going to try to help the guy. I don't know what's in his heart. I hope he didn't mean what he said. He's been through a lot, and he's got a lot more to go through."
Rocker, 25, took responsibility for his poor judgment and said that he still has some growing up to do.
"I've been a little bit on the immature side and have to find better ways of dealing with frustration," he said.
Rocker, who has been vilified by both the media and civil rights advocacy groups, expressed appreciation for the surprising level of support he has gotten from fans in Atlanta and around the country.
"That's what I've been seeing in the polls you guys have been running in Atlanta -- between 75 and 80 percent in my favor in every single poll," he said. "I go out in public and it's people from all walks of life race, color, whatever. They want a picture or an autograph or just to shake hands.
"A black guy at a construction site by my apartment complex stopped me the other day and just wanted to talk. I signed about 20 or 30 hats, and 12 or 13 of the guys were black. It's been like that every single day for the last month."
Even Braves first baseman Randall Simon, who Rocker referred to as "a fat monkey" in the SI interview, called on his teammates to embrace Rocker rather than ostracize him.
"He's my teammate and he's still my friend, regardless of what happened," said Simon said. "He wants to prove to us that he's not that type of person. He has to do a lot of things to make up for what he has done. I think this is the way to start."
Rocker approached his Simon's locker and apologized for the comment, which he has contended was tongue-in-cheek. Simon accepted the apology and a lunch invitation.
Someone jokingly asked Simon who was going to pay the tab. "I'm going to pay," he said, "just to show him that I'm still his friend."