Fans cheer for Rocker not as hero, but as underdog

On Baseball

March 19, 2000|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Controversial Atlanta Braves relief pitcher John Rocker took the mound to a standing ovation the other day. The record crowd that showed up at Disney's Wide World of Sports to see his 2000 exhibition debut greeted Rocker so enthusiastically that it was difficult to tell he is one of the most reviled men in America.

More reviled than Rae Carruth, the football player accused of conspiring to gun down his pregnant girlfriend. More reviled than Ray Lewis, the Ravens star who is accused of participating in a double homicide.

Indeed, Rocker has been vilified in the national media more than either of them for his intolerant diatribe against gays, immigrants and minorities. He didn't murder anyone, but he ran afoul of the forces of political correctness -- a crime punishable by media overkill.

Which brings us back to the strange scene at the Braves spring training facility, where more than 10,000 fans cheered Rocker unabashedly. No doubt, the friendly reception will be viewed in some quarters as another sign that we still live in a racist, intolerant world, that millions of underground John Rockers applaud and embrace his mean-spirited remarks.

Maybe there are, but the standing ovation probably is more an illustration of the instinctive American tendency to rush to the defense of the underdog. Rocker clearly is viewed by many as the victim of an out-of-proportion media frenzy.

Rocker insisted that it was just an extension of the "support" he has received from fans since the firestorm of media criticism that erupted after his infamous interview in Sports Illustrated. Hopefully, he will not view it as an endorsement of the opinions he expressed.

The real test will come during the season, when Rocker tours all the major-league cities. Chances are the fans will be less "supportive" in the Northeast and downright belligerent in New York -- the focus of his verbal attack. It will be particularly interesting to see what kind of reception he gets in Atlanta, a city that prides itself as the standard-bearer for a new, more enlightened South.

Boomer backs off

Speaking of outspoken pitchers, Toronto Blue Jays left-hander David Wells came to spring training three weeks ago in one of his moods. He blasted Jays management for trading away Shawn Green and Pat Hentgen, hinted that he wanted to be traded and cast doubt on the club's ability to contend in the American League East.

Never mind.

Wells feels much better about the club now that spring training is in full gear, so he's taking it all back.

"I said a lot of critical things earlier but, now that I've looked at these guys, I think we're pretty good," Wells told reporters last week. "We've got so many young kids and we've all got to work together but, if everyone stays healthy, this is gonna be a lot of fun. We've probably got the best staff in the league all these young arms throwing 95-plus. Hey, I used to do that.

"But, you know, I speak my mind freely -- and loudly. I put myself in a situation and I hope I get to eat my words I hope they come back to slap me in the face. I did ask for a trade when they got rid of Pat and Shawn and I still think they needed to get a pitcher to replace Pat -- so what if he had a bad year, Pat's awesome -- but I guess I was pretty much wrong."

Opening salvo

San Francisco Giants second baseman Jeff Kent returned to action Wednesday and quickly reminded everyone why he is -- when healthy -- one of the most dangerous hitters in the National League.

Kent, sidelined for much of spring training with a rib injury, made his exhibition debut Wednesday and launched a mammoth home run over the center-field screen at Scottsdale Stadium. It was the first time anyone had hit one out to center since Jose Canseco in 1992. Mark McGwire also hit a memorable homer in the same direction in 1988.

Obviously, Kent isn't comfortable being mentioned in that company, as evidenced by his sarcastic reply when someone tried to make that connection.

"You tell McGwire and [Sammy] Sosa I'll be right on their tails," Kent said after the game. "I've worked so hard. I'm going to go hit 71 homers, then I'm going to catch my very own ball, sell it for $5 million and retire."

Spring fever

The Oakland Athletics entered the weekend with baseball's best exhibition record, but they understand that a good record in the Cactus League is more important for public relations and marketing than it is an indication of the true quality of a team.

"Last year with the Royals, we had the best record in spring training, and we ended up losing 98 games," said outfielder Jeremy Giambi. "Spring training can be deceptive, but everyone knows we have a good team. We've got a lot of proven guys in the big leagues and we're playing like it early. That's always good."

Real good. The A's batted a combined .319 and averaged more than 10 runs a game through the first two weeks of the exhibition season.

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