Rocker was in town, and nobody cared

June 30, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

NEW YORK - Went to a riot and a baseball game broke out.

John Rocker pitched at Shea Stadium and lived to tell about it last night, contributing a perfect eighth inning in the Atlanta Braves' 6-4 victory over the New York Mets.

Really, that's all that happened. Four objects were hurled at Rocker as he sprinted in from the bullpen. The fans at Shea booed him and serenaded him with an expletive. But other than that, peace and a pennant race prevailed.

The Braves play three more games at Shea this weekend, and a civic disturbance remains possible. But maybe New Yorkers finally are figuring out that one of the game's best rivalries is more deserving of their attention than a relief pitcher who amounts to so much hot air.

Riding the now-famous No. 7 train to Shea yesterday, it suddenly hit me: Half the people in my subway car didn't know who Rocker was. And the other half didn't care.

In my subway car, people chatted quietly in several languages, listened to music on headphones, even closed their eyes, catching a moment of rest on a hot summer day.

The train left Manhattan, then climbed out of the East River tunnel onto the elevated tracks in Queens, lurching through some of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the city.

Rocker, of course, was nowhere to be found - he took a police van to Shea rather than follow through on his vow to ride the No. 7.

And in my car, no one even mentioned his name.

This was at 2:30 p.m., around the time that Rocker could be found inside the Manhattan offices of the Major League Baseball Players' Association.

Perhaps he visited the union to check on his eligibility date for salary arbitration. More likely, he was getting assistance with the prepared statement he read before last night's game.

Rocker apologized again for his offensive comments to Sports Illustrated last December, apologized three times in a statement that he supposedly wrote in his Manhattan hotel room at 2 a.m.

It wasn't the first time he had apologized, but it probably was his most heartfelt attempt at remorse. Rocker still doesn't get it, thinking all of this is the media's fault. But he's right about one thing: He deserves to be ignored.

"I'm merely a baseball player, guys," Rocker told an intimate gathering of 350 reporters. "In the great scheme of things, my thoughts, opinions and attitudes are of little importance."

Truer words have never been spoken.

And maybe now this sad, ridiculous story finally will end.

The New York Mets showed Rocker's statement on their video scoreboard just before the start of last night's game, and the crowd of 46,998 - nearly 10,000 short of a sellout - responded with a collective shrug.

If anything, the early crowd seemed more upset with former Met (and Oriole) Bobby Bonilla, whose last act as a Met was playing cards in the clubhouse with Rickey Henderson while the team faced elimination by the Braves in last year's NLCS.

"We don't care about Rocker!" one fan screamed, waving an oversized deck of cards as Bonilla took the field for batting practice. "You bum, you cost us the Subway Series last year!"

Bonilla issued a weak retort - something about how the fan paid good money for his seats, and shouldn't risk losing them - then took turns with Rocker bantering with fans in left field. Rocker even shook hands, as if he were running for mayor.

Doesn't anyone get it?

The best retort to Rocker is to deny him the attention he craves. The fans were restrained by New York standards, and maybe now the media will stifle it. Truth be told, most reporters couldn't figure out what they were even doing at Shea.

The assignment was half riot-watch, half idiot-patrol. It had virtually nothing to do with sports. It was, quite frankly, the dumbest thing most of us have ever covered.

Which isn't to say that Jeff Pearlman, the SI reporter who wrote the original story, was wrong to print Rocker's outrageous comments. What Rocker said was news: Any professional reporter would have done the same.

Still, when does it all end?

Why do New Yorkers care what John Rocker thinks? Why do boxing fans continue to pay to watch Mike Tyson? Why are the games no longer enough?

Train-wreck personalities are compelling, from the pitcher's mound to the Oval Office. But sports has disintegrated into one carnival sideshow after another, with only an occasional Tiger Woods surfacing as a genuine article.

Sports today is Anna Kournikova instead of Pete Sampras. Dennis Miller instead of Boomer Esiason. Rocker instead of Andres Galarraga. Tyson-Lou Savarese instead of Shane Mosley-Oscar De La Hoya.

It all hit me again walking off the No. 7 train, something I did many times when I lived in neighboring Nassau County and Queens, but hardly at all since moving to Baltimore in 1987.

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