JEFF PEARLMAN

Coming October 2022: "The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson"

Penthouse

penthouse_-cover

My first-ever Penthouse arrived in the mail today, featuring all the breasts and vaginas one could want. The issue was sent to me because, on page 40, there is an article titled ROCKER AND ME about the 10-year anniversary of my John Rocker piece for SI.

Writing for Penthouse was sorta weird, in that I have a 6-year-old daughter who, should she ever pose for such a magazine as an adult, would be quickly shipped off to Guam (or some other isolated, rock-like land) and transformed into the world’s first Jewish nun. But the editor was great, the pay solid, the experience positive.

Anyhow, the story was surprisingly fun to write—a release, I suppose.

Here it is …

•

The e-mail has yet to arrive.
Every morning, before I do so much as walk the dog, I turn on the ol’ MacBook to see if my friend—my beloved, long-lost friend—has responded. We have much to catch up on, after all. In the 10 years since we first met, he has gone from top-of-the-world Atlanta Braves closer to Saturday Night Live punch-line to hapless journeyman to SPEAK ENGLISH advocate to accused steroid user to, well, nothingness. His website, once chock full o’ enrapturing news (“John Rocker joins host committee for Georgia Transplant Foundation!”), hasn’t been updated since May 12, 2005. His ORDER GEAR link comes up blank. A Google News search turns up nada.
I know, for a fact, that John Loy Rocker still exists, in that people who keep in casual touch with the 35-year-old Norcross, Georgia resident have told me he isn’t dead. And yet, every e-mail I send goes unreturned; every olive branch I extend comes back snapped in half.
What’s a guy to do?
I long to reach out to John Rocker because, well … uh, I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps it’s because, in some circles, I’m known as the writer who ended his career—a seemingly terrible burden to carry. Or, maybe, having been so inextricably linked, I’m genuinely curious. Where is he? What has he become? How is he handling life? Most likely, however, I want to talk John Rocker because, after all these years, I feel sorry for the man. Yes, he is a racist. And a homophobe. And an anti-Semite. And, quite frankly, the biggest dumb-ass I’ve ever met (and I’ve interviewed Milton Bradley). But dumb-asses shouldn’t suffer for an eternity, should they?
Even John Rocker.
•
We first met on October 12, 1999, when the New York Mets traveled to Atlanta to face the Braves in Game One of the National League Championship Series. Dick Friedman, my boss and Sports Illustrated’s baseball editor, told me that the magazine was interested in an in-depth profile of Rocker, Atlanta’s 25-year-old closer/crackpot. Throughout the regular season, during which he saved 38 games while compiling a 2.49 ERA, Rocker had established himself as one of the game’s most reviled figures. He cursed at fans, talked shit to opposing players, snarled and grunted and hissed with the aplomb of an elite WWE heel. In other words, he was fascinating. “I want to know who the real John Rocker is,” Dick told me. “Find out what makes him tick.”
Over the ensuing five days, that’s exactly what I set out to do. Though the media throng was thick and burdensome, I followed Rocker from the clubhouse to the field to the bus to the bathroom, tossing out scattered questions whenever possible. Because I had a quick deadline, I didn’t have the chance to dig too deeply. But I sat down with several teammates, and spoke on the phone with Jake and Judy Rocker, both of who insisted their son was badly misunderstood. “We once had a dog that John loved,” Judy said. “When it died, John cried like a baby. That’s the kind of person he is.”
Hence, that’s the kind of story I submitted—a passable-yet-formulaic/banal John Rocker-isn’t-as-bad-as-you-think 1,500-word profile. Yet when the Braves were swept by the Yankees in the ensuing World Series, the piece was put on hold. A month later, I was told to fly to Atlanta and spend the day with Rocker. “Freshen it up,” Dick told me. “See if you can get anything else out of him.”
Uh, yeah.
In our afternoon together, Rocker was—what’s the word?—crazy. Within the first half hour, while driving en route to a charitable appearance for a school for disadvantage children (his agent forced him to attend), Rocker spit on a toll booth, flashed his middle finger at a trailing car and railed against female Asian drivers. Shortly thereafter, he called a black teammate, first baseman Randall Simon, a “fat monkey,” ripped nearly every imaginable ethnicity and unleashed an anti-New York diatribe that, a decade later, still generates nearly 1,000 Google hits: “Imagine having to take the [Number] 7 train to the ballpark, looking like you’re [riding through] Beirut next to some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids.” All the while, I had my tape recorder running and a notepad in plain sight. Twice, Rocker told me things off the record (Alas, enough time has passed to reveal the bombshells: Rocker thought Mets manager Bobby Valentine occasionally acted silly, and he liked beer.). In other words, this was no set up.
Because it wasn’t my goal to pile on, I never actually never used two of the day’s most valuable gems. First, as soon as Rocker’s girlfriend exited the car, he called his other girlfriend (“You know how it is, bro,” he gushed. To which I thought, “No, I don’t.”). Second, at one point Rocker turned to me and said, with 100-percent sincerity, “You ever been to Disney World?”
“Sure,” I replied, “when I was a kid.”
“Well,” he said, “you know all those dudes who dress as characters—Mickey and Goofy and Donald?”
“Sure. Of course.”
“Well, they’re all fucking faggots. Gay faggots.”
•
The article, titled, “At Full Blast,” appeared in the December 27, 1999 issue of Sports Illustrated. If there is one moment I’ll never forget, it was when I called Joe Sambito, the retired Houston Astros reliever who was working as Rocker’s agent, to give him the heads-up.
“Heeeyyyyyy Jeff, great to hear from you,” Sambito wailed. “So was John as awesome as I told you he’d be?”
“Well, Joe,” I mumbled. “He sorta said a few things.”
Lengthy pause.
“Oh, crap,” Sambito said. “Oh, crap.”
Indeed. In the following days, Rocker was transformed from irritable-yet-insignificant ballplayer to the new face of American Hitlerism. Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton, running for the vacant New York senatorial seat, issued competing statements of condemnation. Hank Aaron, the legendary Braves slugger, said he was “sickened” by the remarks. Groups like the AIDS Survival Project picketed outside Turner Field. ROCKER’S THE FOUL MOUTH OF THE SOUTH, screamed the headline in the New York Post. Under pressure for myriad groups, Major League Baseball suspended Rocker for much of 2000 spring training, as well as the first 14 games of the season.
Oddly, at the same time peers repeatedly congratulated me for such a big story, I was miserable. Throughout the league, players and coaches treated me as a leper. Will Clark, the Orioles’ loud-mouthed first baseman, chewed me out in front of the entire team. The media relations director for the Los Angeles Dodgers told me not to bother entering their clubhouse. Kerry Wood, the Cubs hard-throwing righty, stared me down and said, “No way I’d ever talk to you.” There were whispers and taunts; threats and rants. Here I was, living my dream job, only it had become a nightmare.
When, in early June, Sports Illustrated needed someone to cover the Yankees-Braves series in Atlanta, I volunteered, knowing that, in order to move on, I’d eventually have to face Rocker in person. It did not go well. I was walking through the bowels of the stadium, heading toward the Braves clubhouse, when I heard a familiar voice growl, “You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting for this.” I looked up and saw the 6-foot-4, 225-pound pitcher charging my way. For what felt like an hour, he jabbed his finger into my chest, screaming, “You don’t know what I can do to you! You don’t know what I can do!” When he was finally ushered away by a security guard, I removed my eyeglasses, which were coated with John Rocker spittle. Ah, if only eBay had been around back then.
For Rocker, it was the beginning of the end. He pitched moderately OK in 2000, but midway through the following season—his psyche ruined, his velocity decreasing due to a bum left shoulder—he was traded to Cleveland for two forgettable pitchers. That year was actually the last time we ever saw one another. I was working on a profile of the Texas Rangers at the same time the Indians came to Arlington for a three-game series. When Rocker spotted me in the Cleveland clubhouse, he whipped out one of those yellow disposable cameras and trailed me around the room, snapping pictures and screaming, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” I was perplexed, but not nearly as much as his teammates, who stared at Rocker as if he had an anus glued to his forehead.
By the end of May, 2003, Rocker was out of the Majors. He tried making a comeback two years later with, of all teams, the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League, but after 23 games and a 6.50 ERA, Rocker called it a career. At age 31, he was finished.
Through it all, I became, unofficially, The Rocker Guy. I couldn’t go a week without someone asking me to tell the story. I would be introduced as parties as “the dude who got Rocker.” One day, I opened my mail to find a letter from Judy Rocker, John’s mom. In it, she compared me to Jesus Christ—“two Jews forced to make difficult choices.” She lambasted me for ruining her boy’s life, and asked me to keep the note between us—before typing on the bottom of the page, “CC: Frank Childs.” (To this day, I do not know who Frank Childs is, only that he gives me liberty to share the letter).
Though, in the immediate aftermath of the Sports Illustrated article, Rocker admitted to being quoted accurately, through the years his story has changed. He was misled. I took things out of context (By “Fat monkey,” he merely meant … something else). I was a Jew with an agenda.
Yet, for some reason, I never got especially angry. Since the story ran, my life has steadily improved. I met my wife and had two wonderful kids. I left the magazine for a career in books, and now boast a pair of best sellers. I even like the black and gay people.
Rocker, meanwhile, has had his struggles. His line of SPEAK ENGLISH T-shirts—hyped in an awkward Fox News appearance—quickly fizzled out, and earlier this year he allegedly called an Atlanta DJ a “Jew faggot” in a highly publicized altercation. In a truly tragic moment, in 2007 his father, Jake, died in an automobile accident.
Against my wife’s advice (“Are you crazy?”), I wrote John a note, expressing my genuine sadness. Sure, we would never get along. And sure, he hated my guts. And sure, the article didn’t go as planned. But John Rocker is a human being.
For better or for worse, we are forever linked—the journalist and the athlete, joined at the hip.
Now if only he’d write me back.