Nearly 15 years have passed. Which—as anyone who has watched one-and-a-half decades fly by can attest—is weird and confusing and a bit jarring.
Over the course of that span, I've written for Sports Illustrated, left Sports Illustrated, written for Newsday, left Newsday. I've published six books. I got married, bought a house, had two children. I've seen friends and relatives die, other friends and relatives experience weddings, bar mitzvahs, christenings. Highs, lows. Ups, downs.
And yet, through it all, he remains there—looming, hanging, wandering around, tweeting angrily, aggressively and irrationally.
There is no escape.
We are eternally attached.
John Loy Rocker will always be a part of my life. And, I suspect, vice versa.
We first met on the afternoon of Oct. 15, 1999. It was in the hours leading up to Game 3 of the Braves-Mets National League Championship Series at Shea Stadium, and Dick Friedman, the baseball editor at Sports Illustrated, had assigned me to write a piece about a soon-to-be 25-year-old Braves closer with a sinking 95 mph fastball and a wicked slider.
At the time, the left-hander was deemed as much curiosity as future star. He'd saved 38 games in the regular season while striking out 104 batters in 72.1 innings. Yet he was also a circus sideshow—talking smack to opponents, motioning toward fans, gesticulating after particularly big strikeouts. Atop his shoulders sat an unusually large head, supplemented with bulging eyes and a tongue that, when extended, stretched for miles.
"Let's do 1,500 words," Dick told me. "Get it done by week's end."
I approached Rocker and asked if he could spare some time. "Sure," he said warmly. We spent, oh, 20 minutes chatting in the cramped visiting clubhouse, and over the ensuing days I grabbed 10 minutes here, 15 minutes there. He was engaging and friendly and, I believed, relatively intelligent.
I called his parents, Jake and Judy, who were both effusive in praising their son's big heart. I spoke with a couple of teammates—Terry Mulholland, Kerry Ligtenberg—and they seemed to like him well enough. As with all developing pieces, a narrative was beginning to form—John Rocker: Misunderstood Baseball Star.
When I sat down at my computer to write the story, what emerged was the heartwarming saga of a young man whose harsh image didn't line up with reality. Here was a Macon, Ga., kid pitching for his local team; a kid who—thanks to hard work and unique doggedness—was living his dream.
I included the phrase, "Don't believe everything people say," and concluded with a moment his mother shared with me: Young John, just a boy, carrying his dying dog up the steps toward the house, tears streaming down his cheeks.
"Nice job," Dick told me. "We'll run it shortly..."
Shortly, alas, never came. The Braves reached the World Series, played terribly and were swept by the New York Yankees. Magazines generally don't run profiles of players immediately after their team gets crushed.
The John Rocker story died.
Before I continue, let's talk about guilt.
I am a man who always feels guilty. I feel guilty about missing one of my kids' school events. I feel guilty about not filling the car up with gas. I feel guilty about forgetting to walk the dog, about not making the bed, about asking a Starbucks barista to top off my decaf.
I felt guilty about John Rocker.
It's true. Even though the article that ultimately ran helped boost my career to new heights. Even though I've been told—repeatedly—I did nothing wrong. That reporters report. That writers write. That I did my job.
On occasion, I found myself wishing I'd never received the follow-up request from Dick; the one, a month or so after the conclusion of the 1999 major league season, where he suggested we reach out to Rocker's representatives and see if the story could be revived and freshened up.
At the time, though, there was only excitement. I was barely 27, an unknown, low-level baseball writer fighting to work my way up the Sports Illustrated masthead. Earlier that season, in a particularly mortifying moment, I'd identified myself to Jim Fregosi, Toronto Blue Jays manager, only to have him bark (before a room filled with reporters), "I have no idea who you are."
That was my lot in the baseball media world—a nobody backup to the excellent Tom Verducci, anxious to gobble up any crumb assignments. John Rocker happened to be one of the crumbs.
After Dick gave me the go-ahead, I called Joe Sambito, the former Houston Astros reliever who worked as one of Rocker's agents. I introduced myself and told Joe that I'd like to spend some one-on-one time with his client. He was euphoric. "Great!" he said. "He's a great guy! You're gonna love John!"
We arranged a time and date. I would fly down to Atlanta and spend a December afternoon with Rocker, who was slated to speak to students at Lockhart Academy, a K-12 school for children with learning disabilities. This sort of thing happens all the time in media relations: The smart agent seeking quality publicity for a client has him followed by the press to a church, to a homeless shelter, to a school...to as non-threatening an environment as possible.
I met John outside a shopping mall. I'm not sure why. He was driving a blue Chevy Tahoe, and—upon pulling to the side of the road—greeted me warmly. "Cool to see you again, Jeff," he said. "Hop on in."
This would be terrific. Me. The Braves closer. A day of chatter and lunch and...
Jesus Christ. The man was driving fast. Really fast. We jumped onto Route 400, heading north, and before long John slowed for a tollbooth. He tossed in some money—and the bar didn't rise. He tossed more money—the bar still didn't rise. A loud honk emerged from the vehicle behind us, prompting John to roll down the window, stick out his left hand, flash the middle finger and scream, "F--k you!" Then, in what was surely a first for athlete-journalist interactions, he hocked an enormous loogie at the machine.
Somehow, the bar eventually rose.
We soon found ourselves behind a slow-moving, erratically controlled beige Toyota. "Look at this idiot!" he growled. "I guarantee you she's a Japanese woman. How bad are Asian women at driving?" We pulled even with the vehicle. The driver was white.
Over the course of the next 20 minutes, as we headed to Lockhart's campus in Kennesaw, Ga., Rocker told me he preferred to not do this sort of thing. But the school had called, and his image needed some work, so...Hey. Why not?
When we arrived, John was fantastic. The Braves regularly played Twisted Sister's "I Wanna Rock" when Rocker entered the game, so the Lockhart administration purchased the band's Stay Hungry CD for the occasion. When the pitcher was introduced, the song blared loudly—and the students jumped and clapped and cheered. It was a beautiful scene, one that made me think, perhaps, my initial positive impression of John Rocker from back at Shea remained the correct one.
Then, as we exited the school, Rocker palmed the CD.
It's true. He grinned, said, "You don't mind if I grab this..." and took Stay Hungry. Again, a first for athlete-journalist interactions. Shortly thereafter, John and I stopped at an Atlanta strip mall for lunch at a sandwich shop. As we walked down the sidewalk, his pen slipped from his hand to the ground. I picked it up and said, "Hey, you dropped this."
He stared at me for a moment. "Nah," he said. "I did that on purpose."
The day got weirder. We picked up John's girlfriend. When she exited the car, he called his other girlfriend. At one point, with Girlfriend I in the front passenger seat and me sitting in the back, John asked if I'd ever been to Disney World.
"Sure," I said.
"You know all those characters who walk around the park?" he said. "Mickey, Donald, Minnie?"
"Yeah," I said. "I do."
"Well, the people who dress up in the outfits are all f-----g f----ts, man. They're all f-----g f----ts."
Later on, as we drove from there to here and here to there, John filled me in on some of his social takes, referring to Randall Simon, his black teammate, as a "fat monkey" and making it clear he was no fan of the Big Apple ("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 kids. It's depressing.")—even though he knew the city was my home.
Come day's end, John dropped me back off at the mall, shook my hand and said, "Hey, that was fun."
I'm not exactly sure how I responded. Maybe I nodded. Maybe I grinned. The one thing I recall: When he pulled away, I phoned my mother. "I'm in Atlanta," I told her. "And you're not gonna believe what just happened…"
In the weeks, months and years after the Sports Illustrated story ran, John Rocker and co. repeatedly accused me of having an agenda. In a Deadspin interview from 2006, Rocker said, "When people have an agenda, that's all that matters. Jeff Pearlman is who he is: A liberal Jew from New York."
Truth be told, upon returning to New York I struggled mightily with what, exactly, I should do with the interview. The words were all right there, on multiple tape recordings that covered our full time together. He was a bigoted, xenophobic caveman, and I felt no need to protect a person with such beliefs.
Rocker has maintained, on multiple occasions, that the quotes were pieced together and/or taken out of context. This is 100-percent untrue. When Rocker first made the case, I said I would play the tape for him. He never responded.
And yet...he was also young. And dumb. And naive.
Maybe he'd been showing off for a reporter. Maybe this was his way of playing the role of John Rocker, WWE superstar. Maybe I should have cut him a break. Hell, there was a story already written—John Rocker: Misunderstood Baseball Star.
Then, one afternoon, I started thinking about something that happened four years earlier, when I was living in Nashville and writing for the daily newspaper. My best friend was visiting from Maryland, and we spent a night out on Main Street, hitting up a couple of bars. At one point we squatted on the curb, and a local singer I'd once profiled stumbled upon us. "Jeff," he said, "you look like a homeless guy down there on the sidewalk." Pause, and a motion toward my pal—"You've even got the black guy to make it look even more homeless-like."
As the singer walked away, I seethed—and uttered nary a word. I just sat there, feeling embarrassed and powerless and meek. I kicked myself 1,001 times for that. Saying nothing wasn't merely saying nothing—it was, by virtue of my silence, supporting his take. I told myself that would never happen again.
Hence, I decided that John Rocker warranted no protection. One of the hardest parts in interviewing celebrities is getting them to open up and leave behind the scripted message. Here, in the ugliest of terms, a man had opened up. Why would I throw that away?
So I hunkered down before my computer and wrote what, shockingly, became the easiest story of my career. The imagery was right there—John and I driving up 400. John spitting on the tollbooth. John at the school. His words were crisp and raw, but they carried the piece. I needed not do any heavy lifting. Some narratives write themselves. Here was Exhibit 1A.
"A minivan is rolling slowly down Atlanta's Route 400," the story began, "and John Rocker, driving directly behind it in his blue Chevy Tahoe, is pissed…"
Three funny things about what became known as "the Rocker story."
1. The piece ran in the final Sports Illustrated issue of the century—which included, arguably, the biggest undertaking in the magazine's history. Bill Colson, the managing editor, wanted to compile a list of the top 50 athletes of the 1900s for every state, coupled with 50 different covers. The daunting (and truly awful) task of finding and ranking the athletes fell upon three of us—myself, Steve Cannella and Mark Bechtel.
We spent weeks digging through the massive Sports Illustrated library, looking for, oh, three more athletes from South Dakota, or a No. 50 to fill out Delaware. When the project was completed, the publicity department—for the first time ever—outsourced some of the marketing effort, convinced that hundreds upon hundreds of interview requests would besiege the office. In the wake of Rocker, there was one 50-athlete request—from an AM radio station in Utah.
2. On the day before the story was scheduled to appear, I found myself in a Time & Life Building elevator with Steve Rushin, the magazine's star writer. I asked Steve whether he thought the Rocker article would be picked up by the Associated Press wire. He laughed at me. "Jeff," he said, "you have no idea..."
3. Also on the day before the story was scheduled to appear, I called Joe Sambito. "Hey, Jeff!" he said. "How'd everything go?"
"Um, the story's coming out tomorrow," I said.
"Great!" said Joe. "What'd you think of John?"
"Well," I said, "that's why I'm calling. He said a few things..."
"Oh, God. What?"
On the day the John Rocker story ran, I was out with Jennifer Wulff, my friend and fellow journalist. I don't recall what we did, but I'll never forget returning to my apartment and being greeted by a flashing red answering machine light. When I pressed the button, I heard this: "You have 73 messages."
Name a TV or radio station—any TV or radio station. They all called. Could I spare five minutes? Could I come to the studio? Was I available to talk? Today. In an hour. In two hours. Whenever I had time.
Dating back to my days at the The Tennessean in Nashville, I was taught—rightly—that journalists write the stories, they don't become part of the stories. At the urging of the magazine's publicity department, I did but a single interview, with someone from WFAN. Otherwise, I kept to myself and watched the madness.
And it was madness. The New York tabloids carved Rocker up. Commissioner Bud Selig suspended him for 73 days—the first time a baseball player had been disciplined for a speech issue. Rocker was fined $20,000 and ordered to undergo sensitivity training (an arbitrator later cut the suspension to 14 days and the fine to $500).
On Saturday Night Live, Will Ferrell—clad in Braves jersey and cap—did a spot-on impersonation ("The Braves and white people rule!"). At the time, Hillary Clinton and Rudolph Giuliani were running for New York's open U.S. Senate seat, and both issued statements condemning Rocker.
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. The Braves wisely distanced themselves from the pitcher, denouncing his words and insisting the organization didn't agree.
Before long, I began receiving letters (this was in the final stages of people actually applying pen to paper). Some said I was right, and my article just. Most said I was vile scum of the earth. Who was I to take advantage of a kid? Surely, John Rocker had been misquoted and/or misunderstood.
The most interesting piece of mail came from Judy Rocker, John's mother and a woman understandably trying to defend her son. She likened my plight to another young Jew (this one with a virginal mother) who faced difficult morality choices.
The first time I knew the John Rocker story would impact my ability to cover Major League Baseball came the following February, when I entered the spring training clubhouse of the Baltimore Orioles. While leaning against a table toward the front of the room, I was approached by Will Clark, the team's veteran first baseman and a noted loudmouth.
I'd interviewed Clark once before, during his time with the Texas Rangers, and when I asked whether his foot hurt he barked (ferociously), "I broke my f-----g foot!" This time, Clark noticed my press credential was turned backward against my shirt.
"Why's your pass turned over?" he asked.
"Oh," I said. "You're right."
I flipped it over. Clark leaned toward me and read the small writing.
"Jeff Pearlman?" he asked.
"Jeff Pearlman! Jeff f-----g Pearlman!" Clark's cackle filled the room.
"Jeff f-----g Pearlman! Now why the f--k would anyone in here want to talk to you? Why the f--k would we wanna talk to you, after what you did to Rocker? Why?"
This was awkward.
"No wonder you have your pass backward, you f-----g coward! Nobody here is ever going to talk to you. No f-----g way!"
"Did you have a problem with the way I wrote that story?" I asked (dumbly).
"Are you kidding me?" Clark replied. "Are you f-----g kidding me?"
It was only the beginning. Even if Rocker were a bigoted xenophobe in the relatively diverse world of professional sports, he was—first and foremost—a ballplayer. That meant protection from peers.
A few days after the Clark incident I walked through the Tampa Bay Devil Rays clubhouse and heard the whispers and snickers. In Arizona, Chicago Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood refused to speak with me. One player who I was friendly with told me—straight up—I was persona non grata in stadiums across the league.
I was assigned to write a piece on Gary Sheffield, then with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but was told by the team's media relations director that the slugger had no interest in chatting. This shocked me—I'd always had a good relationship with Gary. I went to L.A. to give it a try, and he was fantastic. The publicist simply didn't trust me.
Until that point in my career, I'd always worn a backward Kangol hat while covering events. I didn't particularly like the look, but—as a magazine writer who came and went sporadically—I thought it would help players remember me (indeed, Ken Griffey, Jr. used to habitually greet me with "There's the hat!"). Suddenly, the hat was a flashing neon sign—WARNING! RAT APPROACHING!
I was the rat.
In the fall of 1996, during my final weeks as a staff writer at The Tennessean, I was asked to cover a high school football game between Goodpasture Christian and David Lipscomb. The quarterback for Lipscomb played terribly, a point I made clear in the next morning's newspaper. "The Mustangs' David Kirkau, meanwhile, had an up-and-down sort of day," I wrote. "As in, his passes either went up too high or down too low."
That afternoon, The Tennessean's switchboard was overloaded by angry calls. I was taken aback—then taken aback even more when Larry Taft, my editor, assigned me to cover Lipscomb's next game. When I asked Taft whether it was his goal to have me hung from a goalpost, he sat me down for one of the most important lessons of my brief career. "You always show your face after a story like that," he told me. "It's the professional way to be."
Nearly four years later, in the summer of 2000, I sat in a Sports Illustrated baseball meeting, Larry Taft's words echoing through my brain. The Yankees were traveling to Atlanta for a June interleague series, and Dick Friedman thought it was a worthwhile cover.
"I'll do it," I said with an under-my-breath glub. "I'll do it."
Four days later, on June 4, I found myself in the bowels of Turner Field, here to chronicle a three-game series but, really, here to face a very large (6'4", 210 pounds), very angry man who, we later learned (via the Mitchell Report and his own admissions), was likely juiced out of his mind.
I spent the first hour or so at the stadium inside the visiting clubhouse, where men like Derek Jeter and Tino Martinez brought me no worry. Eventually, though, I decided I needed to at least make an effort to enter the Braves' hemisphere. I put my head down and slowly...deliberately...nervously walked toward the opposite end of the tunnel.
Did I want to see John Rocker? Not really. Did I want to be able to say I went to see John Rocker? Yes. I shuffled along...closer...closer...closer. I pretended to read from my notepad, just to pass the time and ease the angst, when...
"You don't know how long I've been waiting for this."
The words hung there. Nearly 15 years removed, I can still hear them. I looked up, and standing outside the Atlanta clubhouse was Rocker. He was dressed in street clothes and a baseball cap. As he approached, I knew I was in for something special.
Rocker spent the ensuing two minutes (it felt much longer) in my face, jabbing his finger into my chest, blasting me for ruining his career, his family. He said, "Do you know what I can do to you?"—and I thought, "Yes, beat the living tar out of me." My only strong moment came midway through, when he said, "I even bought you lunch!"
"Actually," I said, "I paid."
"Well, f--k you...''
I'm sure I was trembling. It was scary. And embarrassing. Bobby Murcer, the late Yankees center fielder-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—"See that guy?" he screamed, pointing my way. "You are not to let him in the clubhouse!"
"Oh, no," I said, finding my courage. "I'm allowed in."
By the time I reached the safety of the press box, word of the confrontation had spread. First, I was met by a handful of TV cameras, recording my every move. Then I was surrounded by a gaggle of reporters.
Rocker later accused me of "running" to the press—as ridiculous a statement as could be uttered. Truth be told, all I wanted to do was hide and go home. But I thought about all the times I'd been blown off by a subject. The reporters in Atlanta had a job to do. So I told them what had transpired.
My one mistake came when George Vecsey of The New York Times asked whether I had been scared. "Yes," I said. "I was scared."
From that point forward, I had to endure at least 10 straight family Thanksgiving dinners with my brother David saying, in a high-pitched voice, "I was scaaaaaarrrrred."
If Rocker believed his outburst against me would be well-received by his teammates, he was terribly mistaken. The mood in the clubhouse after the game was dark. Rocker was nowhere to be found, and the other Braves were forced to clean up the mess.
"He's going to have to give this up sooner or later," said Brian Jordan, Atlanta's star outfielder. "He's made his bed, now he's going to have to lie in it. Geez, you only get nine lives. He's using them up pretty good."
"John," said John Schuerholz, then the team's general manager, "needs to keep his mouth shut and concentrate on pitching." Baseball Weekly placed the pitcher on its next cover with a headline that read, "The Outcast."
Rocker saved 24 games for the 2000 Braves, and I figured our connection would fade away. Then one day later that season, while sitting in the press box in Pittsburgh, I received a phone call from a fact-checker at George magazine, the publication founded by John F. Kennedy Jr. A writer named Pat Jordan was working on a piece about Jake Rocker, John's father, and the fact-checker needed to ask me a question: Did I, in fact, call several African-American women in a department store "n-----s" in order to bait John during our day together?
"According to Jake Rocker, you used 'n----r' to egg John on," he said. "Is that true?"
I denied it, and assured the man it was preposterously untrue. "OK," he said. "I'll make a note of that."
A few weeks later, I was in Las Vegas for the Triple-A World Series. I visited the hotel bookstore and saw George. Jordan's Jake Rocker story appeared—as did the accusation of racism (alongside my denial). My hands began to shake. I returned to my room and called Catherine, my future wife. "I'm suing the family," I told her. "I know I shouldn't, but I am. I'm suing."
Catherine urged me to take a deep breath and let it go. Begrudgingly, I did. That next June, Rocker—still pitching well, but with a bit less dominance—was traded to Cleveland for a pair of relievers, Steve Karsay and Steve Reed.
"The one thing I hope here is that John will be judged on what he says, what he does and how he acts, going forward," said John Hart, the Indians' general manager. "Last year he battled through all the things that went around it. John regrets the things that he said and has certainly paid a big price personally."
Our final meeting took place two months later, when I traveled to Cleveland to speak with Edgar Martinez, the standout designated hitter for the visiting Seattle Mariners. I entered the Indians' clubhouse before one of the games for an interview with Ellis Burks, the team's veteran slugger. I hadn't given much thought to Rocker being there at that point—time passed, as had his moment to chew me out. We were both adults with jobs to do and lives to live.
Then, while standing in front of Burks' locker, waiting to speak, I felt someone move close behind me. It was Rocker, holding one of those disposable yellow Kodak cameras. Click! Click! Click!
"What are you doing?" I asked.
Click! Click! Click.
"Are you 12?" I said.
Click. Click. Click.
At one point Rocker leaned toward Burks, pointed in my direction and said, "That's the Sports Illustrated guy who screwed me." Burks nodded, waited for Rocker to depart, then answered all my questions.
Within two years, John Rocker—bad reputation, bum left shoulder (and, poetically, a 6.66 ERA with Texas in 2002)—was out of the major leagues for good.
This is where the guilt kicks in.
When, on June 27, 2003, Rocker was released by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, multiple reasons were cited for his demise.
Sports Illustrated article.
Even though I told myself—repeatedly—that his downfall had nothing to do with my piece, well, I knew it was a lie. Before the Dec. 27, 1999 issue of Sports Illustrated, Rocker was one of baseball's elite relief pitchers. After the Dec. 27, 1999 issue of Sports Illustrated, Rocker was Doug Sisk. This wasn't the reason I'd become a journalist—to ruin people's dreams.
As a result, I started being sort of, ahem, stupid. On April 8, 2005, Rocker signed with the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League—and I broached the idea with my wife of going out to a game to try to make the peace.
"He doesn't want to hear from you," she said. "Trust me." Two years later, Jake Rocker died in an automobile accident, and—despite the George magazine awfulness—I wrote John a sympathy letter. "You did what?" the wife asked. "His father died. Really, he doesn't want to hear from you." In 2011, a writer for Atlanta Magazine called me for a lengthy profile he was writing on Rocker. "Could you give me his email address?" I asked.
He did, and I wrote a quick note. The writer called me a few days later, asking that I not reach out again. "John," he said, "didn't like hearing from you."
I wish I could explain this sort of behavior, this need for resolution. My guess is it stems from the unease that comes with benefiting from another's misery. At the same time John Rocker's career (thanks in large part to the article) was going down the toilet, mine (thanks in large part to the article) was soaring.
I was soon promoted to senior writer, and a few years later I received my first book deal. Can I say, with 100 percent certainty, that I'd be where I am right now (writing books for a living) without Rocker's fall? No. I can't. (I reached out to Rocker for this piece, but he did not respond.)
And yet, just when I start kicking myself, my nemesis comes along and saves me. Although he works as the director of public affairs for Save Homeless Veterans, John Rocker has kept busy in other ways, too. In no particular order, he began selling "SPEAK ENGLISH" T-shirts on his website, labeled the highly regarded Schuerholz a "piece of s--t" in an interview with Deadspin and defended then-Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen after he called a columnist a "fag."
Video credit: NBC 11, Atlanta, 2011
Rocker has also gained some notoriety for his side work as a columnist for WorldNetDaily, an arch-conservative site. In one piece, Rocker insisted that the Holocaust could have been prevented had Germany not enforced gun control. Wrote Rocker: "Absolute certainties are a rare thing in this life, but one I think can be collectively agreed upon is the undeniable fact that the Holocaust would have never taken place had the Jewish citizenry of Hitler's Germany had the right to bear arms and defended themselves with those arms."
These days, Rocker spends a fair amount of time on Twitter, where he responds to critics as one would just about expect.
The words are crude and juvenile—but also somewhat reaffirming.
Fifteen years later, the John Rocker from my article remains as vocal and vile as ever.
I have nothing to feel guilty about.
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