|Tuesday, June 27
Updated: June 29, 11:53 PM ET
Rocker rankles fans, retires Mets
NEW YORK -- New York Mets fan Mike Adler had waited since last October to ask -- actually scream -- a question for John Rocker. So when Atlanta's loudmouth lefty went out to run windsprints Thursday night, Adler was ready.
"Why don't you show us respect?" shouted Adler, proudly wearing a Mets shirt. He was speaking for his fellow fans, but the question applied to gays, immigrants, women and most other groups offended by Rocker's insensitive and inane remarks about New York.
Rocker answered semi-pleasantly, autographed two baseballs, then issued a public apology. But it did little to lower the level of bile directed at the man Mets fans, among others, love to despise.
Rocker's videotaped apology, shown on Shea Stadium's 26-foot-tall screen in left-center field before the start of the game between the Mets and the Braves, was greeted with lusty boos by the crowd.
"I have apologized and have felt badly for anyone who took my comments personally," Rocker said on the tape.
"I also am fully aware that the overwhelming majority of the people in this city are extremely charismatic and full of personality, although a bit spirited at times, but, you know, that doesn't make them bad people," he said.
Rocker went out to the bullpen, with its special protective cover, without incident before the first pitch.
While the crowd was generally well-behaved, police arrested two people -- one for disorderly conduct, another for entering a players' only zone -- and issued 63 summonses for open containers of beer, said police spokesman Sgt. Victor Ramos.
"For us it was a perfect game," said Kevin Hallinan, baseball's head of security.
The crowd of 46,998 -- with many police visible throughout the stands -- was taken out of the game early as the Braves jumped out to a 4-0 lead. Then, as the Mets came back and Atlanta's pitching faltered, the crowd began chanting "We want Rocker!"
They got him.
He began warming up in the top of the eighth inning and then jogged to the mound from the bullpen -- instead of his usual sprint -- as he replaced pitcher Jason Marquis. A few objects, including a ball, were thrown at Rocker in left field as the crowd stood and booed.
With police in riot gear standing behind the outfield fence, Rocker then struck out Robin Ventura, retired Todd Zeile on a grounder to short, and got Jay Payton to ground out to third. The Braves went on to win, 6-4.
"He's finding his strike zone, he's doing his job," said Mets second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo. "One-two-three -- that's doing his job."
As he walked to the Braves' dugout, Rocker looked at the Mets fans with a slight smirk but did not taunt them as he did during the playoffs.
He was greeted with high-fives from his teammates. Two police officers stood just outside the dugout and three stood on top of it as fans jeered.
Braves manager Bobby Cox then sent Kerry Ligtenberg to pitch the ninth.
Earlier in the day, Rocker had taken a circuitous route to the ballpark. With a quick wave and dead silence, he backed off his pledge to mingle with the denizens of the No. 7 subway.
He instead climbed into a black van to meet with representatives of the players' union, who encouraged him to stay off the train. He returned to his hotel before heading out to Shea in another van with tinted windows.
Once safely at the ballpark, he read a brief statement saying the media has overstated his importance: "I'm merely a baseball player guys," he said, glancing into the cameras.
Disappointed riders of the Queens subway line instead turned out at the ballpark to greet the pitcher-turned-poster boy for insulting comments. One early arrival sported a sign declaring, "Rocker Is Da Devil."
"He's going to get booed, big time," warned Darwin Pena, 20, who exited the subway wearing a No. 7 train T-shirt. "People in New York don't like being insulted. He might be dodging batteries."
At a sparsely attended anti-Rocker rally beneath the subway, demonstrators held signs proclaiming "NYC Says No to RocKKKer" and the less-imaginative "Rocker's A Bigot." Among the demonstrators were a half-dozen Queens Little Leaguers.
"I'm going to boo like crazy," promised Peter Verry, 17, who wore a T-shirt with a suggestion that Rocker would undoubtedly ignore. "He's shown a lot of disrespect for people and for major league baseball."
Though Rocker had promised to ride the subway to the ballpark, wiser heads prevailed on the hurler to choose a less-public form of transportation.
An assortment of preparations were in place for the Shea return of the reliever, christened "Johnny Rotten" and "Punk Rocker" by the New York tabloids. Despite the city's enmity toward him, Rocker received the type of security ordinarily reserved for heads of state.
In addition to police at his hotel, 700 officers were assigned to Shea instead of the 60 for most games -- New York's finest to protect Atlanta's swinest. There were police on bicycles and horses, in vans and buses, in uniform and plainclothes.
A limit on beer sales was imposed. A special protective cover was erected over the Braves' bullpen in left field. During batting practice, fans were barred from sitting in the first four rows behind the Braves' dugout.
There were already hints that the crowd could turn ugly, as some fans recently handed out fliers on the No. 7 platform advertising "John Rocker Battery Night." Fans were encouraged to bring and fling their AAs to greet Rocker.
In response, New York Mets officials promised a zero-tolerance policy against fans behaving badly in the stands.
The road trip to hell is just the latest in a series of self-inflicted woes for Rocker: a suspension for his comments, his threats against the writer of the SI piece, and a brief demotion to the minor leagues.
"Hindsight being 20/20, I would've loved to have missed my meeting with the Sports Illustrated reporter and I never would've had to deal with the whole situation," Rocker said in an interview with TBS, which is owned by the same company that owns the Braves and Sports Illustrated. "But then again, that's the hand I've been dealt and I'll have to make the best of it."
Rocker left the park at 11:45 p.m., half an hour after the Braves departed in their team bus. Accompanied by a woman, he got into a black van trailed by three security vehicles for the journey back to Manhattan.