Thursday, December 14, 2006
Updated: December 18, 12:35 PM ET
The light beyond Rocker
By Jeff Pearlman
Special to Page 2
For seven years, I have done my best to take the high road.
When, after my initial profile of John Rocker appeared in the Dec. 23, 1999, issue of Sports Illustrated, there were literally hundreds of interview requests from print, radio and TV. I turned them down.
When, in June 2000, Sports Illustrated needed someone to cover the Yankees-Braves series in Atlanta, I volunteered, knowing Rocker would be there. Why? Because I was taught long ago that good journalists give their subject -- especially in unflattering circumstances -- the opportunity to vent in person.
When, in October 2000, Rocker's father, Jake, told George magazine that I had used the n-word to bait his son -- a factually untrue, intensely hurtful and potentially slanderous charge -- I turned the other cheek.
While covering a Mariners-Indians series in 2001, Rocker followed me around the Cleveland clubhouse, talking trash behind my back while (inexplicably) shooting pictures of me with a disposable camera. I never complained. In fact, I penned a column for Sports Illustrated's Web site urging venomous fans to back off Rocker and give the guy a break.
Two summers ago, when Rocker signed with the Long Island Ducks, Newsday (my employer at the time) asked me to conjure up a column. I initially refused, then made the case that Rocker deserved a second chance; that everyone messes up from time to time, blah
As I write this, my hands are shaking. My heart is beating unusually fast.
I am pissed off like few times before.
About 20 minutes ago I came across a freshly posted Q&A with John Rocker on deadspin.com.
My first thought: Don't read it.
My second thought: Don't read it.
My third thought: Don't read it.
Then I read it.
Deadspin: "How far along with the book are you?"
Rocker: "I've got about 70 pages written. I've put it on hold for a bit until I find a publisher. When the deal is done, I'll finish it up over the course of the next couple of months. That's the thing, though: When people have an agenda, that's all that matters. Jeff Pearlman is who he is: A liberal Jew from New York. He's one of their own, who spent a couple of hours with me, pulled things out of context, and you're trying to create a persona of an individual when you don't know them."
It's official: The gloves are off.
Part of me would love to use the rest of this space to simply print the entirety of my daylong interview with Rocker. You know, more of his deep thoughts on gays, blacks and the like. But, alas, who has the time? So instead, I will:
A. Invite John to my house for the first night of Hanukkah, when we can spin dreidels, eat latkes and have an official playing of the interview tape.
B. Tell the following story:
In the course of our day together seven years ago, John and I stopped at a school for special-needs children somewhere outside of Atlanta. From the looks of it, the place didn't have many financial resources, and Rocker's appearance was probably the highlight of the year. Teachers oohed and aahed, kids went crazy. Upon our arrival, the two of us went into a back office, where an administrator explained to John that as he entered the gymnasium, they would play Twisted Sister's "I Wanna Rock."
Rocker nodded, did his thing, spoke (well) for five or 10 minutes, then returned to the office. With nary a flinch, he grabbed the CD, grinned and said to the overwhelmed administrator, "Y'all don't mind if I have this, do you?" Then he left.
I can't lie. For years, I've felt a bond with John Rocker. It's weird, obviously, but true. No matter what I've done since that article -- left SI, got married, had two children, pushed out a pair of books -- I've never been able to erase the "HE WROTE THE ROCKER STORY" tattoo from my forehead. Why, just last Thursday night while playing pickup basketball, a friend pointed to me and said to another player, "Guess what he did
Hence, there has always been sympathy. Empathy, actually. I never wanted Rocker to get suspended, to get fined, to get sent down and released. I certainly never wanted Rocker to hurt his arm and drop out of the game. As I've said before, John Rocker was not the only racist in professional sports. He was just the only one naive enough to open up to a reporter with a notepad and a tape recorder. As far as I know, he hasn't killed anyone or committed armed robbery. His crime was being a dolt.
But now, for the first time, the empathy has vanished. I've been cured.
John Rocker is right. I am a liberal Jew from New York with an agenda. I have two African-American nephews who I want to grow up in a world indifferent to the color of their skin. I have gay friends who deserve the same love and respect and legal protections as everyone else. I don't condemn people for not speaking English, just as I don't condemn Rocker for speaking moron (OK, that's a cheap shot, but it sure felt good).
I am the great-grandson of a concentration camp victim, the grandson of four people who knew what it was to suffer the indignity of anti-semitism, the son of parents who raised my brother and me to value diversity, to judge people not by color or religion or sexuality, but by the goodness of their intentions.
I have long believed that John Rocker's fatal flaw is not his mechanics or delivery, but his anger. He chooses to walk in the dark, to think in absolutes that only result in the bitter person before us today.
Personally, I prefer the light.
Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer and the author of "Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds & the Making of an Antihero."