John Rocker, whipping boy

He was torched for talking about New York the way baseball executives do. But he'd still be in the majors if he'd been getting people out.

By Allen Barra

Published June 9, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

I must be the only person in America who believes the Atlanta Braves. I think the only reason John Rocker is currently pitching for East Podunk is because he has been pitching lousy for the Braves. Never, ever forget that professional athletes are property, and as long as a property has value its owner isn't going to discard it.

Ask Latrell Sprewell. Here's a guy who tried to kill his coach -- twice! -- just a couple of years ago. By the end of the playoffs this season, New York call-in radio fans had gone from asking why the Knicks had ever acquired such a thug to praising him for not letting all the past turmoil interfere with his jump shot. The bottom line, the only line, with the Knicks' front office and the majority of New York area fans and sportswriters was that Sprewell was valuable to his team.

Rocker didn't even choke anybody: He just choked. He couldn't handle all the post-apocalyptic flak. If Rocker had been throwing strikes this season, I guarantee you that by fall we'd be seeing editorials on his "newfound maturity" and "how good a job he did putting it all behind him."

Essentially Rocker got toasted by the media for saying the same things about New York in Sports Illustrated that a lot of baseball executives say to each other about New York in private. Which, I have no doubt, is one reason why baseball executives weren't more vocal about punishing him.

Many were speculating on what a tough spot commissioner Bud Selig was in: how to reconcile his phony job as Major League Baseball's P.R. man with his real job of protecting his employers' property? The truth is that there was never really a conflict in the first place, but Selig handled the situation brilliantly. He immediately took the high moral ground by announcing a substantial suspension and fine -- not much of a risk, really, since he knew very well he had no real authority to take any such action. But it got him off the hook with the press and a public that demands a "tough" commissioner.

In point of fact, and despite the image as baseball's "czar" and the rhetoric about "the power to act in the best interests of baseball," the commissioner's power to act in such matters is severely limited by two factors. The first is the basic agreement with the Players Association, which doesn't give the "czar" any power to clamp down hard on a player who happens to state offensive or unpopular views in public, and the second is the personal services contract Selig signed with Major League Baseball, which means that, yes, he can come to almost any decision he wants regarding the property of his employers, the team owners, but that if they don't like it they can buy off his contract, fire him and hire someone to reverse the decisions (as they did with Fay Vincent a few years ago). In other words, the commissioner has no power with the players to make arbitrary punishments, and even if he did, no owner is going to allow him to mess with a valuable piece of property.

Selig made his decision to punish Rocker in full knowledge that no arbitrators would uphold it, but what the heck, he could now say to the cameras, "Hey, I tried." That Major League Baseball had absolutely no business restricting Rocker from pursuing his livelihood because he is a bigoted asshole went curiously unremarked on by the mainstream media. The people who should have come down hard on Rocker -- the executives of the Atlanta Braves baseball club -- did nothing (except, eventually, to work out a small face-saving deal with the union and Major League Baseball in which all parties agreed to allow the commissioner's power to slap Rocker's wrists).

The Braves, of course, were primarily interested in maintaining the value of their property. Now, with Rocker giving up about a run per inning over his last nine appearances -- not exactly what a contending team looks for in a closer -- the Braves' front office is ready to cut its losses. Officially, he is simply being demoted to the parent club's minor-league teams. Realistically, Rocker has roughly the same chance of appearing again in a Braves uniform that he does of hosting "Saturday Night Live."

If anyone has come out of the Rocker mess looking good, it's Sports Illustrated's Jeff Pearlman, who wrote the Rocker piece last year. When approached by other media members for a comment after Rocker threatened him last week, Pearlman turned from the cameras and said, "Leave me out, I don't want to be part of the story." If Pearlman's story didn't deserve a prize, his behavior in refusing to exploit it does. Pearlman's behavior has set an admirable pattern for the rest of the media. From here on in, let's all agree that there's nothing positive to be gained from following John Rocker around with a pencil.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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