Everybody says John Rocker won't ride the No. 7 subway train to Shea Stadium after all -- everyone, that is, except John Rocker, who isn't talking. However Rocker gets to the game Thursday, the first of four against the Mets over the weekend, he'll be part of an Atlanta Braves team that's leading New York by two games in the National League East, but showing signs of melting down.
Braves players have been increasingly testy all year in the face of a never-ending stream of questions about their until-recently big-mouthed lefty, and Jack Curry of the New York Times wrote this week that the Braves have pretty much shunned Rocker in the clubhouse. "It's something that you just don't want to keep talking about," manager Bobby Cox said Tuesday. "This has been going on too long."
The usually machinelike Braves had some more off-field controversy this week when team officials banned the TBS Braves television announcers from a team flight because the announcers had talked about some groundskeeping shenanigans the team had pulled.
Braves catchers tend to set up at the very edge of the catcher's box, often with one foot outside it. The idea is for the catcher to crouch so far outside to the hitter that when a pitch comes in several inches off the plate, the umpire calls it a strike anyway, since the catcher didn't have to move his mitt to catch it. (We'll talk about how ridiculous that is another time.) On Friday night, Milwaukee Brewers manager Davey Lopes complained about it, but the umpires made no call on the issue. On Saturday, though, the Braves were charged with a balk when their catcher set up outside the box.
Because of Lopes' complaints, TBS -- like the Braves a Time Warner company -- had prepared a graphic showing the catcher's box from Friday night superimposed over the catcher's box from Saturday night. Sure enough, Friday's box had been a good 5 inches wider than Saturday's, which had been painted the legal 43 inches wide. The broadcasters, Skip Caray, Don Sutton, Pete Van Wieren and Joe Simpson, had a grand old time talking about the Braves' clever gamesmanship.
And then they got kicked off the team's charter to Montreal Monday. The Braves announced the next day that the announcers could ride with the team again, but this leaves the impression that the Braves, as an organization, are starting to get jittery and weird.
Meanwhile, everywhere Rocker goes this weekend he'll be surrounded by cops, and they'll be about as happy to see him as his teammates have been.
"This is like protecting the Ku Klux Klan," said Police Commissioner Howard Safir in a less than "I am John Rocker" pronouncement. "You don't want to do it but you have an obligation to protect people from themselves."
Safir said that if Rocker does ride the subway to the game, as he said he would in an interview last week, he'll see nothing but cops, which will presumably please the pitcher, who talked in Sports Illustrated last year about how unpleasant riding the subway must be because of all the freaks, foreigners, etc. one encounters there. Baseball officials and Braves players all said they doubt Rocker will try to ride the subway.
New York's finest will also be present at the games, with a force of up to 600 officers. The usual number for a well-attended regular season game is about 60.
Police and baseball officials discussed how to handle Rocker's New York visit and at one point considered a contingent of nine officers to surround him at all times. That's one more boy in blue than the Braves surround Rocker with when he pitches, and that hasn't resulted in him controlling himself: He has walked 33 batters in 22 1/3 innings. Last year he walked 37 all season, in 72 1/3 innings.
The Mets have built extra fencing and an awning to protect Rocker from fans who might want to attack him or throw things at him. There will even be an undercover officer in the dugout wearing a Braves uniform. If he can keep his trap shut and throw strikes left-handed, Bobby Cox might want to keep him around.