Originally created 03/03/00

Rocker starts rebuilding process



LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- A contrite John Rocker took a first step in smoothing out relationships with his Atlanta Braves teammates Thursday morning, but he did nothing to calm a national media storm.

After arriving in the clubhouse early and apologizing to individual teammates, he addressed the team and apologized again for his insensitive remarks about gays, minorities and women. However, given an opportunity to put the issue to rest in front of 150 media members during a morning news conference, he read a previously-published statement, then departed without answering questions.

Later, after agreeing to meet with the Atlanta media and a pool reporter, he kept assembled reporters waiting for 90 minutes before the clubhouse door opened. Then, he demanded TV cameras be turned off until he set the ground rules and threatened to terminate the interview if he was asked any questions he considered "unfair or ridiculous."

Rocker, who was advised by several veteran teammates to face this situation head-on, answered questions for five minutes, then cut off any further questioning and headed out of the clubhouse.

"All of you want to see John break down and cry, but that's not John," third baseman Chipper Jones said.

Rocker said he was happy with the response he received from his teammates on his arrival, adding that he has a good relationship with "95 percent of the guys."

"It went really well, much better than I thought it would," he said. "I think the majority of them see me as a friend and don't take into consideration being mad at me."

The Rocker that arrived in camp for the first time this spring appeared humble and sincere in his apologies during a half-hour team meeting, teammates said. However, most players suggested the true test will be his future words and actions.

"It's just beginning for him," right fielder Brian Jordan said. "He's got a long road to haul. I almost feel sorry for him."

Said general manager John Schuerholz, "Our players are willing to give John a second opportunity, with conditions, and he clearly understands what corrections he needs to make with respect to him wearing a Braves uniform and representing this organization."

After Rocker spoke, his teammates asked him some hard questions, shortstop Ozzie Guillen said. They questioned his motives, his responses during an ESPN interview and after listening to his answers, came away feeling he had dealt with them honestly.

"He has to show us whether he means it or not," Guillen said. "He's going to go through a lot of hell. He's lucky to have a team with a lot of professional guys who welcomed him back."

While most players say they have forgiven Rocker for his remarks, it was plain everyone is taking a wait-and-see attitude toward their controversial closer.

"I think we all came away satisfied for the time being," Jones said. "He seemed very humble and more low-key then he normally is. I guess this is John's turn to be humble, and we'll see how humble he is."

Besides apologizing for his offensive remarks about minorities, Rocker also apologized to Guillen, Randall Simon and manager Bobby Cox for criticisms of them in the Sports Illustrated article. Guillen told him, "I've heard worse than that," and Simon accepted his apology and an invitation to lunch.

"I looked at him in the face, and he showed me he really regrets what he said," Simon said. "I accepted his apology and forgave him for what he said."

Rocker, whose 28-day suspension was cut in half by arbitrator Shyam Das on Wednesday, created an enormous distraction for his teammates during his first workout. Reporters and camera crews were camped in the players' parking lot at Disney's Wide World of Sports on Thursday morning awaiting Rocker's arrival, then dogged the footsteps of every player who ventured from the dugout.

It was a scene that probably will repeat itself in every city the Braves visit this spring.

"He's going to have to deal with it in every city and with every fan," Jordan said. "This is a bigger distraction than anyone expected to have."

Fans responded to Rocker warmly while he signed autographs during batting practice. Most fans were encouraging and there was a clamor for his signature on bats, balls and caps.

"That's what I've been seeing in all the polls," he said. "They're between 70 and 80 percent in my favor. I go out in public and people from all walks of life want autographs and pictures. It's been like that every single day for the last two months. I didn't really know I had that much support until I got out in public."

Rocker blamed his problems on immaturity.

"I just turned 25 a couple of months ago, so I guess people are expecting me to be mature way beyond my years just because of the position I'm in," he said. "I just think a little bit of growing up will have to be done and I don't think that will be a problem."

The only question left unanswered Thursday was, can the Braves put all the distractions behind them and win again with Rocker here?

"I don't think there's been any benefit to our team with this story," Schuerholz said. "I think the story, though not ended, is coming to an end. It may take another team meeting, but I think (the players) feel a resolution is near."

Associated Press reports were used in this story.

Reach Bill Zack at bzack30143@aol.com.